Full Speed Ahead

Here is what I’ve learned from three days of NaNoWriMo:

  • Do your word count no matter what.  Yesterday I wrote 400 of my 2000 words in a noisy laundromat with NFL news pulling at me from the TV and an old acquaintance popping over to chat intermittently.
  • If you’re not sure about a particular scene but you know what you’re going to do next, skip to the ‘next’.  Just put in a note for yourself like, “Scene where C and M are reunited.  M’s background discussed etc.” or whatever.
  • Keep notes on things you know you need to research, inconsistencies or things you want to change, places that felt awkward while you wrote them.  Keep notes on this stuff, but DON’T WORK ON IT YET.  Tweaking ain’t going to get your story out of your head and into a tangible form.
  • Reward yourself when you get your work done!  Good food, good company, and relaxation go a long way toward positive self-reinforcement.

NaNoWriMo, Day 1

So today is the first day of my first year participating in National Novel Writing Month.  This means that (a) I will likely have a lot to say about the process of speed-writing this month and following, and (b) by the time I do my word count for NaNo, my brain is like a small mound of jelly in the middle of a dance floor on a July afternoon, which is to say mooshy and helpless and likely to be abruptly and unexpectedly squidged.  Although apparently creative, still.

Given the state of my brain right now, I will give you a quick recap of what the first day of NaNoWriMo was like for me:

Go to grocery in hopes of stocking up enough food not to have to do another big shop for the rest of November.  Buy ridiculous amounts of food and realize while putting it away that you really ought to have taken care of the laundry and dishes over the weekend, but you didn’t, because you knew it was your last weekend before diving into being a feral writer for a month.

Say to hell with the dishes and laundry, write 700 words.  Agonize.  Second-guess.  Remember you aren’t supposed to do that in November.  Sit back down.  Realize you are stuck.  Write 300 words anyway.  Realize you’re really tired and you feel like you’ve used all your ideas for today.  Sit there for twenty minutes before remembering that coffee exists.  Drink coffee, eat something (don’t remember what), and decide to play guitar for a while instead.

Sit down and try to write.  Still not feeling it.  Go for a walk and drop the rent off on the way home.  Inadvertently start writing a song while walking, and have to write it down right away when you get home.  Take a shower.  Realize you need to figure out the chords to the song you made up on your walk, before you forget the tune.  Realize you’re avoiding your novel.  Find the chords anyway, and write them down.

Sit back down.  Whinge via text messages.  Drink the rest of the pot of coffee you made earlier.  Buckle down again and write the rest of your word count and beyond, ending up with a daily count of 2348 words.

Realize you’re starving and haven’t eaten in five hours (for me, that’s eternity in food terms).  Heat up potato from dinner three days ago.  Avoid looking at dishes in sink.  Update blog.

It felt good to push past where I thought I needed to stop for the day and find a second wind.  I really got on a roll again, which I didn’t expect.  I’m both excited and dubious about doing this every day for a month, but so far my usual tricks (taking breaks to get out and walk, or exercising some other form of creative process (guitar, in today’s case), etc.) are working well for me.

A Rant About Dialogue Tags

Currently, I’m going through The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, working on polishing up the (hopefully) final draft.  One of my missions is to tighten up the writing and trim the word count a bit–it stands at 105,000 words in its third draft.  To make it more concise, I’m cutting unnecessary or generic words and phrases wherever I find them.  In the first six chapters (it’s forty-something total) I’ve already cut a thousand words.  A thousand unnecessary or generic words?!?  How did I let that happen?!

Some of the generics that I over-used are “at the moment,” “just”, “kind of”, “sort of”, and “sometimes.”  Qualifiers.  Things that weaken the words around them.  Now, in some cases, I kept these words and phrases in the text.  The reason being, children, that Erica is a first person narrator, and consequently I have to keep the voice and style of the narration in keeping with her casual personality.  It’s conversational, so the narrative almost becomes dialogue.  I’m trying to keep enough of that in to maintain that tone without wasting the readers’ time or undermining the strength of what’s being conveyed.

The main culprit of word waste, however, is dialogue tags.  Dialogue tags!  Fie on ye!

He saids and she saids are killers of scenes.  They drag at the dialogue they’re attached to, weighing it down.  They’re repetitious and often distracting, especially if they come after every line.  Every writer who’s ever been critiqued knows to try to work around them wherever possible.  You put in actions and gestures instead.  Facial expressions.  Tone of voice.  Use word choice and such to make it obvious who is speaking which lines even without tags.

I’m not generally bad about putting tags in where I don’t need to, but damn, have I caught a lot of them in the first six chapters of my book!  O editor, edit thyself!  The worst thing is, I even put in all that other stuff – action, gesture, expression, etc – to clearly indicate the speaker and then put the dialogue tags in anyway!!!  So now I’m hacking them out again, and looking over it afterward, it reads so. much. better.

Learn, children, from my mistake.  Do not do everything right to avoid overuse of dialogue tagging and then tag the damn dialogue anyway.  You will save yourself hours of tedium by avoiding the fate that I have brought upon myself this day.

Getting Your Groove

For me, it was a long, hard road learning to be self-disciplined about doing writing regularly.  I’m at the point, now, where I write or revise almost every day – and the days I don’t, I’m usually doing some kind of exercise or think-through for my current writing project.  I do give myself breaks on days when it just isn’t gonna happen because of the day job, chores, social occasions, and, you know, all that real life stuff.

Some of the stuff I’ve learned helps keep me focused may seem obvious, but I’ll tell it to you anyway, just in case it’s as useful to someone else as it has been for me.

One of the biggest steps toward daily writing, for me, was having a separate space JUST for writing.  I was lucky enough to get a laptop for my birthday (thanks, fam!), which meant I could get away from my distracting desktop with its high-speed internet connection and loads of computer games (yes, I’m a nerd, I know).  My laptop has no internet connection and absolutely no games.  It has Word, Notepad, and WinAmp.  That’s pretty much it.  All I ever do at the laptop is write and make notes for my current project.  It’s like a little psych test I’ve done on myself – I automatically click into writing mode when I sit down with the laptop.

Now, if you can’t get a laptop or don’t want one, the same idea can be applied using either a notebook (like, the kind you actually write on, not that itty bitty new kind of laptop), or just having something different about your workspace when you’re working on your writing.  Light a candle, sit in a different chair, have a writing jacket, listen to different music.  Something that separates your time and space as a writer from the rest of your daily tasks or entertainments in your computer area.
Another thing I’ve learned to do is to have a word count goal every day while I’m writing, which I’ve mentioned on this blog before – I have a low word count so that, even on days when real life looms large, I can still make my goal and feel good about my progress.  250 words per day was my self-imposed guideline for my current novel.  The thing is, a lot of the time, by the time I’ve written 250 words, I’m in the groove and I can write way over that goal.
Having a time of day when you routinely work can be great, although hard to do unless you have a set schedule or can set your own hours.  Having a fellow writer you’re close enough to to brainstorm with when you’re stuck is fantastic.  Having a critique group that meets regularly can help keep you on task, especially if it’s a small enough group that everybody knows what everyone else is working on.
I do think it’s important to take a day off now and then, or give yourself weekends off from writing (or a Wednesday and Thursday, if your weekends are your best shot at writing time).  It takes a lot of energy and thought to write a story!  Sometimes your brain needs some recuperation time – and some time for your subconscious to cleverly link things together for you.  If you write habitually, then a day or two off once a week is more likely to spark your brain than make you lose your thread, especially if you keep good notes.
I’m lucky enough to have a husband who understands that my writing is important, and that the time I spend on it is time well-spent.  He’s a writer, himself, so he understands when I say, “Not now!  Writing!” and he lets me get on with it.  If your family doesn’t understand that writing time is work time, explain it.  And believe it – when you’re writing, you are doing something important.  Don’t let anyone make you feel otherwise.
The most important part of forming the habit of writing is don’t make excuses not to write.  Yes, coddle yourself a little.  Reward yourself when you’re good and do your word count.  It’s fine to say, “I want hot chocolate before I sit down to work…and a special pen…and a cookie,” but if you get your chocolate, pen, and cookie, and then think of more and more things you “need” before you can settle into work, you’re just being naughty.  Do your word count!  Then you can have another cookie!  Not inspired?  Too bad – do your word count.  If you write crap, it’s only 250 words’ worth of crap, and easy enough to delete tomorrow.  Not sure where to take the story?  Well, write 250 words in one direction and see if that’s where you want to go.  If it isn’t, you’ve only lost 250 words’ worth of time, and you can write the story in a different direction tomorrow.
Like most habits, it gets easier the more used to it you get.  If you write every day, it’ll become instinctive.  You won’t feel right if you miss a day.  Maybe that’s a little maladjusted, but…
Too bad!  Do your word count!
P.S. I’ve started a Resources page, although I’m not far along with it yet.  So far it’s got some good books about writing that I’ve discovered in the last few years, but I’ll be adding more, as well as websites and books that I’ve found helpful for researching for stories, websites with good writing exercises, and good places to find publishers.
Later this week, hopefully, I’ll also be getting the start of a page up of reading recommendations – books and authors I love, and why.

How To Write A Novel While Working Full Time (Without Going Crazy)

…or at least, without going crazier than you were to begin with.

At the time I was writing my current novel, I had a full-time job with a “flexible” schedule (flexible, in this case, meaning, “You will never be able to maintain any kind of regular sleep schedule while you have this job.”)  I wrote the first and second drafts (65,000-ish words) with said full-time flexible schedule.  Most writers have to have so-called “real jobs” to pay the bills, and it can be really frustrating when you feel like earning money is holding you back from progressing with your art.  The Sara D method for getting around that is:

1.  Pick a storyline that has a lot of potential for fun, excitement, and escapism from real life.

2.  Come up with characters you ENJOY spending time with.  They don’t have to be nice people, but they should be fun for you, the writer, to spend time with.  You want them to be interesting enough for readers to want to spend time with them, right?

3.  Set a nice, low word-count goal for yourself.  My daily goal was 250 words, because even on an insanely hectic day, I could almost always get that much writing done.  Why a small goal?  Because (a) it feels good to get it done on busy days, (b) it feels even better to surpass it on days when you’ve got more time and/or are on a roll, and (c) if you’re so tuckered out that what you’ve written on a particular day completely stinks, it isn’t a huge setback to scrap 250 words and write a new 250 words in its place.

4.  Do your word count as often as you possibly can, don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, and enjoy the escapism of spending time away from real life WHILE doing something productive.

5.  DO NOT EDIT WHILE WRITING YOUR FIRST DRAFT.  That’s what the second draft is for.  Get the story down first.  Clean it up and flesh it out later.  Your inner editor will inhibit your creativity if you unleash it on the rough draft.

At least, this is what worked for me, and I don’t THINK I’m any crazier than I was before I wrote this book.  I was already pretty far gone to begin with.  😉