Week 2 of NaNoWriMo

After my fabulously victorious first week of National Novel Writing Month, during which I went from 10,000 words to 18,000 words, week 2 has been a struggle. There’s nothing unusual about week 2 being tough, especially since Real Life Happened and caused a hiccup in my new rhythm. But that’s okay, because – after only ONE WEEK, one little tiny week! – I’ve seen a big change in my mindset about writing. As in, I feel weird on they days I don’t write anything. As in, I think about my story in the shower, in the car, while I’m eating lunch, before I fall asleep, as soon as I wake up. As in, I’m getting my writer groove back. And that’s my prime directive this month, so hooray!!

Here’s the day-by-day low-down for week 2:

Day 7: After I posted about how I was starting to lose steam last week, I took a break from the manuscript. During my break, I realized what I wanted to do next, and wrote another 475 words.

Day 8: I took the day off intentionally to try and gain some perspective. Hung out with my brilliant partner-in-crime, cover artist, and may-as-well-be-husband (Zakary Kendall) and had fun discussing weird metaphysical and philosophical aspects of the manuscript. Very inspiring!

Erica Flynn cover by Zakary Kendall

Cover art for The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn. Oil on canvas, Zakary Kendall

Day 9: Real Life Happened. Only wrote about 200 words, but that’s something!

Day 10: 1,500 words, and had fun doing it.

Days 11 & 12: Real Life Ctd. No writing happened.

Day 13: Now officially behind on NaNo word count for the month. However, it was a productive day. I cleaned up my desk area (gasp!), hauled out multicolorful things (i.e., crayons, sharpies, etc.) and paper and arranged them neatly in the middle of the living room floor, and wrote out questions I want/need to explore in my manuscript – about the protagonists, antagonist, plot, world, conflicts, and turning points – as well as some helpful exercises from Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction, which is an awesome book and every writer should own it and Donald Maass isn’t paying me to say that, I promise. Now I have a bunch of questions and prompts in multicolored sharpie taped up above my desk, and a crap-ton of art supplies and paper ranging from index cards to welcome-mat-sized conveniently located in the middle of the living room floor. Because shiny colors make me happy, and help me write, okay?!?!!!

hellonekoDay 14: 3,000 words. Whenever I felt stuck, I doodled for a while, answered one of my note card questions, or researched something and jotted down notes about it. At around 2,000 words, I took a couple hours’ break – dinner, 1960s Dark Shadows episodes, and chinchilla playtime. And then came back and wrote another 1,000…which brings me almost back up to the overall official word count goal for NaNo – and more importantly, moved my book forward!

 

Day 15: Geared up and ready to rock! …As soon as I finish this coffee.

Things I’ve remembered this week: 1. It’s not that hard to find enough time to write 250-500 words in a day. 2. Taking a break is sometimes more productive than working. 3. One type of creativity usually boosts another, which makes a nice little positive feedback loop. 4. You do not have to write everything in order. If you’re trying to get the story to move on to the next point, but you’re not sure how to do it, and you’re not that interested in the part you’re trying to write, chances are the reader won’t be either. You’re not experiencing writer’s block – you’re experiencing writer’s instinct! Run with it! Run with it to the next bit you think is going to be so cool you can’t wait to get there. 5. First drafts are for fun. Rewrites are for making everything tie together coherently.

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Writing Troubles

I don’t know how many other writers have this problem, but if I can’t visualize a scene, it’s like banging my head into a brick wall to get through it. I’ve hit that point in my current work in progress. I have a solid opening to the novel, and I know where I want to go with it. I have clear ideas about the themes, tone, characters, motifs, plot, and many of the settings. Now, usually, I just go from the last section I’ve written and see if things start to connect up. Usually, once I start writing, I start being able to picture the events unfolding, and it all goes fine. So what happens when, like now, the scene doesn’t start playing out on its own?

It’s not exactly writer’s block. I can write what the character is thinking just fine. It just isn’t going anywhere. Here are some steps I generally take to move forward:

  • Keep writing what the character is thinking – I can always trim it to a “scraps” file if it isn’t necessary to the book – until something clicks.
  • Work on the setting. Where is the scene taking place? Did I pick that setting for a reason, or was it just the first thing I thought of? If the former, then why is that setting important? What about that setting helps move the scene forward? Is there something the character notices in the setting that causes a reaction or a realization? If I picked the setting because it was just the first idea I had, then (a) Was there actually a purpose to the setting that I didn’t realize? and (b) if not, is brainstorm at least three alternative settings and try them out. For example, did I pick a coffee shop because that seemed like a “normal” setting? Do I even want a “normal” setting for this scene? What if I picked a library’s room for rare and antique volumes, an abandoned train station, or the alligator house at a zoo?
  • Work on the details. Going off the previous idea, if I want to picture a setting, I need to think about the details if they aren’t coming automatically. Usually the first place I start is making sure I have at least one detail per sense – sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. And touch doesn’t have to be texture. It could be air pressure, humidity, temperature.
  • Find something external that inspires you. For me, music is often the key to getting my brain going. If I hear a song that fits the story or the character, everything can just click into place at once. Some of my favorite scenes from Erica Flynn came about entirely as the result of daydreaming while listening to music. Something I like to do these days is look around Pinterest for inspiration. Between the architecture, nature, art, and travel pins, there’s usually something that strikes me and gives me something to start with.
  • Writing exercises. There are plenty of writing exercises to get you going when you don’t have a story yet, but there are also plenty out there to help you once you’ve got a story going – and even for the revision process – and are having trouble getting it where you want it. My personal go-to when I’m struggling is Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction, which is chock-full of advice, examples, and exercises for character, plot, setting, tension, bad guys, good guys, and everything in between.
  • Back up. Instead of trying to force a scene that’s lying there like a miserable blob on the page, consider that it might not be working because you’re trying to do something wrong for the story. Are you ignoring a character’s reservations about something? If so, back up and use those reservations to create inner conflict – that’s prime stuff! Are you trying too hard to make something happen that doesn’t need to happen? Are you trying to put in a scene that isn’t necessary, that’s just padding in the end? Are you writing yourself into a corner? Sometimes you subconsciously know better, and it’s worth listening to the signals. For example, I just realized that I’m totally ignoring the fact that, even though my character has motivation to do something she’s been asked to do, she currently has no reason to be in a hurry about it. *facepalm* Maybe that’s why I’m stuck, d’ya think?
  • Talk to someone. Another writer, a friend who likes to read, a friend who hates reading but likes good movies….anyone you trust to give a damn if you need to vent about your writing frustrations. Sometimes, like anything in life, you’ll find the answer in talking about it. Sometimes, other people ask good questions and have good suggestions. And sometimes, you end up with a great brainstorming session.
  • Chill out and do something else for a while. It may not look or feel like you’re writing to anyone else, but some of your best work as a writer happens when you’re not typing or scribbling things in a notebook. Daydream for a while. Cook. Draw. Color. Go to work. Get groceries. Take a shower. Take the dog for a walk. Go to the park. Call your mom. Go out with friends. Sleep on it. Your brain will still work on your story. The best part of your brain – your subconscious – is always working on your story. Just make sure you sit down at that computer or scribble in that notebook again tomorrow.

Well, since blogging about my frustrations seems to have pinpointed a trouble spot, I think I’ll go do something else for a while and then try sitting back down at the laptop again later!

A Story in Emoticons

What happens after you finish writing a book (at least, if you’re me):

I DID IT!  =D

Um.  But now it’s OVER.  :  (  And I miss my characters.  :~*(  And I don’t know what to work on now.  {:/  Oh NO!  Am I going to be one of those writers that only writes one novel they’re happy with and then can’t follow up with anything good ever again???  {:E

No.  That’s not me.  I won’t let it be.  I’m going to sit down and write something else RIGHT NOW to prove that I’m not one of those writers.  :/  Um.  I don’t know what to write about, though.  I don’t like any of my other ideas because they’re not as polished as the ones I just wrote about.  {:/  But those ideas weren’t polished, either, until I finished writing and refining and editing the book!  I can do that again.  : )

…I don’t like these characters as much as my characters from my last book.  They aren’t cooperating with me like the old ones did.  }:(  $#&@ you, new characters!  $#%& you for not being the characters from my last novel!!  You aren’t as good!  >:#  *throw notebooks in the corner*  *ignore writing for a month or two*  *do other stuff until your writing gets jealous because you’re not paying it enough attention*

Oh!  I have an idea!  And I really like it!!  {=D  Shhh!  Don’t spook it!  Sneak up on it quietly.  ; )  *sneak, sneak, sneak*  …aaaand POUNCE!  Gotcha!  =D

Existential Terror and Self-Editing

Rewrites.  Yeah, I know I said Wednesdays were going to be about marketing, and lately they keep not being, but the first step to marketing something is to have something that agents and publishers will want to represent.  So…rewrites.

It’s like pulling out your own teeth – it’s painful, frustrating, and messy, you’re not sure if it’s really a good idea, and it seems like the process will never end.  Unlike pulling out your own teeth, though, rewriting generally produces good results.

It’s interesting to examine the evolution of a story after you’ve had some time away from it to gain perspective.  Sometimes it’s funny to see how things ended up coming together, sometimes it’s frustrating that you ended up working in the wrong direction for a while and now you have to correct your mistake.  I try to think of rewrites the way I think of personal regrets – the things I like about who I am now would not exist if I hadn’t had the experiences I’ve had or made the mistakes I’ve made…nor would my book have come to this point of potential if I hadn’t gone down a few wrong turns here and there with it, finding a few surprise solutions along the way.

I don’t think there are many writers who don’t have a pang or two when they realize drastic changes are needed to a manuscript they’re mostly very happy with.  It’s hard to really believe that something you’re mostly very happy with could need so much work.  For me, it’s initially disheartening, then I’m irritated with myself for not writing it “right” in the first place, and then there’s a phase of infantile whining about not wanting to do the hard work of fixing it.  I suppose it’s a sort of grieving process for the words that will be lost in the process.  After all, we work hard to put those words down in the first place, and hone them to some semblance of perfection in the next few drafts, and yanking them apart feels like letting chaos spill into our carefully crafted manuscript and risking complete destruction of the story.  Of course we’re resistant to major changes to our novels!  All these delicate threads woven together, and SNIP, and now they’re all loose, and what if they never connect right again????!  Existential terror!

So how do you stop freaking out and rewrite with gusto and unabashed ruthlessness toward your own words?  First, you have to have three things in place beforehand:

  1. Separate copies of every draft of your book.  You do NOT want to alter your previous documents for a new major rewrite.  You’ll cut stuff and then realize you need it, make changes and then realize you need to refer to information that’s no longer there, and generally confuse yourself.  Also, you won’t be able to go back to the previous version and start over if your rewrites go terribly awry, which can happen.  Having the old draft is both a comfort and a practicality.
  2. A notebook and various ways of color coding stuff.  Trust me.  Or, if you work at the computer exclusively, a file for notes to yourself in a program with highlighting and text color capabilities.
  3. Coffee.

The point at which I shift from existential terror to excitement about rewrites is when I can really see how the story can be better.  I don’t have to have all the answers, just a clear view of what’s holding it back and some ideas about how to help it shine.  I think it’s vital, too, going into big changes, to have a clear sense of what you want the book to be, especially what you originally wanted, above all, for this book, right from the beginning, that made you want to write it.  In fact, I even wrote myself a note before I started the second draft of The Life and Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, reminding myself what the heart and soul of the book was to me.  Many things have changed about the book…characters have come, gone, changed, etc.  Events have been cut, added, altered, moved around.  Tone has been tweaked.  Setting and concept have shifted or explained differently.  But the story is still what I wanted it to be all along – a crazy adventure with an un-self-pitying and funny protagonist determined to come back from the dead.

And it helps to see that, and know that no matter whether I cut or condense or reorganize, I can still keep the heart of the book in place, and that anything I change is just freeing the book up to be closer and closer to its full potential.  That is when I start to be excited about rewrites.

Oh, and I wrote this entry a while back about staying organized and maintaining structure during major rewrites.  This method has helped me more than I can express in words.

Friday Exercise – Fun Times

It’s all too easy to get caught up in trying to write to impress, to focus on ambition and the hopes of success, or just to feel a sense of accomplishment.  The trouble with that is, it makes the whole process a chore, and the vitality of the work itself suffers from that.  Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and remember that you write because you like to, and just take pleasure in the telling of a story.  Just like when you were a little kid and you made up crazy stories with dinosaurs and spaceships and panda bears running pirate ships, it’s nice to write something purely because you think it’s fun every now and then.

Write something – anything – just for you, just for fun.  Doesn’t have to be good.  Doesn’t have to make sense.  Can be totally silly or smash-bang cool or whatever.  But you do have to enjoy writing it.

A Good Swift Kick in the Pants

In last Monday’s post, I talked about how sometimes characters and storylines can “decide” to go their own direction.  On the flip side for today’s post is:  writer’s block, when your characters and storyline refuse to go anywhere.  Sometimes I literally picture my character sitting in the middle of the road with his/her arms crossed like a petulant little kid, shaking his/her head at my every idea.  And that makes me wish my characters were real human beings so I could kick them good and hard for such behavior.

What I’ve found with writer’s block is, it’s usually a signal from some creative depth of my brain that doesn’t believe in communicating directly.  What it’s trying to tell me when I have writer’s block is that something I’ve either just written or something I’m just about to write isn’t right.  There wasn’t enough setup to pull off what I was going for, I dropped a thread somewhere and forgot about it, a character isn’t believably motivated to go where I want them to go yet, there’s actually a much more elegant way to tie the plot together than what I originally planned on…there are all kinds of things it might be.  But if I can just nail whatever it is that’s off, I get unstuck.

So if you have writer’s block (which, these days, I consider to be a thing that happens to Other People), check over the last few pages and see if you find a big inconsistency, a character acting out of character without good reason, or anything that just doesn’t feel right.  If not, think about the scene coming up.  What is it you were about to have happen?  Why doesn’t it work?  If you didn’t have a plan for your upcoming scene, then my advice is just to write something.  Think of it as a writing exercise instead of your actual work-in-progress.  Play with it instead of trying to have it come out The Perfect Thing first try.  Have something crazy and unexpected happen.  Your protagonist dies or his long-lost brother comes back to town or zombies attack or he wins the lottery.  Anything you write is a possible continuation of the story (whether you end up using it or not), and the process itself will help you feel out more about the character – plus, I’ve found that my brain won’t always tell me what it does want for my story unless I make it a little antsy by writing things it doesn’t want.  All of a sudden it pipes up, “No, I don’t want him to win the lottery!  That wasn’t what you were supposed to have happen.  It’s more like–”  Sort of like telling a bedtime story to a little kid who has to control every element of the damn story…Mom, I can see you looking this direction out of the corner of your eye…stop that!

And while you’re figuring out why you’re stuck, sometimes it’s good to get away and do something else.  So here are some movies about writing/writers/writer’s block that I like:

Middles

Let’s talk about middles.  The middles of stories or novels, which I think is the most difficult part of any plot.

For me, I think part of the difficulty lies in having too many options.  There are too many directions to take things!  Too many choices about when this happens or what causes that or whether to add new characters or stick to just who I started with.  Another problem I face when moving the plot past the beginning and into the middle is, I get attached to the setup.  If I start a book or a story, chances are I’ve started out writing about a place, a person, a condition or emotion, and/or a situation I find interesting and want to explore.  Moving into the middle means shifting away from that, and often, I don’t want to at first – especially if it changes the tone.

I’ve learned that that attachment can be a benefit, as well as an obstacle, because it’s often a good instinct waving its arms at me and saying, “Hey!!  Don’t make this shift too abrupt for the reader!  Your pacing is going to SUCK if you don’t give ’em something to help them transition here along with the characters!”  Now, when I get the pangs of “I don’t wanna move on to the next part!” from my whiny little internal voice, I think, Hmmm.  What can I do to make this change feel smoother and more natural?  Why does it feel too abrupt?  What’s missing? and instead of a bang-head-on-keyboard session, I get to have a brainstorming session instead.  Much healthier for the forehead.

The “too many choices” problem, I don’t have a solution for yet – just keep writing and see what happens, or think out the possibilities logically and narrow them down until they’re at least manageable, if not carved in stone.  If your decisions for the plot don’t work, it’ll become apparent soon enough…and rewrites are going to be necessary no matter what you do.  I console myself by reading the notes of Dostoevsky (one of my writing heroes), who had some of the worst initial ideas for the endings of his books that I’ve ever encountered, and yet the end results of his labors are beautifully written, heart wrenching and heartwarming, and brilliant (although his final endings are still shaky sometimes, I admit (sorry, Dostoevsky)).  So my consolation to myself is knowing that if a writer that fantastic had plenty of bad ideas, it can’t be so bad to have bad ideas.

I guess the moral of this post is, write the middle even if you’re intimidated about it, figure out why you’re intimidated about it if you need to, and rewrite it if it doesn’t work out.  That’s all you can really do, unless you want to give up.  And you’re not a quitter, right?  RIGHT???  Good.  I thought not.

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.

Big Cast Novels

When you have a big cast of characters for a novel, you have a big set of challenges ahead of you.  The first of these is deciding who your main characters are.  This sounds like it should be obvious and easy to answer, but I know from first-hand experience that you, the writer, can be very, very wrong about which people your story needs, and which storyline actually works for the characters.

Sometimes you have to write a chunk of the book (or at least a few scenes) before you get a real feel for what/who works and what/who doesn’t.  My personal rule of thumb is, if a character just flows out effortlessly, that’s your main character, or at least one of your primaries.  If a character you plan on being a primary figure in the storyline is difficult, frustrating, or no fun to write, CUT THAT CHARACTER!

Let me tell you a fun little anecdote about my upcoming NaNoWriMo novel.  I came up with the initial concept about thirteen years ago.  Yes.  Thirteen years ago.  I started the book five times, got about ten chapters in, and realized it wasn’t coming together each time.  So I’d stop, work on other projects, and do some world-building for this novel on the side.  Whenever I’ve finished a short story or a draft of my other novel, I’d come back to this one.  I talked to some of my writer friends about it.  “Cut your main character,” was their advice.  Cut my main character???  But she’s the main character, right???!

This summer, between drafts of my Erica Flynn novel, I sat down and looked over my notes about my thirteen-year project.  And holy heck if I hadn’t modified the storyline to the point that my main character had become entirely unnecessary to the plot!  I’d been writing her out of the book for years, subconsciously.  I didn’t enjoy writing the scenes that focused on her, I didn’t like her much (although I admired some of her personal qualities), and I wasn’t inspired by her.  The characters I’d written the best material for were either secondary to her, or pitted against her.  These are now my main characters.  My original protagonist is gone, not even a bit part.

Go with your instincts.  Who do you enjoy writing about?  Either you enjoy writing those parts because they’re really good parts, or you’ll write them really well because you like writing them.  No matter which direction that cause and effect goes, you’re going to end up with better material.

Also, write up a list of all your characters, and write out each one’s “through line” for the book.  What changes about them – whether it’s internal or external?  The characters who change internally and externally are your strongest, automatically.  Those are your main character nominees now.  Tweak their through lines.  Make them stronger, more dramatic, more interwoven with the overall plot.  Play around with it!  Have fun!  No, I’m not being sarcastic.  Really – have fun with your writing.  You can be miserable later, when you’re revising.  Hah!  😉

Where & When

I make a conscious effort not to let myself get too picky about my writing environment. It’s not that I don’t think a routine can be helpful, or that I have a personal vendetta against my whiny inner artistic self. Routine can’t always be counted on, however – there are always variables in life, especially if you’re not a rich and famous author and you have to do other work to make a living (and let’s face it, that’s most of us). And as for my whiny inner artist, she has her place, but it’s good to remind her of it from time to time – as in, “Hey. If you ain’t writin’, you ain’t a writer. And if you ain’t a writer, you got no cause to be all prima donna.” Tough self-love is sometimes necessary.

But back to my main point – I try not to get too attached to any one aspect of my writing environment. Time of day is an unavoidably undependable factor, since my “day job” is on a flexible schedule, and from one day to the next I could work a midday shift and be off at four-thirty in the afternoon, or I could go in around six in the evening and work till midnight.

Location is something I stay whimsical about. I do generally use my laptop, since my desktop computer is full of distracting games and art programs etc., but every now and then I’ll shake that up, too, and work at my desk. When I’m on the laptop, sometimes I sit on the couch and work, sometimes in bed, and sometimes (now) sitting on the patio lounger on my balcony. I’m not one of those writers who can concentrate in a coffee shop, although I try sometimes. I can edit just about anywhere, but coming up with new material is something I really need to lose myself in for it to work.

I do let myself be a little prima donna about whether or not I listen to music while I work. Some days, I’m just not feeling it, but the right music will click my brain into the right gear. Other days, music is a blaring, horrendous distraction.

The main thing, for me, is to have enough self-discipline not to need certain circumstances to write. I’d hate to have writer’s block every time I worked a closing shift, if the weather was too cold for me to work on the balcony, if my speakers went out on my laptop, or if something came up during my “writing time” and took up those hours of the day. I’d most likely be furious anytime anything threatened my routine, including friends and relations, and that would be a miserable situation for everyone involved. So for my own well-being and peace of mind, for the greater good of the world not having to put up with me throwing tantrums about my writing time, and to keep myself productive as a writer, I’ve learned to write whenever and wherever I can, even if I only have an hour in between things to do it.

The point is: Be flexible.