Learning to Write My Own Way

It’s NaNoWriMo time again and I find myself facing a familiar decision – do I participate in NaNo this year?

I’ve been a part of NaNo several times and I’ve enjoyed it. The camaraderie and enthusiasm of tackling a novel along with thousands of other people is exhilarating.

By participating in NaNo, I discovered that I really can write 50,000 words in 30 days.

I discovered that I can write 600 words in 20 minutes if I set a timer and just keep typing.

I discovered that if I don’t have a good vision of a scene in my head, I end up with 600 random, repetitive talking-head words in that 20 minutes.

I discovered that while I can write fast, I don’t like writing that fast as it feels like I’m just throwing ill-thought-out junk on the page.

This year, I want it to be different.

I have a story that I am thoroughly in love with. I’m using Holly Lisle’s How to Think Sideways course to plan it out and it is turning out to be incredible.

I want to take my time writing the scenes so that they turn out as well as I see them in my head. so that I capture the passion and the nuances of my characters.

Will I participate in NaNo this year? Yes, I think I will. But I’m going to take my time with my daily writing. I’m going to use a slower, deliberate pace so that I’m happier with my scenes when I’m done.

Learning how YOU write is a huge part of learning how TO write. Participating in NaNo is helping me learn how I write, what works for me and what doesn’t.

What helps you learn how to write?

NaNo Fail

the turtle and the hare
Image by Trevor D. via Flickr

I am a NaNo Failure this year. Yep, I didn’t complete 50,000 words on my novel. I topped out at just over 12,000.

The reason I failed this year (after winning several years in the past) is because I had too many other projects of higher priority already going on in November.

I knew this when I started and still chose to sign up for NaNo. I was temporarily optimistic and somehow thought I would get it all done. I didn’t.

The smarter thing to do would have been to NOT sign up for another commitment. Not until I was actually ready to devote time to my novel. Because this novel deserves to be my number 1 priority. As does your novel.

Sure, you can write a novel in among a dozen other activities in your life, but it is hard. Hard to split your attention among so many priorities and hard to give your novel the attention it deserves.

My New Plan

I still plan to write my novel, but obviously it won’t be done in November. Instead, I’m going to borrow a page from Holly Lisle’s strategy book. She’s been writing a novel, a book of her heart, amid her other deadlines at the rate of 250-500 words a day. That’s only 1-2 pages. She’s deliberately taking it slow for a couple of reasons.

1. She has several other projects going on, including other book deadlines, so she can’t devote a solid block of time to getting this one special novel written.

2. She wants to demonstrate that you can complete a novel at a slow, steady pace. 250 words a day does add up to a novel over the long run.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

So that’s what I’m going to do. Set myself to writing 250 words a day on this novel. Even with so many other projects going on in my life, I can manage to write 250 words. If I already know what I’m going to write, that’s about 10 minutes of writing.

I can manage 10 minutes of writing each day. And so can you.

Care to join me?

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Three Things I Learned from NaNoWriMo

November has been dubbed National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) by Chris Baty, a writer from San Francisco. For 11 years, he’s sponsored an event for writers, challenging them to write a novel (50,000 words) during the month of November. Thousands of writers have taken him up on the challenge and participated through the NaNoWriMo website.

I’ve been a part of the challenges for several years and I’ve learned some things in the process that I’d like to share with you.

Challenge Yourself

Use NaNo as an opportunity to challenge yourself. You don’t have to adhere to the “50,000 words on a new novel” rule. It’s more of a guideline, than a rule. The point of NaNo is to challenge yourself–stretch beyond what you think you’re capable of.

  • If you already have a story started, write 50,000 more words on it in 30 days.
  • If you’re writing short stories, instead of novels, write 50,000 cumulative words on a variety of stories in 30 days.
  • If your novel is done, edit 50 pages a day on it.
  • If you’re submitting, send out 5 queries a day for 30 days.

Think of what you could accomplish under normal circumstances and then double your output for a month. You don’t have to keep it up forever, just for a month. See what kind of a kickstart that gives to your writing.

First Draft Freedom

NaNo requires fast writing. For many writers, 50,000 words in 30 days is really fast. You don’t have time to edit, to fuss with point of view, to layer your characters. You just write and get it down on paper.

As a writer who gets stuck in perfectionism, NaNo is a refreshing change for me. I can’t fuss over the first chapter for six months, getting the words just right. Instead, I have to throw something on to the page and keep going.

Now, mind you, I’m not deliberately throwing garbage on to the page and calling it my novel. No, I’m writing the story the best I can without self-editing during the process. Forward motion is my goal. I’ve come across several writers who feel that writing the first draft is necessary for you to figure out what story you’re actually telling. Then in the second draft (and subsequent ones), you shape the story to that vision. Since I know the story will change (possibly radically), then getting my first draft perfect isn’t necessary. It’s kind of useless, even, since I’m going to change it. So write fast and get to the end of your first draft so you know your story.

Help, My Plot Has Fallen and It Can’t Get Up!

One of my favorite “tools” I learned from NaNo is the plot ninjas.

Let’s pretend that you’re writing along on your novel and you start to realize that your characters have been sitting in a kitchen, sipping tea and chatting for the last 30 pages. Drinking tea in a kitchen is the kiss of death for a novel. Where’s the tension? Where’s the conflict? You need to get those characters moving and reacting to something.

Suddenly there’s a knock at the back door. Your main character answers the door and discovers ninjas who immediately start attacking him!

Now there’s tension and conflict in your story. Nobody stands passively by while ninjas are attacking.

Ninjas may not fit your genre, but you can adapt the plot ninja idea to other types of stories.

  • If you’re writing a mystery, someone totally unexpected is murdered.
  • In a romance, another man (or woman) shows up and claims to be married to your main character.
  • In a scifi story, aliens attack or a nanite plague breaks out.
  • In a crossover novel, the secret spouse of your main character’s love interest is murdered by aliens wielding nanites.

The only criteria for using plot ninjas in your story is that the ninja event be something unexpected and startling. Something that your characters must react to. Then they’re no longer in the kitchen drinking tea.

I’ve learned other things from participating in NaNo, but these are three biggies–enjoy the challenge, write freely in my first draft, and use plot ninjas to shake things up when my story has stalled.

What things have you learned from NaNoWriMo?

I’ll be participating in NaNo again this year. If you’d like to follow my progress, add me as a Writing Buddy.

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Yet Another NaNo Post…

I was planning on spouting off about tense and POV this month, but got sidetracked by this little writer’s challenge.  You know the one, National Novel Writing Month.  Maybe you’re not into forcing yourself to put 50,000 words on the page or you’re a firm believer that writing is a solitary job so no group endeavors, like those write-in thingies.  Neither was I on both counts.  Writing group?  I didn’t need no stinkin’ writin’ group!  And you can take that fake deadline and…well you get the picture.  All it takes is for me to sit down and start typing.  Umm, yeah, that worked.  Not!

Sure I churned out some short stories, but where was that novel I kept saying I was writing?  Most of them are unfinished in a drawer.  They’d make better scratch paper than reading material.  Then I got this brilliant idea and I decided this is the one.  The one I will finish.  Yeah, right.  I’ve been plunking away at it for, oh I don’t know, a couple of years maybe more.  Who keeps track?  It kept changing on me, too many directions at once, no solid plot line, a bunch of half-baked characters, in whole a disaster.  But something wouldn’t let me give up.  Might have been the characters knocking around in my skull.  Might have been the wonderful group of girls I joined.  Might even have been that I really, deep down believed it could work.

Speaking of those girls…One day I put on my big girl panties and admitted I needed support.  The kind of support your family and friends can’t give; only other writers—probably should add editors, agents and the rest of the publishing world-understand a writer’s mind.  Family and friends smile indulgently when you drift off into story land and pat your hand when you whine about your characters.  All the while thinking, why can’t she just get off her posterior and finish the thing already?  Other writers understand.  They’re going through the same things.  They don’t care when the words coming out of your mouth and your brain go in two directions at once.  So think twice about it being solely a solitary activity.

Putting 50k down on paper in 30 days and you can write crap with a capital C.  That’s the hard part for me in this challenge I still cling to my old habits.  Not as tightly but they’re still there in the background, wincing when something doesn’t sound right.  As stated in my last post I promised to finish Disenchanted by the end of the month and as I type this I’m over half done.  I started with 30k and set my goal to 80 so I would meet the requirement.  From my vantage point, I’ll not only meet that goal but probably over it.  That’s what this challenge has done for me, it pushed me, pushed me hard.

Moral of the story?  Yes, I need a stinkin’ writin’ group and fake or not a deadline is a powerful thing!

Short and Sweet

Sorry guys but my little brain can handle only so many words in a month and I am also doing Nano.  I have attempted this before in 2006 but didn’t come close to finishing it.  That was because I expected every word I wrote to be wonderful.  This year I found out it can be crap.  As Deanne already explained, our region’s theme this year is Yea Crap!  And we are, as a group, writing lots of it.  If you check the Nano boards at www.nanowrimo.org, you will see just how much crap, as a group we have written.  We are part of the Central Iowa group.  The write-ins have been inspiring and they have been a great way to network.  someday when we have a completed, published novel, we now have a group of raving fans who will hopefully spend their cash to help support us, as well as spread the word to everyone they know – to buy our books. 

All kidding aside, there are a couple of valuable lessons I am getting from this crazy exercise. One is that it is okay to write a bad first draft.  I’m fairly sure that when the dust settles in December and I have a chance to really look at what I’ve written, I will find a few noteworthy gems, as far as my storyline, within all that crap.  And the second lesson is I am learning to write every day.  It is becoming a habit.  One that I will want to continue.  If I miss a day, I know it.

Okay time for a confession.  I have had one bad experience.  This is the only thing so far that has been a bummer.  I have been using an Alpha Smart Neo to write on.  If you don’t know what that is, check out any issue of Writer’s Digest or The Writer and it’s usually on the front inside cover.  It’s a great little word processor that runs on three little batteries.  The batteries are supposed to last over 700 hours.  I have had the Neo for over a year now and have yet to replace them.  Since I am writing so much away from home though, I’ve decided to carry new ones in my purse, in case of an emergency.  And yes, I’ve taken some flack from my Saturday Writer’s group for always having batteries handy, but that’s another story. The Neo is great for being handy but this morning without thinking, I deleted three days worth of Nano writing.  Luckily it was three of my less productive days.  So I rushed to my office and quickly downloaded the rest of the files so it wouldn’t happen again.  I thought that I had lost 1200 words. But after downloading to my desktop, I was grateful to find out that the word count on my Word document was only 470 less than I had calculated.  Don’t know how that happened but I do know that God works in mysterious ways. (I always think of Rowen Atkinson in the movie Keeping Mum, when I say that. If you haven’t seen that movie, check it out. Besides Rowen Atkinson – is that the right name? I am terrible with names. Well besides him, Patrick Swayze plays a slime ball golf pro.  It also has Maggie Smith and lots of other great actors.  And now I confess, I’ve shown you another way to help get your word count up in Nano. Tangents can be helpful.)

Must go for now.  Need to save this crap for Nano.  Have a great month and I will talk at you later…

NaNo is Here Again!

This is my fifth year doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The first four years I finished my 50,000 words with relative ease. Last year, I started off with good intentions… and then stopped. Why? I’m not entirely sure. I just got tired of pushing toward 50,000. I knew I could achieve it if I wanted to and so I didn’t have the urge to prove myself that I had the first few years.

This year, I’m doing it again. And there are some new nuances that should keep me on track. For one, I’ve made my NaNo intentions very public by announcing them on my website, www.learntowritefiction.com. To stop before hitting 50,000 would be a huge visible flop. (As a writer, never understimate the power of peer pressure and public humiliation to keep you writing.)

Also, this year, I’m applying some of the tricks that I’ve learned over the past four years to help me stay the course and finish.

Enlist your friends and family – this year, my sister-in-law, my brother (first-timer!), and my significant other (another first-timer!) are all doing NaNo with me. Nothing keeps you going like shared pain and taunting challenges from your family.

Use short bursts – When I sit down to write, I do so in 15-20 minute increments. I can crank out the words, knowing that I only have to describe the immediate scene in my head and nothing else. A short break and them I’m ready for another sprint.

Reward yourself profusely – this year I’m giving myself MP3 downloads at the end of each week IF I’m on track with my word count. At the end of NaNo and 50,000 words… a HUGE reward. I haven’t decided on what that will be yet, but it will be good. My significant other is considering an XBox 360 as his major prize.

Don’t be afraid to write crap – the theme of 2008 NaNo for my NaNo Region (Des Moines, IA) is “Yay, Crap!” You know you’re going to write crap at some point during NaNo… maybe all the way through it. So don’t kick yourself over it… celebrate it! Writing crap means you have something to work with when you hit the editing stage.

Have fun! – this is the main reason to do NaNo and the main attitude you should have when doing NaNo. It’s a breakneck thrill ride in novel-writing. The words look like picket fence posts as they zoom past you on the novel highway. Enjoy the ride!

If you don’t have any friends or family doing NaNo, let me be your cheering section. Add me as a Writing Buddy on the NaNo website, so I can follow your progress and heckle you as needed toward your own 50,000 word goal. Here’s to a great November!

Don’t look back…keep writing!

Urging your fingers to stay on the keyboard, a cold sweat breakouts, you try to resist scrolling back. Just a peek, you tell yourself. You want to make sure you’re moving in the right direction. Lurking, ax in hand, right over your shoulder is a story killer. If you over think or stop typing, it will get you. The self-editing demon. He’ll bring his little ghoul buddies, doubt and fear to chop away bits and pieces of your self-confidence. Like a slasher in a horror flick, they’ll rip your story to shreds. Deep down you know forward is the only direction, but like the token blond in the three inch heels you trip. Become disoriented and head right back to the beginning.

I don’t know about you but this scenario happens every time I set fingers to keys. I try to be the smart chick that defeats the monster, but alas, I end up the blond. Unfortunately without her fashion sense or endowments. Maybe that makes me the bumbling sidekick who thinks they have it figured out, but steps into the trap anyway. Either way it sucks having an ax planted in the middle of your story.

Those of us still fumbling our way through the forest of becoming published are often caught in the snares. Getting that opening just right or polishing a scene until it leaps off the page. Those that have gone before and survive to get there tales told, advise us to avoid such obvious traps. Don’t look back. Give yourself permission to write crap. You can always go back and fix it once the story is on paper. It sounds simple, but it’s not.

I find myself getting stuck in scenes that don’t ring true. They might be fine, but something about them isn’t right. So I start back at the beginning taking that proverbial ax to my baby. Hacking and slashing my way through, playing Dr. Frankenstein, putting it together in different forms. What’s wrong with that you ask. Everything! It keeps me from finishing the darn story. There’s nothing worse than ticked off characters crashing around in your head wanting the story finished so they can take a breather. Can’t blame them, I want one too. With the vicious cycle of self-editing, neither writer nor characters can move on to the next story.

I brandish a mighty red pen–just ask Sara–and my work shows the scars of its slicing and dicing. I can’t leave the darn thing alone! I’m a serial self-editor!

At this month’s meeting of the Saturday Writers I opened my big mouth and said I would use NaNoWriMo to finish Disenchanted. The girls will hold me too it and there will be a much deserved raking over the coals if I procrastinate. Hope I can hold up my end or at least come up with entertaining excuses if I don’t.

Anyone else out there a serial self-editor? How do you deal with the slasher mentality toward your work?