#NaNoWriMo Heals All Wounds

Back again?

It’s almost NaNoWriMo time, National Novel Writing Month, where crazy people like me — who enjoy scribbling down stories (or punching keyboards in frustration when the stories don’t come) — try to write 50,000 words, all in our imagined worlds.

It’s my favorite time of the year, the busiest — and, over the years, it’s come to mean so many different things to me.

While my first NaNo merely started as a time of the year to write 50,000 words — a big task, if entirely mundane — it very quickly morphed into a time to meet new friends and look at writing in a whole new, social way. It became a community.

Most of us writers are not surrounded by people in our everyday lives who are enamored by the fact that we write — casual indifference can sometimes be the best we can hope for from friends and family who are otherwise awesome and supportive, but just don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to our little quirk.

Then, all of a sudden, an entire month comes along where many countless thousands of people just like us — from all over the world, all walks of life, and ever-critically some in our own communities — collectively say “to hell with it!” and embark on an ambitious, crazy journey of a project.

Often it’s a project where we only start with a tiny germ of an idea — amounting to what will be a very big leap of faith. And yet we jump.

Whether we only participate in NaNo online, or race to all the local write ins, we see that we aren’t alone. We may share our ideas, or even select passages — the only words I’ll edit in November — among people who care about writing as much as we do. Often times, we’ll see the spark in their eyes that says “you’re not crazy, I like something about this, keep digging.” A little validation like that can go a long way, and in November the magic happens where it’s suddenly much easier for aspiring writers to find that kind of support.

As my years of participationg have continued to mount, though, it’s come to mean new, even more important things to me.

  • It’s when I forgive myself if I didn’t get the amount of writing done in the previous year that I should have — then recommit and do better.
  • It’s when I reconnect with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, instead of letting them accidentally slip away into the aether.
  • It’s when I assess what I’ve done with my craft, where I want to it be — but am also honest with myself about what I need right now from it. I’ll look at old worlds unfinished, and think “is it time to resurrect this?” I’ll weigh the need to work on a current project against the cleansing desire of creating something all new. An answer will come, and whatever it is, it’ll be right.
  • Heck, it’s when I write on my website that I haven’t touched all year, because I have a good excuse to jump back in, and something I very much want to talk about.

It may sound weird to some, but the whole experience has what I can only express as a spiritual quality to it for me. Ritual. Community. A whole lot of hard work on a craft. Connection and reconnection. Forgiveness. Support. Imagination. Creative expression: that voice we didn’t know we have, or had about forgotten for a whole year.

It’s got history, lore, debates, meta, icons, wine and food, garbs to wear. It has community and website leaders doing work that’s downright pastoral. It even occasionally has people asking for donations for the good cause that it is.

There’s music, literature and visual art we NaNo writers like look to for inspiration — we just call them prompts. Cafes and libraries are our temples. Then there’s the zone, where the writing just flows — meditation if I’ve ever seen it.

Finally, the month is over. We pour heart, body and soul into it. Life inevitably gets in the way, and we do our best to overcome. Or perhaps our spirits fail along the way, and we just don’t want to continue working on a project. We don’t believe in it anymore. Maybe there’s time to course correct, work on something different — maybe there isn’t, but we do our best.

At the end, win or lose, there’s still the payoff – the fact that we tackled something hard, and that we did it together. We know that, at the very least, come next November we’ll be back again, our spirits renewed. We feel healed.

P.40: On Journaling

19430170_10101274964647836_1054977293858506989_n (1)                                                                                        I started keeping a journal at about this time last summer — and I’ve found it helpful, to say the least. This journal here is my fourth volume since starting.

Most of my entries are brief — about a couple short pages — and are just a quick run down of what I did that day, or since my last entry. Conversations, random things I’m struck by, tasks of the day, how I’m feeling, and so on and so forth.

A collection of patterns and oddities and everything in between.

But it’s also a great way to keep track of goals, and make a record of what I’ve read, watched, listened to and what I took away from it all — so it’s not all lost in the æther. I also often include a short poem, to get my creative juices going, or to explore a thought or idea.

Over time, as I’ve written more, it’s made me think back to an episode of NPR’s Indivisibilia —  exploring if humans can change. The show’s guests went on to point out that not only can we, but that we are constantly changing (even at a cellular level), and can in many ways be viewed as entirely different people whether viewed over long stretches of time, or from one moment to the next. In that vein, keeping a journal is the great link — a record of ourselves, in all our different versions.

Do you keep a journal? Have you ever tried?

p.38: On Unlikeable Protaganists

How likable should protagonists be? Do unlikable protagonists need some qualities about them that readers can identify with, some aspect of the character they can feel invested in?

It’s a debate I’ve had with a number of other writers. While I think there are no right or wrong answers — there’s a reader for every kind of writer — I lean down on the side that even unlikable protagonists should have something about them that helps readers root for them in some way. Even if the protags are horrible human beings.

In that vein, I stumbled on this excellent video blog from the Lessons on the Screenplay channel on Youtube that examines the protagonist in Nightcrawler, a tremendously underrated movie. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a true sociopath in it, someone who I highly doubt most any viewer could actually like, who is yet an incredibly compelling character. The performance is a tour de force, but it’s all there in the screenplay, too.

The video really sums up my thoughts on the subject better than anything I could write, and uses great examples from the screenplay for evidence. I hope others will find it as useful as I did.

P.32: Draft 2 Problems

I’ve joined the SF/F writers Facebook group, which has been an interesting, very positive experience. Lots of great ideas, suggestions and some great questions and discussions.

That said, one of the most common posts I read come from people who ask for suggestions on issues that, in the grand scheme of things, are quite minor — like word choice or some basic character issue.

These aren’t bad things to be focused on, but they reminded me of some of my early mistakes I made as a writer — getting bogged down by the small stuff.

I’ve touched on this issue before, but think it’s worth expounding on. The first few times I attempted a book, I’d always make some great progress on the first 50 or 100 pages — and then things would start to grind to a halt. I’d reread what I had written over and over again — getting stuck in an editing loop, working on what I had already written instead of finishing the story.

I’d spend hours creating notes or doing research to get one scene just right, or read paragraphs over and over again looking trying to come up with a perfect word or sentence — instead of moving anything forward. A lot of times, the ‘fixing’ made things worse, because I wasn’t focused on any particular problem. Without that focus, I could address some minor problem by creating a much bigger one — and it’s hard to know if changes are good or bad without the context of a finished draft.

Don’t get me wrong — spending time on the small stuff, even a lot of time, isn’t bad to do. Most any writer would want their word choices to be as perfect as they could make it, or to create enough notes and do enough research to make sure even a single comes across exactly how they’d want — but none of those things need to happen in Draft 1.

I like to call them Draft 2 Problems — things that can be fixed later, with more precision (and context), once the whole story is finished.

In fact, for me, they’re often Draft 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 problems, as I tend to focus on one or two aspects of a story per draft — trying to fix character issues in one draft, or working on world building in the next. Case in point: I’ll write a story with a second world setting using everyday vernacular here on earth that doesn’t fit within the context of the world I’m creating, just to get the basic story down — and then have a draft specifically focusing on making the dialog and terminology consistent and authentic to the world and characters I created.

Then, of course, I’ll have drafts focused on tightening prose, or on continuity issues, or on specific characters or character relationships, and drafts that focus on a whole host of other issues.

The point is, you don’t want to bog yourself down at any stage of the process because you’re trying to do everything at the same time — because you’re trying to be perfect in a single pass through the story.

If you try to be that perfect, then there’s a good chance you’ll never finish that stage, or even damage the story in some way that could take a lot of time to fix.

Plus, if you’re seeking that perfection in the early stages of your work, you’ll spend hours on scenes or characters that you’ll eventually cut or significantly alter somewhere down the line. And why waste time fixing something that won’t exist later when you could spend that time getting to the end sooner, or starting something new?

So, don’t let Draft X problems creep into Draft 1. Just keep plowing ahead.

P.29: World Building and Cuts

When it comes to writing, there’s almost nothing that I love more than to create new worlds, filled with interesting characters and locations in them.

I also love to create beautiful prose, that flows well on the tongue.

I say all this because I just sent out a short story. It was a story I first finished and sent out in December, but it wasn’t quite ready then — it was one of those situations where I would have liked to spend some more time with it, but had a deadline to hit.

I didn’t really know what was quite wrong with it in my head, but I figured out those problems this past week, prepping it for a new outlet.

There were a few points in the story — just a few — where I was trying to do a little too much. I loved the character details I had, but they were bogging the prose down, making the writing feel clunky.

I didn’t want to lose those details, though. They really did add a dynamic to my main character that otherwise doesn’t quite show.

I tried rewording the writing, I tried to move things around… but nothing worked.

Ultimately, I had to let the writing win, and so I made the cuts.

At the end of the day, no matter how many wonderful ideas you want to try to incorporate in your story, you can’t have clunky prose. Some of them will almost certainly have to be cut.

Be merciless, my friends.

P.26: Get Writing with Themed Issues and Anthologies

I never posted about how one of my favorite literary magazines, Crossed Genre, closed its doors… and I probably should have. **sniff**

One of the reasons why I loved Crossed Genres was because it delivered a different theme every month.

That’s great for readers, ensuring a diversity of stories and content — and great for writers, too.

As a writer, it pushed me to come up with new stories, tackling themes I may not have otherwise, but most importantly it was great incentive to write.

Even if I got a rejection, it meant I had more stories to send out and was pushing my boundaries as a writer.

Anthologies fit a very similar niche. When I see a submission call, I think about what they’re looking for… and, if I’m into it, I write.

For an aspiring writer, the easiest way to fail is to not write, and there’s no better way to ensure you write than having submission calls you’re aiming for — and the deadlines that come with them —  on your calendar.

So… if you’re an aspiring author, take a look at what anthologies or themed issues are out there and consider it a writing prompt, or a call to action.

Don’t know where to look? Here’s a few places:

  • For Sci Fi, Fantasy and Horror, Horror Tree is very good at posting updates for upcoming anthologies.
  • The Submission Grinder is very useful, both its Recently Added Markets tab and by checking out Recent Activity. As a bonus, The Grinder covers all genres, including literary.
  • Then there’s always the #SubmissionCall hashtag on Twitter.

P.24: Defend Your Writing Time!

It’s 11/20/15, and I’m a little over 45,000 words into NaNoWriMo. I’m feeling pretty good, but it hasn’t always been easy. These past couple days, things have gotten in the way of my writing — making the last 10,000 words harder than the first 35,000.

I don’t think I’m alone in life getting in the way, but one thing I’ve learned I need to do that perhaps some others haven’t: defend my writing time.

A lot of us look at writing as a fun hobby, and there’s nothing wrong with that — but even if writing is just a fun hobby, writers still need to write.

When people look at you funny for writing, or interrupt you, or wonder why you’re even doing it… tell them they can have their football game, a poker night or The Walking Dead, but you’re going to have your writing time.

If you’re in a real time crunch or find your commitment lagging, block off your writing time, schedule it in your calendar — and make sure everyone knows it. Make sure you know it, and don’t let things get in the way.

Of course, emergencies happen and you may not always succeed in blocking distractions, but if you’re never finding time to write, it’s on you to change that.

So, when it’s your time to write — even if all you can do is block off 30 minutes 4-5 days a week — don’t pick up the phone on the first call. Don’t write in the room people are going to talk to you in. In fact, get the heck out of dodge, if that’s what it takes, and go write at a local cafe or library.

If you have kids, particularly young ones, write for a half hour after they’re in bed, or have your spouse step it up if you have one.

Let people see the fruits of your labor when it’s ready. Maybe they’ll love what you wrote. Maybe it won’t be their cup of tea, but at least they’ll see your commitment — and respect it, and perhaps try to help you find more time to write.

I know finding time can be difficult, but you can do it, even if it’s just a little.

Carve that time out. Schedule it. Create goals. Start a project or two. Plan things out. Make sure others respect that time. Make sure you respect that time — and write.