Monday, October 31, 2011

Last Minute Nanowrimo Tips!

Nanowrimo begins in just five hours in my time zone. Across the world, writers have already begun their 2011 novels. 50,000 words in 30 days is by no means an impossible task. You only need to make 1,667 words a day at a steady pace of daily writing to achieve the official Winner's Certificate.

It's nice to be able to keep going and finish the book. It's good to get a bit ahead. One of the easy ways to make the pace is to just round up.

Plan for 2,000 words a day. Then you'll have 60,000 words on November 30th. That's a start in itself - one that may get you a Green Bar before validation starts. For those who've never participated, your user name on the Nanowrimo forums will have a green progress bar for your word count. You fill that in manually for most of the month, updating it with a click.

Around five days from the end of the month, the Validator will come online. Copy and paste your entire manuscript into one text file, upload it and two things happen automatically. That manuscript gets word counted and deleted. They do not store the novel texts that get validated. They would need a lot more storage to do that.

But if you're afraid, just search and replace all the vowels with X's, or half the alphabet. Or all of the alphabet. Then you've got a shadow manuscript that has the same word count XXX XXX XXX XXXXX XXX X. (But all the words are X.)

Trust me, the organization gets its money from your donations instead. It does help to donate, they spend a lot of work all year round to set it up and Chris Baty worked full time there for years. So do many of the staff. It's so big they need to do it full time to get it into functioning condition when every year Nanowrimo is larger and swamps the new servers they bought to handle the overload.

I've been over to the site. It's running well for the day before Nanowrimo. I can't access "Writing Buddies" to add my newest friend to that list but the forums load quick, I stayed logged in, life's good.

You may want to download this year's badge to use as an avatar on your personal blog. This is one more way to create a level of social responsibility to finish the big project. Once it's up on your blog, your readers will all expect to see rising word counts in all your November entries.

Another good tip. Write first thing in the day if you can. Late night and super early in the morning are times of the day when other people you live with are probably sleeping in. So they won't interrupt you or distract you. This gives you a chance to start the day with a small achievement. Nothing builds confidence like repeated daily success.

You might be too tired at the end of a stressful day to put in the day's scene or chapter. That happens to everyone, there are good days and bad days. But if you get up and do an hour or two of writing before you get dressed, eat breakfast and head out to work or school, you will be more alert and confident about facing the rest of your day. Even people who get up easily without feeling groggy will have better morale if the first thing they do is an accomplishment.

First things get done.

Last things drop off if other priorities took longer than planned. So that's a big advantage to the Early Bird writer. If you're a natural night owl, try getting up earlier than that - like two or three in the morning could be your happy time. You might have to go to bed at eight or nine like a little kid to manage it, but you will have peace and quiet for a long creative session.

Part Two of Rounding Up. Do not stop on the 1,668th word with the sentence unfinished. For one thing, you can scratch your head a day later trying to guess what "She stared" at. For another, you will gain extra word count with "And Change."

I got ahead from my very first Nanowrimo because I always finished the scene or chapter I had started. That added between 200 and 600 words to every day's words. Sometimes it carried me so far over the day's words that I decided to keep going and do two days worth of writing.

That does wonders for getting the Purple Bar (validated 50,000 word count) the day the Validator gets launched. It also saves your sanity if you have a day when you had to work 15 hours and then the lights went out at home or your laptop crashed and you were up till 2AM de-virusing and fixing it. It helps solve the problem if you have a heart attack or give birth during November.

Though for giving birth, bring your laptop to the hospital. From my daughter's account, there were hours and hours of waiting involved including after the baby came, so you might as well get in some words. Besides, you can impress the nurses by telling them you're working on your Novel.

Chris Baty mentioned in the very first Nanowrimo literature I ever got, that it's fun to swank around and tell people you're a Novelist. He mentions it every year. It is absolutely true. Most people have no idea where novels come from and many will be impressed. Even more impressed if you've done this before and have a finished book to show them, whether it's indie or pro-published.

This is the literary equivalent of the Boston Marathon. You're embarking on a huge, momentous challenge, one that takes training, discipline, will power and creativity. You will hurt. You will work hard. You will fly and have fun with it. You may wind up crying over it. You may wind up crying over it in a good way when a character you love bites the dust or sinks into the La Brea Tar Pits.

You owe it to your friends to do this.

Your real life online friends - online is connecting with real people, if you've forgotten that - are all counting on you to have a book finished on December 1st. They're ready to cheer and be glad you did it. Cheer them on too if any of them are doing it, this is a time when a lot of people gang together against massive social pressure not to excel in the arts and roar each other across the finish line.

Your imaginary friends are counting on you to spend a month with them so they can get out into the real world. So they can be read about by more than just you. So they can keep someone else company on a dark lonely night they can't sleep or when they're stuck in the hospital after visiting hours or stuck on the bus for a long commute to a dull job.

If you have trouble writing anything longer than a short story, consider a "Mosaic Novel" made up of successive short stories. It is a valid, beautiful form of novel. It too can reach 50,000 words. For a good example, read any of Fritz Leiber's "Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser" fantasy books. They're collections of stories about the same two guys in a sword and sorcery world, set in chronological order. They read well as a book even if they weren't plotted as a single long story.

My biggest tip for Nanowrimo is this one.

Just Don't Stop.

That's right. Don't quit. Don't give up on it if your word count goes behind. Don't give up on it if you sweated through the first session and didn't get one word past the title down in the file. Come back, sweat some more and put in a lousy first line. Get yourself started by writing an introduction or a prologue.

At every point you are tempted to stop, ask yourself what the worst thing that could happen to that character is, or the most interesting thing. Killing him off may not be the answer. But it might - you can always turn it into a book about a zombie or a vampire. Everything is possible in the world of your novel.

Throw in everything you like in books. Don't worry about whether your heroine is a Mary Sue - that only happens if her super powers don't have anything to counter them. Just build the villains bigger and tear her up with challenges that push her to the edge of sanity and the edge of survival. Don't worry about whether your prose is lousy. Get it down in words where you can look back at leisure and edit it.

Go ahead and put in long descriptive passages. If you can't think of a snappy line, put in whatever the character would say, even if it's just "I don't know what to say." A lot of people say that when confronted with a shock.

Don't hesitate to load on the trouble! If you want it to be a good book, give your main character a hard time right from the first page. Shoot her parents. Burn his house down. Get her fired that morning. Send the bank over to repossess the land and demand mortgage payments on the smoking ruin. Have a dragon land on the house and burn it to cinders, then eat the neighbors, then someone accuses your character of summoning the dragon.

If you like it in other people's novels, chances are it's a cool thing to put in your novel. If it comes from another genre, that will help give it originality. Some of the best novels are hard to categorize. It doesn't matter either, because "mainstream" includes all the genres and pays better.

You're not trying to write a good novel this month. You're writing a rough draft this month to find out what the story's about and give you something to edit. Good novels aren't written, they're rewritten. Here's a paraphrased quote from one of the classic masters - James Michener said he didn't know how to write well, he knew how to rewrite well.

The very first novel you write could become a bestseller. You'll probably write more novels in between its beginning and its success. You will have a lot of rewrites ahead of you. But it has as good a chance to sell and become a bestseller as anyone else's - provided it exists.

For that, you have Nanowrimo to cheer you on. It gives accountabiility - your friends do know you're doing this and they'll know you're a quitter if you drop it. It gives much needed emotional support against a host of discouraging people who take out their broken dreams on anyone who dares to achieve anything - even if that's only the personal achievement of a leisure novelist who puts his or her finished work on Kindle or Smashwords for a free read.

That's one of your options too. You don't have to take this seriously and do it for money. You can do it for fun and get a kick out of being a novelist without expecting to earn a lot of money for the work. Money's good but it's not everything. If you go in doing it because you love it and don't worry about whether it's salable, you won't choke on those dismal fears that "nobody is going to buy this."

Trust me, whoever you are, whatever you think about life, the universe and everything, odds are that thousands of readers agree with you and think you're cool. They'll read your book and go "Wow, she understands, everything, she's so good." You will get that feedback from some readers. So write it to please yourself.

Do it your way because you're going to be spending some time every day with it this month. It might as well be in your favorite style and genre.

You've done all the prep you have time to do. Gather your courage, watch the clock and jump in when it's time. A midnight start is always good for getting ahead and getting some momentum.

It's ten to eight right now in my time zone. I can't wait.

Monday, October 24, 2011

What do you want to be this year?

Happy Halloween!

On the night before Nanowrimo, many of us are going to dress up in a cool costume and go to a party. We might be vampires, ghosts, devils, aliens, robots, anything at all. For one brief evening we get to play pretend. Real witches celebrate a religious holiday, Samhain, but may still enjoy dressing up as something else to go to a party too just as many Christians enjoy Santa Claus as much as the Nativity Story.

Then we get to play pretend all month as we roll on into our novels.

I posted an illustration of a black cat for this one because that's the most Halloween related image in my art files. Maceo is actually a sweet and loving cat who belongs to my friend Lisa. I painted his portrait. Any cat lover will see a big, regal, loving, affectionate fluffy cat who's in a friendly good mood. Any superstitious reader will see a scary black cat looking boldly at you.

Show your scariest character from the inside. Show the fluffy boy as well as the scary feared black cat. Who does he love? Why? What does he care about? What does he enjoy? What did he do that made him a villain? Is he a villain in his own eyes?

Maceo has a name. He has a loving meowmy. He's sweet and affectionate if you get to know him. But how would you feel about him if you were a mouse and he was a character in a children's book? At least at first, you'd fear him. How would you feel if you were a superstitious character who honestly believed that black cats had magic powers and were emissaries of the devil?

What if he caused bad luck on purpose? Not to his loving human, but to people who cross him in ways a human couldn't begin to understand. Like say, smelling of a big dangerous cat-eating dog, or being afraid of black cats and smelling hostile? Is he a villain or an angel in disguise?

If he's an angel in disguise, is he blessing the house of people he likes by sending them an abundance of small game - mice, interesting bugs, small tasty birds and frogs? Hey, a cat would think of that as good luck.

Sometimes prey-part decorating is a cat's way of showing he cares, a responsible cat doing her part feeding the family. Sometimes it's a bit of home terrorism and the cat understands the human's response perfectly well. You've gotta be there and know the cat in person to tell the difference.

Today's topic is monsters and villains because you've probably got one in your novel concept. You have an antagonist. Odds are that you, the author, don't agree with your antagonist about little things like way of life, what's right or wrong. Or your villain is a straight-up villain who agrees with the hero on what's right or wrong and simply chose Wrong as the more fun way to live.

Most villains don't believe they're the bad guy. Do that in depth and you have a grand Homeric conflict with powerful heroes on both sides. Think about anyone from the Odyssey showing up in the modern world with modern armaments and you have a serious invading-enemy problem.

Homer's losing Trojans were the "bad guys" because Helen of Troy ran off with her lover. Helen ran off with Paris because Aphrodite wanted to reward Paris with the most beautiful woman in the world and the love goddess didn't care that she was already married, so it was fate.

Trojan heroes defended their wives and kids, who wound up dead or slaves to the good guys. Trojan women killed themselves and their children rather than let themselves and the kids get carried off into slavery.

That would be Greek Tragedy for you - nice guys do get their city sacked and family destroyed because life's like that sometimes. Heroism is standing up to it as much as you can. Not as popular in the USA as a happy ending but a good writer can make it work even today. It'll sell better in the UK unless it's horror - horror doesn't have to have the happy ending.

But why doesn't horror need a happy ending?

Comeuppance, pure and simple. There's a whole stream of horror where the monster gets to do what the reader fleetingly wishes he could out in real life. Petty, aggravating people, someone with an irritating laugh or a snotty fast food server, gets a ridiculously huge comeuppance when the monster reels out his guts. Horror-humor is full of this kind of overreaction, Usually the monster makes fun of the victim too.

So who's your villain?

Get into his skin. Write some backstory. Your serial killer probably isn't starting out with Victim One at the start of your novel. Heck, if he is, my hat's off to you - that would be a searing, incisive portrait of a decline into madness. If so, what led him or her to become a serial killer?

Was it a chemical imbalance? Did this kid grow up with good parents and a happy childhood, nothing wrong in his life except that he just... doesn't... get it? That's a valid type of antagonist. He's even more dangerous if he decides coldly on the basis of his own self interest that serial killing isn't worth the legal risks, so he'll just destroy other people's lives to amuse himself. Put him in the boardroom or any position of authority and he's going to be a far greater menace.

Was it vengeance? Is she poisoning abusive husbands as a vigilante heroine? That's a well known pattern for female serial killers. She'd make a good villain, she has a Cause and she's willing to kill for it.

One of the most powerful things you can do as a writer is to give your protagonist and antagonist a similar background with similar challenges before the book even starts. A good published example is the difference between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort - it's all character. Both were orphans raised in harsh circumstances in the Muggle world. One was a selfish thief and bully, the other a young man almost pathetically good, desperately trying not to be as rotten as his cousin Dudley.

Harry had empathy. Voldemort lacked it.

Imagine what it would be like not to feel empathy at all. To understand other people only clinically, coldly, be able to read their emotions - and just not feel that one yourself. Or if that's not your antagonist, what about this?

Some people aren't really people. They don't deserve the consideration and rights that decent people do. They're enemies, out to get you, poor treatment is defense of self and others. Give them what they want and they would just destroy everything. That's not Voldemort, that's the Malfoys.

Half of the people in the world are xenophilic. They like people who are different. They enjoy meeting strangers, welcome them and feel intensely curious about their ways of life and ideas about everything. They're broad-minded, generous and ...

Naive, soft-headed, gullible when it comes to opening their doors to dangerous people. They just don't look at the risks. They're the ones who would let a serial killer stay overnight when they've got a teenage daughter and pay for it with their lives. You can't trust everyone you meet. They're out to get you. Xenophobic people are the other fifty percent.

Those tendencies are both there in most people. Extremes are rare and often dangerous. Conflicts emerge between those types and that provides a balance between accepting diversity or accepting it so far that you enable foreign atrocity in the name of accepting diversity. Life is never that simple except in a short story.

Nanowrimo isn't a short story.

Nanowrimo gives you the big picture. You can work out the guts of your conflicts during this last week. Figure out your antagonist in depth. Find out some backstory. Warming up with some offstage writing can help you sail into the beginning with a lot more confidence even if like me, you're a 100% pantser who hates working to an outline.

Come on, it's just like doing a sequel. You can write up stuff about the characters' backgrounds and get a running start. Pretend you're the character you like least in your upcoming book. Get dressed up and scare yourself and others. Get some idea why your villain became a villain and whether he thinks he is or is a self-righteous ass with a deadly black and white idea of virtue.

Write this exercise in first person. It doesn't need to be publishable unless it turns out to be. If it is, you have half the work done on an interesting sequel and it's very easy to turn first person into third person intimate. "I hated my abuser" turns into "He hated his abuser."

Maybe you want to write a vampire book. What would it be like to get into the head of a Van Helsing, a hunter who dedicated his life to wiping out these vile inhuman creatures - your sympathetic vampires. Remember, your whole vampire community are not gentle creatures who never kill (unless they are and the theme of your book is that the real monsters are humans). Odds are that even in a peaceful enlightened vampire community, someone will be a murderer. That one might have killed someone Van Helsing loved.

Or some kid, drunk on immortality and new superpowers, pranked him when he was small. Didn't kill him. Just jumped out and said "Boo." Wore a cape. Swanked around. Scared a child. Not a nice thing to do.

You write that and when your young vampire grows up as a prankish lover-not-killer, you have the makings of some Greek Tragedy. Small mistakes can become critical ones. Comeuppance is sometimes way out of proportion to the crime.

Have you ever known someone who says "I'm a loser, I'm a failure. I'm no good and I know it. I'm just a mean, worthless drunk and I try to be good but I just can't do it. It's all the bottle. You better give up on me because I'm poison." Pretty good excuse for anything horrific. Common everyday villain usable in any novel, at any level of society.

That villain can show up as a side character or star as the central antagonist, roaring through the novel like Hurricane Katrina through everyone's lives, property, families, relationships. He can even bottom out and start the long road toward sobriety and acting like a human being, a member of society again instead of a self-declared loser.

There's at least one anthropologist who studied the drinking patterns and behavior of other cultures and tested it by creating fake drinks for test subjects. They acted drunk on nonalcoholic taste-alikes when they believed it was real alcoholic beverages.

There's also an idea that alcoholism is genetic and chemical, an alcoholic will inevitably become addicted to the substance if he or she ever tastes it. But I would lay odds that even if that's true, how alcoholics behave is culturally determined. The one trait of craving does not in and of itself cause alcoholic behavior - or caffeine addicts and chocoholics would be as dangerous to self and others as alcoholics.

Those of you who crave chocolate have a different set of behaviors associated with it and can keep a healthy weight by choosing quality over quantity - a dark chocolate truffle a day may be healthful. But the conflict of a chocoholic in society and his or her behavior is very different from an alcoholic, because we expect alcoholics to act uncontrolled and impulsive while we expect chocoholics to be happy when they eat it and at most, feel guilty about their weight.

Chocolate is sin, chocolate is alcoholism in miniature.

By developing your villain's backstory, you're going to get a new perspective on the theme of your novel. You may even define the theme before you start by exploring it in this unofficial prequel.

So there's my suggested exercise for pantsers, to warm up during the week before Halloween and Nanowrimo. Dress up as the scariest character in your book and see what he or she did before the story began. If your novel is 100% Man Versus Nature, maybe write up your natural disaster's predecessors. Look at what deserts do to some minor characters before the protagonists come on stage. Look at the ghosts of those who died in previous mine cave-ins or tornadoes.

When I wrote Sabertooth last year, all my characters were animals. The bad guy male Smilodons were a rival family not that different from my beloved Musky and Elder's pride. Psycho Cat's big difference was violence even to females the triplet brothers tried to claim. He wasn't the leader of the Terrible Trio. Just the meanest.

Musky, by a significant factor, was an unusually sociable cat with stronger social bonds. Psycho Cat was the opposite extreme, a cat with low social bonding. His normative brothers took care of him and kept him in the pride because they loved him. Their untold story could have been written in October without disturbing the process of the book at all. It's a foil to the real story from the point of view of Psycho's Bigger Brother, the real leader of the Terrible Trio.

Smilodons take care of their own. That was the theme of my book. It was reflected as much in the opposite extreme example of my cats as in the protagonists' pride.

So who's your monster?

What are you going to be this Halloween? Who's going to be the biggest problem your main character has to face on the morning after Halloween? Dress up and have fun.

You'll hit the ground running with a daily writing habit. Your word count will soar and your theme will deepen. Your plot will gain complexity before it even starts. Have a go and enjoy it.

Next week's post will be Kickoff Day. I'm excited. If you're scared, give your villain a ticking clock and a nastier deadline in this prequel. It'll give him motive and you some confidence as well as enriching your book.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Time Management

Time management is essential to win Nanowrimo. Okay, I sneaked in an image of my cat because I learned a lot about time management from him. Notice the pose I drew him in - sacked out sprawled on the floor mysteriously taking up most of the middle of the room even though he's a tenth of my size. He can occupy an adult bed all by himself too.

He spends 2/3 of his life sleeping. He's very good at that. I don't, because I'm human. I spend a great deal of it poking around online, posting on forums, chatting with friends, hanging out on Facebook, playing Facebook games, maybe watching television. Even though I'm disabled and my day job is just Being A Cripple, a great deal of my time goes into these time sinks.

These attractive diversions all become even more tempting during November.

I took up Daily Art again this month. I do this every October, because it helps me prepare for Nanowrimo. It's another online event on LiveJournal. This year it's called Artifest and some of the artists participating have been doing it for several years under its old name, Artsomofo.

The reason I participate in Artifest is that I care about Nanowrimo. I don't worry so much about Artifest. I'm just goofing around. That's okay - what makes it a good thing for my writing is that I start leveraging my time toward creative activity a month in advance. Drawing and sketching is fun.

Every November, I switch my priorities. Drawing and sketching are a reward when the day's scene or chapter is done. I do my writing first and then I do anything else I want to. I will probably keep on with the daily art, now that I've moved to San Francisco I've got more body energy and can manage to do more than one thing in a day. Back in Arkansas, Kansas, Minnesota or Colorado, I could only count on being able to do one thing in a day.

The rest of my time was taken up with that being a cripple thing. If I get too tired from chronic fatigue, I'm not going to write well. If I get a flare and I've got too much pain from the fibromyalgia, I'm not going to write well. If I walked too far and stood too long and wrecked my back, I might not be writing or drawing while I rest up because the pain is too distracting.

So my equivalent of the "job" thing does take up a serious number of hours in the day no matter what else I do. It schedules itself, it's not something I can control. All I can do is plan around it.

You probably have some distractions in your life that are just as hard to control. It's one thing to be virtuous and turn off the television, or not open your browser until you've done the day's words. It's another thing to reschedule your kids when two of them are fighting in the living room and something spilled. You can't just put them in a kennel until December.

You also can't schedule that big customer surge that had you working a 12 hour day at your job. Somewhere in all this you need to be able to sleep too, or you'll wind up writing gibberish and going to work in your pajamas without telecommuting as an excuse. Life happens. The more you want to do something that takes time, the more likely it is for Life Happens to show up in its most unexpected, frustrating and immersive forms.

The only thing you can control in this situation is yourself. You can't make your supervisor stop scheduling extra hours or your kids suddenly become well behaved angels who require no supervision. The best you can do is to plan around them.

It's easier to start that planning in October. So find a good substitute activity like I did with the daily sketching. Maybe you want to put headphones on and take up dancing in your bedroom - that would probably be good for your health. Ease your way into the habit.

Try to make it daily and celebrate it when you succeed. Ignore failed trials as failed trials. Get a box of gold stars and start giving yourself one every day that you keep up your good new habit. Don't try for large blocks of time at first, let it expand naturally. I set the bar low so that I do always succeed.

It counts as daily art for me if I do a two minute gesture sketch of my cat instead of the nice hour of ink and watercolor version I did yesterday. By hanging on and doing two minute gesture sketches on the hard days, I got in a habit that let me expand to an hour or two of painting. I did another painting yesterday too, it took me about four or five hours to finish because I had to really concentrate to master a difficult new medium. The cat painting was an hour-long afterthought. I had already done my daily art by then.

During November, if you only get two minutes to add another sentence or paragraph to your novel, it counts. You wrote that day. You have kept up daily writing.

Daily journal keeping is good as a substitute habit, because it also involves writing and freewriting. It's very easy to get in the flow of griping about what went wrong, celebrating what I did right, laughing about what was funny or grumping about something that annoys me in the news. I can always find something to write about in journal.

That habit is one that keeps my fingers moving on the keys and leads to good ideas for novels, characters or scenes. I don't even count it as a goal any more because it's as much a habit as eating or sleeping. If I don't get to write out what I think of the day, I'm uncomfortable and crabby until I do.

Journal is also a way to track what interferes with your novel writing. You can try different strategies to get time outside your normal everyday tasks when you're home. Some writers thrive on getting up to do the day's words before anyone else is up. Getting up two hours early and quietly typing with writing music on headphones avoids itnerruptions of all kinds. It also makes a good start to the day - you go to work with an accomplishment under your belt and a sense of confidence.

Others write well late at night when everyone else is asleep or at least buried in a video game on their computer. Don't try to outlast a teenager playing video games. He's no better than a doorstop in that state anyway, so you don't need to pay attention to what he's doing. Let him be during November. If that's a grown man, same thing, he's occupied with something that doesn't need your attention so that gives you a serious chunk of writing time.

Make sure whoever the video game addict in your household is knows that you're writing a novel. They may encourage you in order to get uncontested video-game time during November and come to look forward to it as much as you do.

If you're not a pantser, make your substitute habit preparing for the novel. Write up an outline. Do character biographies and character relationship charts. Make organized notes on the history of your world - even if you set it in something like the real world, it has a backstory. Just the town or suburb the action takes place in is an interesting place to explore and write up so that you're not at a loss when you're ready to start the prose. Plan out every scene and chapter so that each day's words during November are a finite assignment like when you were in school.

But if you're a linear organic writer like me, just find something else that's creative and interesting. Create the habits that will give you at least an hour or two of solitude every day next month.

My last bit of advice is for November itself. On the first days of the month, try for a marathon early on. Write as much as you can every day. Don't stop when you get the first day's words. Keep going and try to get in some more. If you keep writing as much as possible every day in that first initial rush, the extra word count will add up to a hefty cushion of "Virtual Days."

I always chart that. I do not stop at 1,667 words. I keep going to two or three thousand even if I'm pacing it daily. That way I can check to see how far ahead I am. Once I have three or four Virtual Days in the can, I can relax about it.

Then if something happens to break my rhythm, whether that's a tough scene that's a stuck point or a health crisis that knocks me out for two days, I'm still ahead.

It's much easier emotionally to coast and stay ahead than it is to force myself to catch up once I fall behind. Catching up takes a lot of grim determination and self sacrifice, will power, forcing myself to do it when I don't feel like it at the moment. But coasting along enjoying it because I'm way ahead and happy about it is effortless. I have momentum.

I've built up the momentum of a faster pace, so if something slows me down, I still probably make at least a regular day's words.

This habit is why I've become an overachiever. Getting in three thousand word days gets me finished before the last day of the month, at least past the official Win of 50,000 words. But hey, I had more story than that. I hit the mark but the book wasn't done. So I kept going to finish the book and it came out to about 90,000 words.

That was my very first Nanowrimo, in 2000. I finished with 90,000 words and some change about four or five days before December. I was one of the early finishers holding a Green Bar waiting for the verifier to come online so I could get a Purple Bar. All because I was so excited about it that every day I coasted on a bigger effort than minimal.

So build up some momentum to carry you past the slow points. Build a good daily habit starting now, so that when you shift gears to writing you've already got the time blocked for it. Quit Facebook games for the duration. They'll still be there in December if you want to play again.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Three Tips for Nanowrimo

It's October. November is almost here. If you haven't heard of it yet, November is National Novel Writing Month. Nanowrimo takes the loneliest art form on the planet - novel writing - and turns it into something like the Boston Marathon.

Sign up on the website and you've pledged to write a new rough draft novel of 50,000 words or more. It's not about quality. That comes in the editing process. It's about quantity.

It's about busting writer's block to smithereens and developing good writing habits. If you create 1,667 words a day during November, you'll win your Nanowrimo Winner's Certificate. You can print it out, frame it, hang it on the wall next to last year's and the year before.

Every year the certificate looks different too. The big game of writing 50,000 fictional words always has a new win screen. A substantial number of entrants succeed in writing a Nanowrimo novel in the first year they try. Even more come back again and again till they win.

If you are a total beginner, I have another website for you too. is another writing blog by Larry Brooks. He's doing a series of 31 posts in 31 days helping folks prepare for Nanowrimo.

If you've never tried writing a novel before, use Larry's method pure. If you are a planner, his structural approach is fantastic. IF you are a pantser, you should still read all the posts.

I'm a pantser. That means "fly by the seat of your pants." I write intuitively. I start at the beginning on November 1st and get lost in the story. I write The End when the structure is complete and then I give it a break before I start to edit. I'll write another one or start editing last year's November novel.

I've won Nanowrimo nine out of ten times. In 2002 I had pneumonia and didn't get started till November 25th. I still made a respectable 25,000 words that year, if I'd had five more days I'd have won. Today, I could do it in those five days.

I also participate in the Three Day Novel Contest every year. This is like trying to do a sketch of a live model in two minutes. If you do a lot of two minute gesture sketches, then a model who holds still for twenty minutes feels like you've got all the time in the world to draw her.

It's much the same with novel writing. I have two natural advantages for speed writing a rough draft. One is that I'm disabled and don't have to work around a schedule that includes a "job" or anything like it. The other is that I type very fast thanks to the Dvorak keyboard layout.

Dvorak increased my typing speed by at least 20 words a minute. I was up to typing 81 words a minute on a normal keyboard because I was a typesetter - it's a typing job. Dvorak adds 20 words a minute on average to anyone's typing speed. I'm pretty sure I went way over a hundred once I was used to it.

Do not change to the Dvorak keyboard layout in October or November.

I felt brain dead for the first month as I was typing by hunt and peck. I practiced in a chat room with a bunch of writer friends who were all learning Dvorak. We made some hilarious typos, we typed so slow it was ludicrous, we joked about it and had fun. By the end of the month I was up to about 30 words a minute, comparable to longhand writing. From there in a few more months I was back up to speed.

By November of the following year I was typing faster than I had before I started. The best time to switch to Dvorak is in December. Give yourself a whole year to get used to it.

There's another benefit to Dvorak besides typing faster. I was starting to get sore wrists from using a normal Qwerty keyboard. I dreaded having to stop typing for ten or twelve hours at a time. Because Dvorak layout is more ergonomic, that wrist pain went away and I haven't had it since.

So there's a useful tip for next year's Nanowrimo. I can just hear you say it.

"Come on, what can I do to win this year?"

Tip number one: warm up by freewriting.

This is an exercise I got taught in high school by Mr. Mazurek in his Creative Writing class. I got an A on it as an assignment and thought I was cheating because it wasn't a story or an essay. I know now that I deserved that A because I started writing the minute he said "Start" and didn't stop till he said "Stop."

If you make a mistake, just type the changeed changed version next to it. That's given you an extra word, easily edited out. Let it go. Let it flow.

I didn't stop or hesitate in my first Freewriting exercise. I didn't stare off into the distance wondering what was going to happen next. I didn't stop to ask myself what to write about. Instead, I wrote one of many miserably pity-party themed creative nonfiction pieces on the theme of "I need to write and I can't write. I'm blocked. It hurts so bad. I feel like I want to die..."

Ever get that feeling?

Write it out. Start a personal journal today if you don't already have one. Set a timer for fifteen minutes. That's all you get. Now turn it on and write as much as you can in those fifteen minutes.

If you're blocked, write about the block. If you can't think of something to write about, write about that awful feeling. Just get words down. Think about quantity, not quality.

Title it with the date and the word "Freewrite." That'll help you distinguish it from personal journal intended to say, sort out your personal problems or get along with your sweetie. Even if those topics come up, calling it a Freewrite is a reminder that you're a writer and this is a writer's exercise.

Write as much as you can in fifteen minutes and then stop. Read what you've written. Look for ideas in it. You may have started pumping out good novel, scene or character ideas when you were done wibbling about not having any ideas.

Go on the opposite of a fault finding mission. Look for anything that's good in that freewrite. Find memorable sentences or phrases. Laugh at any funny line you came up with. Filter out any cool ideas for stories, novels, essays or articles.

Most of all, read it in a warm friendly encouraging way as if you decided to read a friend's freewrite exercise. Not as if it's yours. As if it's from someone you care about who has a lot of talent for writing. Someone whose stories you want to read.

There is a great and glowing prize at the end of Nanowrimo beyond this year's cool art on the certificate and being able to change the color of your progress bar.

You get to read a new book by your favorite author.

You can't help liking your own writing. You're going to do it your way. You'll choose your favorite genre, write characters you like, a theme you're passionate about. Write the book you wish Stephen King or Nora Roberts would write.

It's like cooking. You start out with no idea where the ingredients are in the cabinets or fridge, even choosing a recipe is tough. You goof up now and then, maybe a lot. But you eventually learn to cook well and along the way, to cook to your own taste. Trust your taste.

It's a lot higher than your skill for any beginner. You've had wonderful books written by skilled professionals and edited by brilliant editors all your life. Maybe you read classics as well as genre or mainstream novels and dream of writing like Dickens. All that goes into the place the stories come from.

Book Next is the one Dickens would have written in 2011. Or maybe it's a Victorian historical novel and the research is going to keep you busy all October. Write the book you want to read and it will flow better than any other.

That's tip number two: write the book you want to read.

Nanowrimo is tough. You've got a hard deadline, a difficult assignment. One way that Nanowrimo works is that you got trained from first grade to turn in writing on time to a deadline. Even if you were home schooled, you had assignments that needed to be turned in on time. Nanowrimo is a game that includes accountability and a fun prize. Win it and you've won a lot more than a cool winner's certificate.

The first novel you write is always the hardest. That's because you're teaching yourself all the skills needed to write a good novel. Your taste is higher than your skill. You want it to come out a brilliant work of fiction right up there with all of your favorites. Instead, it reads as if a beginner did it.

Don't sweat it. You have no idea how bad the rough drafts of your favorite novelists are. Stephen King writes a rough draft to know what happens in the story before he writes the version he's going to sell.

There is no such thing as a bad first draft once it's been written.

My third tip is for writers like me, Organic Linear Writers. That is, you hate outlines, you've tried outlines, they just don't work. Maybe once the outline is done the book feels done and you have a hard time forcing yourself to actually write it.

I used to cheat in grade school and draft my outlines by reading my essay and writing it out after the fact. If a teacher wanted it turned in before the assignment, I kept my essay back till the day it was due. I didn't try outlining till I was in my forties.

I was in an online writing class and did all the exercises and planning steps in order. I got similar results to my Linear Organic method but it took longer, took more work and wasn't as much fun. That left me satisfied that yes, I could use an outline if I had to.

Using an outline is comparable to a beginning artist using a ruler. Some artists don't bother with rulers. They take longer learning to draw a straight line freehand. Others get much faster good results as beginners by using the ruler. So if you're a total beginner, go to the beginning of Larry Brooks' blog and read forward from October 1st. He has a great planning method and it's worthwhile contemplating it even if you are a pantser.

I have a method too. I treat the structure the way I would a sonnet structure. I just don't fill in any of the blanks till I'm actually writing.

I decide at the start what length of novel I want to write. Let's say, 50,000 words. I'll scale the chapter length to that in order to have a comfortable number of chapters. For a 50,000 word novel, if I average 2,000 words a chapter I'll have 25 chapters.

Gee, at a chapter a day, that gets me to the finish line with six days to hang out and brag on my lovely purple bar!

The story has a beginning, a middle and an end. At the beginning of a novel, it's all introductions. For the first five or six chapters, I toss in whatever I think of from the top of my head. I introduce new characters, new situations, bits of new backstory. I make up how the magic works if I'm doing fantasy.

Around the middle, I slow down on introducing new characters and new aspects of the world. I've got a fifty-fifty split between tossing in new elements or looking for consequences of what the characters did. The pace balances between Fate and Choice.

Fate is what I tossed in because it'd be cool. Choice is consequences of how the characters faced their troubles. Most of what amuses me in novels is very hard on the characters, they'd rather not have to deal with it! Sometimes it's a wish story though. The characters want something, put in the effort, get it and then find out that has consequences.

Toward the end, I start throwing in fewer and fewer Fate elements. By then the amount of Consequences has exploded. If I need something new, I flip back through what I've written to see if there's a good consequence to toss in or a minor character I haven't used again yet. This is where walk-on bit part characters turn out to be significant.

The waitress the protagonist tipped heavily in the beginning, who hasn't been seen again throughout, will turn out to be critical in the end. She might recognize him and become a character witness in the trial. Or she'll lie about him to the bad guys and send them in the wrong direction.

Consequences aren't just the negative consequences. Characters who do the right thing reap immediate negative consequences but also leave a trail of small kindnesses and moments of doing what's right that come back to help them in the end. They all get karma.

Within the big structure of the novel as a whole, each chapter has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has an opening conflict, it has some sorting-out involved, and at the end of the chapter it'll either be a cliff hanger ending or something minor will be resolved so that the story moves on.

It's almost like writing a 2,000 word short story, except that all the separate little stories jigsaw into each other to create a great big novel.

Within the chapter, there will be one or more scenes. Each scene also has a beginning, a middle and an end. The ends of scenes may or may not be as conclusive. If nothing else the argument between the characters comes to an end when one of them walks out leaving it unresolved.

A pantser gets used to that structure. An idea that has inherent conflict and an interesting character becomes a scene, a chapter, a novel. A novel has a whole lot more elbow room for subplots, secondary characters, interesting side trips into the waitress's love life (which could be with one of the bad guys). That's what makes novel writing so much fun.

If novels aren't your natural length, short stories will come easier. My suggestion for natural short story writers is to create a Mosaic Novel. Build a "series plot" that has a beginning, a middle and an end by writing a lot of short stories about different characters that all come together at the end. It's still a novel, it's just a cool variation on one.

When I follow the story structure by intuition, I don't need to map out and decide everything scene by scene. The scene I'm in will influence the one ahead. The more I have written, the clearer it is to see where the story's going.

Sometimes I know how it's going to end. Sometimes I don't. If I do know, it's only a basic idea of the ending. The old Smilodon female would break her back, survive five or six months by others hunting for her and eventually wind up in the tar pits. Why she went into the tar pit was something I didn't know until the last scene.

Other times the only guess that I have about the ending is what the protagonist wants. Sometimes he or she gets it before the ending because other conflicts emerged that were more important to the story. That's okay - that hero develops a new goal and the previous, attained goal becomes part of why.

If you are a natural pantser and feel as if the novel's finished once the outline's done, spend your October doing something else. Develop a good Starting Conflict - a character in a cool situation that carries a theme. A solid opener has all three of those elements - at least one interesting character, a setting that includes an inherent conflict and a theme that the writer's passionate about.

My third tip is simply this: write what you want to read.

Don't go dithering around wondering what will sell or whether your friend likes a different genre. This is not about selling a book. Whatever you write, there is probably a genre audience that shares your tastes. Write for them. If you write the best book you can for yourself as reader, it will have a deep integrity, a truth that goes deeper than all the fictional details.

It'll also be a lot easier to motivate yourself to go back to it every day during November. If it's a page turner to you, it's got the potential to be a page turner to your readers too. Your core readers share your taste in fiction.

If you are true to yourself and write a novel that says what you mean, that's going to shine compared to anything just written for the money. Even in its rough form it'll keep you engaged and it's easier to focus on the story. If you run out of story too soon, look at the situation and do the next mosaic piece of a mosaic novel. You've got an opinion and everyone's entitled to read it.

Most of all enjoy the process. November is National Novel Writing Month! You can do this - and no matter what help your rough draft needs, the process can be learned.

Every novelist reinvents the process of how to write a novel but the results all share the same structure. We grew up reading novels, not hearing ancient Norse epics in verse. It's like learning to write a sonnet - the content of the poem is unique but the structure is recognizably a sonnet.

You know what goes into a good book. It's already there in your mind. You have good taste in books. A rough draft is just that - it's messy and it's not finished in terms of quality but you know what happened.

I'm going to post some more Pantser tips next week. I can't cover everything that would help you win Nanowrimo in just one essay. So warm up, have fun and if you're a pantser, try sketching your characters or hanging out reading articles on how to write. If you're a planner, read Larry Brooks. His blog rocks.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Writers Block III - Identify External Blocks

Excuses, excuses. Living with a rageaholic who pitched a two day fit punching holes in the walls when I didn’t like watching sitcoms is no excuse not to write. After all, I had nothing better to do.

Or what about 2002, the year I only got 25,000 words in Nanowrimo. I was too lazy. I didn’t start till the 25th. Pneumonia is no excuse, I should have kept writing. After all it’s not as if it’s hard to concentrate in a fever.

Then there were all those years all I did was Nanowrimo and Three Day Novel without sending anything out. Never mind the number of times I moved out of state, my difficulty getting necessary prescriptions, the recovery time from every doctor appointment or what the weather did to my fibromyalgia. It’s all just laziness or fear of success.

My examples are extreme. I’ve had a hard life. People who don’t have hard lives run into tough patches too. What about that happy event, the birth of a new baby? How easy is it to keep up a steady writing schedule if you can only sleep two hours a night? Or marriage? Divorce? Relocating out of state for a job or a spouse’s job?

Life happens. Sometimes what happens is major whether it’s joyous or catastrophic. At those times, everything in your life is ripped apart. Most of all, the changes are so drastic that all of your habits are gone. It’s just as hard to form them again in the new context, especially when you haven’t even figured out where the toothbrush goes in the new bathroom or where the coffee cups are in the kitchen. It takes time to build habits again.

Interference can be subtler and pretend to be helpful.

What about all those high school years when I was being well taken care of by my grandmother? I’d go down into the basement, boot up my typewriter, think about what I wanted to write. I’d scribble a few notes longhand and read over my old notes. I might be in a good mood.

I might noodle around for an hour or so warming up, getting a good story idea. Then bang, I got my idea. I’d start typing. At first hesitant, then clattering away at top speed to get it done. Within five minutes, she came downstairs with a soda and a plate of cookies or snacks.

“Hi honey, what are you doing?”

”Writing, I’m workign on a story.”

“What’s it about?”

”I’ve got this artificial intelligence...”

“Oh honey, those science fiction stories don’t ever pay anything. Nobody reads that kind of stuff. Why don’t you write a nice mystery or a romance?”

”Because I don’t read mysteries or romance. I don’t like them. There’s no point writing what I don’t like to read.”

”But they’re more popular, a lot of people like them. You can’t just work on what you want to, you’ll never make any money that way. You should try to write jokes for the Reader’s Digest. You could get $300 just for a couple of paragraphs.”

”Nanny, it’d be easier for me to write a whole story than just a couple of paragraphs. I don’t even think in terms of that kind of gag.”

”Then you’re not being very professional, are you?” Around and around with half-truths and assumptions.

Then there was the sympathy approach, same cookies and soda.

“Oh honey, I hate to see you trying so hard, you’re just going to depress yourself again when you can’t finish. If you do finish it I can’t bear to see you get so sad when it’s rejected.”

I think I sent out a story maybe once or twice a year when I lived there, usually in the summers when I had no school and enough hours in the day to finish something while she was out in the yard or whatever. I remember once I got one sealed in an envelope before she came inside and bragged that I’d sent it out. Heard the same tune: “Oh I wish you wouldn’t do that, you’re just hurting yourself, I can’t stand it when you’re that hurt.”

In her beliefs she was doing that for my own good. She never came right out and told me not to be a writer. She just tried to steer it into any genre or publication that I didn’t like or convince me that I was going to be suicidally depressed if I ever got a rejection slip from an editor. Some of the rejection slips were so encouraging it was ludicrous.

Later flatmates did the same thing, only offering booze instead of soda and cookies or D&D as a distraction.

Then there’s the impact of being in love with someone in the middle of a knock-down drag out fight, only to hear “If you ever got published, you’d be such a total egotist that I couldn’t stand it. I’ll leave you if you ever get published.”

Working 90 hour weeks and then selling art on weekends at conventions didn’t leave much time for writing either during those years. Somehow we always needed more money even though I earned more than I ever have before or since.

So I look back on my life at a lot of bad decisions that made sense at the time. Some of them weren’t bad decisions. Many were just necessary decisions, like moving out of state when I lost my housing and someone offered to take me in.

Don’t beat yourself up over your “excuses.”

Stop and examine them as if someone else was telling that story. Would you think your best friend was lazy if you heard stories like that? Then give yourself that leeway.

Odds are that you actually do seize every moment you can write and push hard to get writing time. Flatmates can pull that sabotage game easily. How hard is it to wind up living with a control freak? It’s so common it’s like finding roaches in an urban apartment. It takes trial and error getting good flatmates and it costs more to live without them.

Sometimes the ones that aren’t as much fun to be around and keep to themselves are better flatmates than your drinking buddy or your D&D pal.

If you get death threats, physical violence threats, control trips and sabotage of any achievements, that’s not a healthy relationship either with a flatmate or a mate. If that’s a spouse it’s good reason to see a counselor. If counseling is going nowhere, consider leaving. Someone who would sabotage your writing in jealousy of a few hours of solitude with imaginary people is going to put you on a short leash for life. That’s not love, that’s emotional abuse.

When to consider it sabotage is when daily journals reveal interference as a pattern. Establish that in journal by writing down what happened every day, what you argued about, what happened before the argument. Look for whether fights start over trivial things or old laundry list circular arguments immediately after you get something done that you can take pride in. That’s the toxic pattern and it’s probably not just about your writing.

Test the pattern a couple of times. In a sabotage pattern, mysteriously fights won’t happen as often if you just watch TV or play video games or otherwise goof off. If writing is “wasting your time trying to write” but watching TV isn’t a waste of time, that’s sabotage. That person does not want you to succeed in writing or selling anything you write.

That’s when to make hard decisions. With a spouse or partner, sabotage’s a red alert to get counseling. You may have to make concessions on some things you don’t like in order to gain the freedom to keep your writing boundaries. It’s worth it though. If the relationship doesn’t survive that counseling process, that means it had already gone so bad it was no good for either of you any more. It’s better to make a clean break at that point.

Flatmates are a lesser problem, once that’s identified it’s easier to work out different arrangements. You might make some effort to sort it out but if it continues, it’s time to move or kick out the abuser. Harsh but that’s no way to live under someone’s thumb. It’s a mind game that has sabotaged many other things besides writing, it can lead to someone else making every decision in your life down to what shirt you put on every morning, where you live and work and what you eat. That’s no way to live.

Writers need solitude, good steady habits and a set of writing prompts that put you into the frame of mind that you’re ready to work on your story. The more prompts and habits you build, the more portable they are, the easier it is to recover from major life changes. Just don’t beat yourself for the interruptions when they’re over. Life happens to everyone and until your writing is your main occupation, most people will regard your writing time as trivial.

Establish that boundary with new flatmates and relationships immediately. Set scheduled times for writing when you’re not available. Always show up, as if that was your second job. The more consistent you are, the more likely the people you live with are going to take your ambition seriously and not try to pre-empt you because something good is on HBO.

You could be writing something better than that HBO movie. Go for it!