Monday, November 28, 2011

Last Tricks to Finish

Let's say you write the way I do. You get a good idea - which is usually a starting concept and might not be the way the book ends. You get going writing Page One, keep going in a consecutive way till you reach The End, then stop. Only something ugly happened. You hit a point where the End doesn't work.


Normally, trying to finish a novel is just pushing through to the end. But you've got this conundrum now that the end you thought it would have won't work. You can't see the end for what it is yet. There might be a plot problem. Maybe you killed a character in an earlier chapter who's needed at the end. What would have happened at Mount Doom if Sam had killed Gollum in self defense on the stairs?

If you went off track, the way to find out where and figure out the fix is to look at the synopsis. For someone who outlined, check the outline to see that everything you need for the end is there in the foregoing. But you didn't use one. You set off without one trusting that if you started a story that long, you'd finish it.

Chances are the ending hangs on something that happened in an earlier chapter and you forgot about it. Which one? Where? And what was that character's name?

I learned the hard way to keep a running synopsis of my novel while writing. I open another file next to it. RoughDraft has an attached "Pad" text file in a little window next to the main window to type in. It's one of four options, the one I use every time. OneNote can be used to create that too. Most word processors have a way to create another little file. Or you can open a text editor as well as your word processor just to jot these things down.

I start with a Cast List in order of appearance. This keeps me from misspelling character names I just made up. John does not turn into Jack halfway through the book because I liked Jack better unless I do search and replace on John. (Of course if I do, then a Jon will slip past the search-replace and my crit buddy will ask "Who's Jon?" eventually. Or a reader will.)

I should have written this post earlier in November, maybe in October. For that, I apologize. These are useful tools for any Organic Linear novelist to know and they do not give the feeling that the book is done just because the outline is written.

Under the Cast List, I write SYNOPSIS and then at the end of Chapter 1, write down a short description of Chapter 1. Who was in it, what happened. I keep that in present tense third person because that's the kind of synopsis a publisher wants with a sample chapter and it saves my changing it anyway.

Here's an example of my Working Synopsis from The Dark Ones.

Chapter 4:
Jason goes to church despite not being Confirmed. The new priest, Father Bertolli, counsels him about what Father McDonald did and about Catholicism in general. Jason spills everything as well as he can and Father Bertolli listens sympathetically, gives him donuts. Then has a conference with his parents.

Okay. I did not mention "pedophile priest Father McDonald did" because I knew that, it's a major plot element. The revelation is there in the previous chapter's synopsis when "Johnny tells Doug that Father McDonald abused him sexually." So it really doesn't need to be mentioned over and over. You get the drift.

This is the chapter the good priest gets introduced and the donuts are relevant because Jason doesn't get any candy or treats at home. Now if I needed to change something, or needed Father Bertolli at the end, I'd read over that and run into him and think yeah, the Donut Priest would make a good witness when one is needed to show Jason's not lying. Or whatever. That's plot points that didn't happen because I didn't have that plotting problem on this novel.

I had something else happen - all the scenes I doubted and cut out were absolutely necessary to the end. They turned out to be essential. They cranked up suspense and set up for the real ending to happen.

Father Bertolli was essential because the family got put under supervision and there were limits to the abuse and neglect after he and Child Services knew how bad things were for Jason at home. He didn't call them in onstage, but he might if I expand the novel to show scenes from viewpoints other than the boys.

A running Synopsis is the easiest way to do this. But if you are stuck and don't know where to go, you can skim back over the chapters you wrote and create one. Just jot down what happened, without questioning it. Don't read closely, just skim and jot. As you do, you might see the earlier scene that hands you what you need to create the scene that's right in front of you.

It's a mechanical, left brained task to summarize your novel. It lets your Inner Editor out of the cage - but not the Inner Critic. Ignore any thoughts of "This is bad." It's not, it's just unfinished. It's vital to work with what's there and believe that what you need is right there in the 45,000 words you have down already.

It is. Your unconscious is a better writer than you are. If you're a pantser, that's what you do - you trust a nonverbal, intuitive, right brained perception of the story and get it down as if you're turning the page on it. Remember that you can insert notes to include things in the rewrite.

You can come up with that character who should have been there at the last minute. His teacher noticed the bruises and she called in the police, who interrupt the murder scene. All you have to do is jot down to put in the scene introducing that teacher and her talking to the cops earlier in the book during the rewrite, if something like that would solve your ending.

Once you do, it's not a Deus Ex Machina but a race against time - show the cop getting the call, doubting the problem, investigating, then getting a tip, then racing toward the scene to arrive when needed. Then getting shot by the villain, giving the hero time to turn the tables. Hey, it doesn't have to turn out in an obvious way, does it?

So go ahead and throw in anything that'll work to make the ending work. By now your characters and their motives and their previous actions are all coming to a climax. Everything that already happened gave them momentum. They are all moving in the direction of the end. The end is almost inevitable.

It should hang on the personal choice of one of the characters, something painfully difficult that demands the best of him or her. Preferably your main character. They can make a tragic error like Elder going into the tar pit and get the sad consequences of it unmitigated. Most of all, the end should hang on what they do, whatever it is. On everything they did.

When you know what that is, it's sometimes easier to make that final push to the ending. It's also a lot easier to remember Father Bertolli was not Father Berlucci and save yourself a problem in the end with that Cast List.

If you get what you need during the process of making the Synopsis, you can set that rote task aside. Go back to writing. It's something mechanical that doesn't need concentration to do it right - its purpose at this stage if you didn't have it, was just to act as a block breaker. So when the block breaks, head for the end and keep writing. It's still November and your end is still in sight.

You can make it even if you've fallen behind too. It's not over till it's over. Keep writing right up to the end... and if you still haven't got 50,000 words, remember something important.

If you finish on December 2 or 10th or 18th, you won the biggest thing in Nanowrimo. You wrote a novel.

If you got 50,000 words and Validated, but the book's not done, you do need to finish the book. It's a lot easier to keep going to The End with all those people cheering you on. Hang on and finish the book.

If you suddenly feel as if it'll take twenty more chapters to finish the book, check the Synopsis. See if you came to a good End two chapters back and charged right into the sequel. I did that, you can buy both books under the title Raven Dance at Amazon or Just separate the starting chapters of the sequel into its own folder, title it something new and keep going. That's a good thing to have happen.

If you reached the end of the book and do not yet have 50,000 words, go in from the beginning and add concrete details. Expand dialogue with action tags. "John said" can become "John shuffled his feet and looked at the floor." Over the course of a novel, that can add up to thousands of words without changing what happened. Just making it richer. Add descriptions if you see things that you forgot to describe, like the house the climax took place in.

Just keep adding stuff like that till it comes in over 50,000 - give yourself a few hundred extra words to account for differences in your program's word counter and the Nanowrimo Validator.

If you're an Outliner, definitely change the outline to fit what you actually put in. Outlines do not survive contact with characters. So unless you're someone so good at outlining and so disciplined at separating processes that you did write only and exactly what was in the outline, just change the outline too every time you make changes. This can help you avoid getting confused between the version you thought you were going to do and the real book as it stands.

If you don't write in a linear way, go back and look for missing scenes to put in that'll make the rest make sense. Chances are there are some.

Finally, if you're behind and have not established a 1,667 a day writing habit, one of the best ways to squeeze in more time is to go to bed early, then get up way early. Like three or four in the morning, with a good long writing session before you start your day. Doing this will let you prioritize working on your book as the most important thing you do in the day.

Writing doesn't suffer from being done while you're groggy and half asleep. For many people it comes easier if you're barely awake. If you're 10,000 words behind, try to write more than 3,333 before going to work/school/whatever. It always comes out better to push a little harder, get in a little more, it makes up for the morning that it went slow and took you half an hour to get going.

Also, the end rarely comes at exactly 50,000 words. Running over does help with the Validator's difference, which can be several hundred words. It can also help make the book work better - the ending falls pretty much where it will.

If you validated and still have twenty chapters ahead, it might not be that you shot past the end into a sequel. You might just be holding a 100,000 word novel idea, in which case it's good to just keep going through December and finish the book. Ditto if you're at 25,000 and established a writing habit that leaves you at half the pace of Nanowrimo. Continue through December and you will finish the book that was the point of the whole thing. You can try to write faster next year. It's more important to finish and have something good to edit.

It takes three weeks to establish a habit. That's what makes Nanowrimo so useful in itself. By now you've discovered your writing routine and fallen into it. Don't let that drop after the 30th, keep it part of your life.

If you finished your book but you hate it, relax. That's just a mood. It's the break between the "all or nothing" attitude so common out among nonwriters and reality. You broke the kachina. Real books do not come out perfect, word for word, on the first go. Not even for experienced writers.

If you feel as if it did, that's just a mood too - a more pleasant one. Don't surrender to it and send it to CreateSpace without even rereading it. Relax, enjoy the achievement, plan for the rewrite and give yourself a little time away from it to discover that you changed characters' names, the house had three storeys in the chapter with the murder and only two in the lawnmower scene, or an important scene that you know happened did not get written at all and needs to be inserted.

You're on your way. Unless you're done, keep your momentum now and finish the book! If you are, just hang out on the forums and crow - you've done something grand! Edits can come in December, give yourself a break.

Friday, November 25, 2011


This is for all you Nanowrimo novelists, especially any First Years who came in as little scared witches and wizards, found out which Genre Forum the Sorting Hat put you into, settled in, worked hard, swotted in the library or on the forums and came out with a Purple Bar for this year. If you're almost there, keep typing! You still have five days to get to the finish line. I've done it in two during the Three Day Novel Contest this year.

I know that sounds daunting. Remember that I finished my first novel in 1992 and had over 20 of the dang things stacked up against the walls in 2001 when I wrote Thrice on a Blue Moon. I thought that novel was lost to hard drive crashes and other disasters but a happy thing happened this year. I found that novel and the first short story I ever sold pro in an archive within an archive, which is why I thought it was missing.

Moral of that story - back up everything you do in as many ways you can think of. Maybe you'll exit November wearing blue. Maybe you'll do 50,000 words in 60 days, which is about how long it took to do Wizard's Whoops in 1992 or 1993.

Keep on with it anyway if you've still got plot or still haven't reached the 50k mark on November 30th. You put too much of yourself into that novel to just let it slide into a stack of unfinished projects. If you're anywhere along the way to finishing your first novel, the most important thing to do is not stop writing it till you reach those magic words: The End.

But if it's still November, you haven't lost the chance of getting the Purple Bar and the beautiful little Winner's Icon that I just displayed on this post. It is a real achievement. Go for it! Don't give up on the Purple Bar till midnight end of November 30th in your time zone - it doesn't matter if the bell rang for people in another country before it tolls for you. If you finish on December 1st or 2nd or anytime later, you won something bigger.

You wrote a freaking NOVEL!

That is huge. It's a massive achievement. Even today, ten years later, eleven since it started, when hundreds of thousands of people participate in Nanowrimo and publishers are inundated with more manuscripts than ever in their slush piles, that's still a very tiny proportion of people in the world. Of those who wanted to, you're one in thousands.

You have done the equivalent of creating an enormous mural all the way around your house, to compare it to art. You haven't just written a jingle, if you were a musician, you composed a symphony! You did something big and difficult that most people wouldn't begin to know how to start.

You will never again not know how it's done.

You might never understand how some other people do it, because you found a method that works for you. Every one of us novelists reinvents how to write a novel. You started with an idea and now it's a novel, a huge story with a beginning, a middle and an end. You made up all of it even if it's a Harry Potter fan fiction.

Nanowrimo is wonderful because it provides validation.

Not just for finishing your novel in 30 days. If you finish your novel in 90 days and next year shave that to 85 or bring it down to 60, that's still progress. Nanowrimo validates the idea that novels are written by human beings just like you. If you didn't make it this year, you'll still come away knowing you gave it a good try and that you can do better next year.

Some people take five or six or more years to go from First Year attempts to the glorious golden year that they get a Purple Bar. Some of those abandon their novels if they took longer than 30 days to write. After all, you didn't Win, so why keep going?

There's a darn good reason why to keep going even if it takes you all the way through next October or you win three Nanowrimos before you pick this one up again and finally know what to do with the idea that won't go away. Your manuscript is too big to toss. All the work you already put into this is worth something. That's what saved Raven Dance from the bin. I had 500 pages of it by the time the money ran out and I had to work for a living again, but the manuscript was too big to toss. So I finished it a couple of years later, finally wrote the last three chapters.

Don't throw it away even if you do stop on December 1st. You might make time later on and get back to it.

Every single book you've ever enjoyed was written by someone like you. At one time in their lives all they had was "I wanna be a writer." Okay, for some of them that didn't last long. Maybe it was only a fleeting daydream till disability retired them from the Navy or some other profession. Maybe for a very few, "I'm gonna" came right on the heels of "I wanna" and they sat down to do it, then finished.

About 20% of us Nanowrimo writers will finish with a Purple Bar at the end of the month. If you have yours, that puts you in the top of the class. That's top marks. It doesn't mean that getting an Exceptional or an Acceptable is a bad thing. Finish any time during your life and you have gotten that Acceptable.

Your odds rise every year.

Nanowrimo validates novel writing even if it takes you a lot longer than a month to finish your first book. If you didn't finish, year after year, you've got another chance to win the Purple Bar. You've got a bunch of other nutters all cheering you on, none of whom think you're crazy to waste your time writing a book. If you don't want to do it for a living, there is nothing weirder about novel writing now than there is about growing prize roses or running marathons.

You've become a champion at sitting still making up stories. You've gotten into the sport of the 0-meter, 500 word dash or grimly built on that to thousand-word laps. You know what worked this year and what didn't. You know what you can do next year if you don't quite finish the race.

Not everyone that enters the Boston Marathon wins it their first year either. I had the advantage that my first book was finished in two months a decade before Nanowrimo even started, so of course I won as a First Year. My second year, I got sick and didn't start till November 25th - this is the anniversary of when I started the one Nanowrimo novel I didn't finish. Ten years, nine wins.

If you win this year, your Purple Bar cuts the impossible project to size. It snips it down into manageable bits, a 1,667 word a day habit. It takes three weeks for a human being to form a habit. You've had those three weeks now. Keep that up in December, January, all the way around the calendar and you won't just be a Novelist. You'll become a prolific novelist.

50,000 words is enormous to a beginner. Remember grade school, when a finished sentence that had the correct structure was a triumph? When putting two or three of those into a paragraph was an entire assignment in itself? You played God/dess in the best possible way and your world is real, however similar it is to any others out in storyland.

You are holding a good novel, as brilliant as any classic or bestseller. The only difference between your novel and theirs is what James Michener said about his. "I'm not a good writer. I'm a good rewriter." It is that potentially good. Believe in it and don't stop now that you've won.

Claim your triumph. Dance around the forums in joyous purple and gloat. You did it, Novelist. Then do yourself and your characters the favor of carrying on with the edits once you're done celebrating. Your book is too good to just let it sit in the hard drive.

Whoever you are, somewhere out in the English-reading world (or whatever language you wrote your novel in), your Core Readers have not found it yet. Their favorite book isn't in their hands yet. The better you craft it, the more of them there will be.

So whether you're a career novelist, a part time novelist or a strictly leisure novelist, you did something incredible that few even dare to attempt. It's way too good to waste, so don't just throw it away. Give it that polish that will help everyone else see how good it is. Even if you want to make it a freebie on Kindle, give it a good thorough edit first so that it's a great read for all of us freebie-downloaders. Your core readers will thank you!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How to Name a Demon

Whether you write fantasy, horror, YA or science fiction, you may someday have an idea that demands you name a demon. Heck, if you're writing with a crazy person, you may have to create a demon that exists only in your insane character's mind.

When I saw a post on in the Horror genre forum asking this question, I got intrigued and answered with a long post. Two responses convinced me I'd written a good essay on the subject instead of just swamping the thread with too much blather. So here it is, reposted fresh from the Nanowrimo forums!

Allegorical names can work for demons. First, think of a cultural flavor, whether this is a Latin-sounding (Western Judeo-Christian type of demon with or without actual Judeo-Christian religion), or a Hindu type of demon, Chinese type of demon, choose a cultural matrix. This will give you interesting foreign words to play with.

It's elegant to take a word like "Corruption" and then turn it into an anagram. Readers will figure it out somewhere along the line in enough rereads and think it's cool. Roctirpion is one anagram I just came up with. Move the letters around till it's pronounceable and has a flavor.

Titivillus or Titiviliius is the actual demon of typos - mistakes in copying - got that from my calligraphy book. I was always amused that they had a demon of typos. Medieval European. That's who to cuss by if your spell checker let your heroine comb her hare.

Nyarlathotep has an Egyptian sound to it because "hotep" is a common ending in Egyptian names. Lovecraft was elegant with that one, he also tied Nyarlathotep to an Egyptian cult and gave him panthers, he was one of the few Mythos deities who could not only appear human but rather attractive. He stole whole chunks of Dionysus for Nyarlathotep, including those panthers and causing madness, in a much scarier way than the obvious god of wine and revelry. Stick a Greek god with a quasi-Egyptian name and a few extra adjectives, suddenly he's the Gateway to all the rest of the Lovecraftian horrors and of course, wonderfully foreign, so foreign he's not even from Earth.

If you started with the Chinese word for Corruption and threw in "of innocents" and just looked it up in a translation program, you'd have a Descriptive Name that still sounds foreign to most readers. Those who speak Chinese will recognize "this is a Chinese demon with a descriptive name."

You can even use Descriptive Names in English depending on your culture. What if the Seven Deadly Sins were characters? I've run into many effective demons with names like "The Eater of Souls" or of course that glorious cheat, He Who Must Not Be Named or The Unnameable.

Even more common is The Unpronounceable. Take some root words. Start replacing most of the vowels with extra consonants. Make sure there's at least one X and use plenty of C or K and other letters that have more than one pronounciation. Great Cthulhu had to be intoned perfectly. But the C is usually pronounced as if it was K and "uh" gets inserted before the "thu" syllable. Kuthooloo is how it's usually pronounced.

Manage to say it in another way and eww, you might be opening up the ancient ways etc. etc. Do Not Speak The Name stuff.

The other reason for The Unpronounceable is that in many mythologies, if you can pronounce a demon's name you can command the demon. They don't take orders from people with foreign accents but are bound to if you get all the ritual elements right. Or at least they can be banished by name if you get the pronounciation right. So all the mama demons give the baby demons names that are very hard for humans to pronounce. Or whoever/whatever it is that creates demons.

Using phonemes that aren't in English, like the click sound in !kung language that gets represented by the ! can create a seriously Unpronounceable demon name. But this will also confound readers, who'd like to read the book aloud to their kids because scaring small children is fun. So again, you come up with Looks Unpronounceable, but there's a pretty good trick to finding a way to pronounce it. Like inserting "uh" for the missing vowel sound.

Or put the vowels in but make it very phonetic, like Kuthooloo.

Take more than one root language and mix them. Where did Nyarla come from in Nyarlathotep? Not sure, but it doesn't sound as Egyptian as "hotep."

If you have more than one demon on stage, it's good to come up with a pattern for the demonic names.

They can be short. Dagon is a very effective one, also from H. P. Lovecraft.

Zuruz, Liril, Aginiga, palindromes make great demon names. Katak.

Or long palindromes to approach the Unpronounceable. Ziragildadligariz - I tend to hang palindromes on a pivot letter but you can make them with even numbers of letters and complete repetition.

Have fun with it. Then jot the method in case you need more demons of the same type in later novels or as side characters, minions, etc. Enjoy!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Don't change what works!

This has been the toughest Nanowrimo that I've faced since 2002. That was the year that I moved out of state at the end of October and caught pneumonia. I didn't even start till November 25th. When I did, I still got up to 25,000 by the end of the month. It frustrated me no end to have a year without a win on my profile.

The bison doesn't have anything to do with this article. The way I drew it does. I sketched it with pastel pencils, dropping back to a style of drawing I've used with charcoal pencils or pastel pencils or colored pencils all my life. It's an animal, a subject I've had more practice with than any other. The only easier animal would've been a cat. It came out well because I'm so used to animal anatomy and pencil sketching that it would've been very hard to mess it up.

My results trying to draw that bison in Sketchbook Mobile would not be as effective. Let's give that a try. I have my phone right here.

Better than I thought. At least you can tell it's a cartoon buffalo. I finger painted that with a medium I've barely started to use, one that has no tactile feedback. My finger slides over glass and I can't actually tell which point on the pad of my finger creates the line. It's not on a par with the cool one I did in pastel pencils.

Don't change what works.

It's okay to experiment, try different things. I'm not saying not to experiment. Just know when to abandon a failed trial. Sketchbook Mobile wasn't a failed trial. At least I got a cartoon out of it and with enough practice, I may be able to get something that looks like a pen drawing.

My worst, most painful year in Nanowrimo started with a failed trial. I had the ambitious idea that I could both write and edit my novel in November. This would've been fine if I'd started off by writing the book and didn't look down till I got those two magic words: The End.

What works is to make little edit notes in the synopsis and keep writing as if the changes were made. Typing "I'll probably have to cut that drippy foreword" doesn't break my process.

Going over it again at the end of every chapter for a slow careful line edit does. Worrying about the beauty of each sentence and whether I've used any unnecessary words does not win Nanowrimo. Letting out the Inner Editor and Inner Creator at exactly the same time, while also painting and drawing, led to a train wreck.

It let in the side of my mind that isn't supposed to be involved in writing at all. The Inner Censor. The social censor, the worrier that constantly weighs who might or might not be hurt or offended by this or that in the story. That turns the creative process into a democracy - and the only thing that creates is literary oatmeal. Nothing can ever be bland enough to satisfy the Inner Censor.

Best thing to do is keep your head down and don't write at all.

So many of those voices of the past kept telling me not to be a writer at all. Both parents. All four grandparents. Most teachers including English teachers. Almost all ex lovers including the one that was a thirteen year marriage in all but legality. "If you ever got published, I couldn't stand it. You'd be insufferable. I'll leave you if you ever get published."

Well, truth be told, that ex already left me over a decade and a half ago. Since when is the risk of losing a relationship I don't have a good reason not to finish a novel?

These things aren't rational. Time does not exist for the Inner Censor. At least one nun whom I know to be dead would be angry and debate me into the ground about what I'm doing in this novel, the themes and ideas within it. She'd have found ways within my own ethics to challenge me about why I'm writing it and why I'm writing it the way I am and every bit of content in it. Heck, she isn't even the worst, though I do sometimes compare her to Gaius Helen Mohiam from Dune. At least with her, she only wanted to get me to question it, not necessarily back down. Just know where my integrity stands and why.

I'm writing about the Inner Censor because philosophical nuns, disapproving family members, friends and romantic partners are not just my problem. They happen to almost every writer. Heck, Version B happens to those rare and lucky few writers who got labeled as Talented when they were toddlers, surrounded by grownups who were excited to have a writer in the family and encouraged every time they picked up a pencil or got an idea.

Let's call that lucky writer John-Boy. You remember The Waltons? I hated that narrator. I admired him, because a lot of his voice-overs came from good books the series was based on and they were good writing. John-Boy, obviously an authorial self portrait, was a darn good writer. What I hated him for was that every single person in his school and family took it for granted that he was a writer.

They didn't treat him special for it or exempt him from chores. They just took it for granted as his strength, like the tall kid was the tall kid or the good cook was the good cook. The family was nauseatingly, unrealistically nice to each other. Or maybe out there in the world, families existed where people didn't turn around and take out everything bad that happened, ever, on their nearest and dearest, seeking to cripple them emotionally and keep them dependent. There are such things as happy families.

There are even more middling ones with bad days and good days. It's not like the show lacked conflict.

I look back at John-Boy today and stop to think, maybe the original author of the novels didn't get that benign acceptance of his goals. Maybe he got kicked in the teeth as often as I did, as often as any of us do. Maybe he slipped in John-Boy's golden happy emotional situation regarding writing as a wish fulfillment - one little thing that wouldn't distract from the real struggles against poverty and the risky hard life of a farming family that was better than real. Maybe John-Boy was a discreet Mary Sue, kept under the radar because he had a real function in the story.

For all I know, in the place and time the story was based on, the minister sermonized against frivolities like wasting time reading novels or worse, writing them. Scrutinized fiction as one of those vanities that shouldn't be encouraged. Maybe the author did hear "Nobody makes a living writing books" and "Quit wasting your time with that, you lazy bum, there's real work that needs to be done" and all the rest of the poisonous canon.

Someone with a supportive family can be armored against it, cushioned against it. That bears its own risks. What happens when they adored your heartfelt nature stories and hung on every word... and the thing inside every creative person rears its individual head to send the writer plunging into the abyss of Lovecraftian horror? "John-Boy, this isn't like your other stories. It's creepy. I don't like it, it gives me the shivers. I wanted the little boy to live. Why'd you kill him? I'll never get to sleep tonight. Ugh! Don't do anything like this again!"

That's the side that'll slap even those whose writing is approved and loved. Everyone's got an opinion. It would take more than just loving your writer child to reach a level of acceptance that allows the writer child to turn in the Green Lantern knockoff instead of the beautiful literary accomplishment you expected. Or a soppy romance. Or a cheesy horror story. Anything that's in the genre the parents/friends/partners got used to and loved is at risk.

I worked on "Trouble in the City," my second Magical Cats book, which turned cool and started developing echoes of Armistead Maupin because I wrote it in San Francisco and the setting is a big part of magical cats books. It was coming out well. Even the Inner Editor was humming along polishing what looked like good rough prose before the line edit. Plot moving along at a gorgeous pace, leaping from scene to scene as lithe as a - well, as a cat, really. I had my own cat Ari coming up on my lap to shed Cat Hairs of Inspiration and talk to me about it in his little high kitten voice.

It got harder to work on at every session. It was coming out well. Going back to it at all was like pulling teeth. I had panic attacks. Flashbacks to my childhood. Grinding hours and days of writer's block. I finally got fed up when I procrastinated about six days in a row and ate up all my Virtual Days. I fell behind twice.

I finally understood what's wrong.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. My method is to write the rough draft first, accepting it with the unequivocal joy of a new kitten. I can make notes or fix typos as I go, part of the rhythm, but I don't question that the point of this draft is just to find out what happens in the story. Even when I edited this year's Three Day Novel, I didn't start editing till after I'd reached the end and the draft was complete.

Mixing those processes let in the Inner Censor again. At the same time I was working on getting my Street Artist License, going through the last round of necessary hurdles, going out, cashing Google checks, going here and there to offices, coming home too tired to create anything. Losing days to getting sick because I do earn my check for that day job of Being A Cripple. Any physical activity is going to cost me a lot more in time, pain and body energy than writing books.

It got to be too much. I couldn't keep up. I was living in the same physical state as I did when I was a little kid with undiagnosed congenital deformities trying to keep up with everything children are expected to do. The horrors crept in.

I broke out of it with something crazy. I set aside "Trouble in the City" and started another novel. I remembered that only a couple of months ago, I wrote a novel over 50,000 words over a three day weekend. Maybe starting over, from scratch, would get my method back on track and I could save the magical cats book by writing a new one first. It's not like I haven't done more than one book some Novembers.

I gave up on the editing goal. I formally renounced it in the Nanowrimo forums. Let go of it and told the tale, just as I'm telling it in this blog. Like learning the Dvorak keyboard, November is not the best time for dangerous experiments. Do what works for you.

Forget about anything that has a steep learning curve until you've mastered that new thing to the level you can just do what you want with it.

I'm sure by next year, when Sketchbook Mobile has been my doodle pad for over a year, I'll be happily doing quick animal studies in it with or without a stylus. It'll be as familiar as pastel pencils are now. Or the year after. At some point it won't be the difficult new thing, it'll be one of the many familiar well-used tools in my creative workbench. I'll be giving myself a stretch in some other direction. It could be materials or technique or subjects. I'll know when I get there.

Start to learn the Dvorak keyboard in December and next year's Nanowrimo will go better than ever. Your hands will hurt less and your word count will be at least as good. Two years after, your word counts will astonish you because you're typing faster and easier. I can honestly say the Dvorak keyboard layout doubled my output.

Just don't start it on November 1st.

I may someday be able to keep a rhythm of "Write when I get up, clean it up in the second session that day." There were days it went well. Not till I'm used to it, so used to both the process of editing and that schedule that it's as familiar as Dvorak is now. Until then, I'm better off writing by the seat of my pants.

I've also got to consider that I might never really get it, any more than I find outlines useful. When I've got a good method that churns out readable very long stories every time I sit down to do it, trying to switch to someone else's doesn't necessarily improve them or my production. I did use a full outline method once. The book was no worse than my other books but no better.

I just didn't enjoy writing it as much and didn't get that happy immersion I'm used to. It felt like work every step of the way. That's what this was like. Instead of spending my time with the cats and tarot readers happily ignoring my money worries, I wound up putting my nose to the grindstone and working hard every time I sat down to it. Any distraction looked better. I preferred watching television. For me that's a biggie. I'm not much into TV.

By the deepest part of the block I couldn't even draw either. That's how far my creative side shut down. There are some things in this world that you can't do just by dragging yourself to work no matter how you feel. That's effective in office work, factory work, maybe even physical work as long as the skills are reflex. You can do things on automatic.

Writing novels is not one of those things.

So when I started from scratch, the best direction I could take turned into another leap. From childhood I always wanted to write Horror. I loved Poe. I loved Kafka, a novelist who might be the hard core China White heroin of the horror genre - so terrifying that it makes chainsaw massacres, living dolls and zombie apocalypse look like a playground romp. Kafka can make you depressed.

Kafka can also pull you through depression if life is that depressing yet you recognize that Franz Kafka knew how bad it could get. That he had those feelings. That he either was or knew people who felt as bad as you did.

So I was depressed, I was scared, I was getting panic attacks and that part of me that writes stories started giggling. "It's a wonderful nightmare. Jump right in and write it!" Off I went with a ten year old protagonist. I even made him a writer character, though I toned down the conflict about his writing by tossing in other, bigger conflicts. The evil pedophile priest is someone I grabbed from the news. There have been a lot of them making the news, not just recently but as far back as I can remember.

He had to be larger than life. So I brought in things larger than my life and then tossed in the supernatural. It's got an echo of The Evil Seed classic story too - the one where innocent little children wind up unspeakable monsters because they gain power over adults and have no judgment at all. I made them time twins. I set them loose, a good twin and an evil twin, both of them sketchy self portraits.

The bad boy is who I'd have been if I'd done every mean thing I wanted to growing up in pain. The good boy is closer to who I actually was, though he's given me a few surprises due to changes. As usual, the I-Guy, both of them, stopped being me as soon as they hit the page. I left out the birth defects, that's a biggie. They're just small and puny, undernourished.

It's a book I would have devoured at ten. At ten, I wouldn't have cared how it came out. I would - I'd have been as passionately engaged as I am. But I would also have happily accepted a dark ending. If both boys got destroyed and damned with their souls sucked out through their nostrils by the end of the book, it would have been okay as long as it was the right ending. If the bad twin killed the good twin and strolled away laughing to start a series, that would've been okay too.

Anything can happen. The safety net is gone. I stick to happy endings most of the time even if some of them can be described as "Whew, at least we survived the book." I'm not Kafka and there's a streak of Bradbury sweetness that comes in too.

It hasn't ended yet. I have another 12,500 words or so to the end and that's if it's exactly 50,000 words, which I doubt. I think it'll weigh in at about 50-60k. It doesn't have to be a long Horror novel. It just is one, the farther I get into it, the more horrific. Some ugly things are going to happen in the next chapter and the Good Twin has just been good in a tragic way - his strengths are his weaknesses. He saved the Bad Twin a couple of chapters ago.

If there are deaths from the Bad Twin, he's going to see the blood on his hands. Provided he lives, right now he's in the hospital with an injury caused by using the healing magic. I don't know what'll happen. I'll find out when I open the file for Chapter 15 and start writing it down.

When it's done, when I write The End on it, I'll open up all the chapters of the magical cats book again and finish it. This is like a purge. I'm back in the rhythm of writing the way I know how and it'll be as easy to pick up Trouble again as it is to pick up The Hunger Games again at the end of a 16k day and enjoy another dark book that keeps me in the dark gritty mood.

Tip: reading a novel that has nothing to do with your concept and may not be the same genre, but shares a mood with it, may help fill the well. It can also give the rough prose a little more polish, if it's a good one. Just like looking at Old Masters in the museum helps me paint my own impressionist landscapes better, reading good novels will kick up the quality of my prose.

Look for unexpected bestsellers, books that broke out of their genre. Look for the ones that become a compelling reread instead of something that was a cool fad during its day in the sun but forgettable later. Some favorites that keep me on form: Silence of the Lambs. Harry Potter books. Stephen King's masterwork, the Dark Tower series, plus the expanded version of The Stand and of course, Misery.

I'm happy to say The Hunger Games just got onto that short list. I bought the trilogy on sale because everyone was talking about it and it was cheap. There's a reason it became that big a hit, the author never lets up. The protagonist may be a teenage girl but she is not shallow, she is not normative, she isn't boring and she sure isn't weak. I like a strong protagonist. I like to meet characters who stand up to hard lives at least as well as I do. I tend to take heart from that.

I don't know which, if either of my boys will live through this book. It doesn't matter as long as the story comes out right. I went over to the dark side and I'm writing the stuff that kept me sane when I was a scared little kid with too many real things to cry about no matter who said I was crying over nothing.

The only way to regain myself was to face that pain.

Writing is a dangerous profession. We go up on the tightwire of the mind. We reach deep into our own souls for the stories that reach other people. It doesn't matter who I am or where I learned about pain and fear. It's there for everyone. Pain Level Ten is the worst you've ever had. That's its literal definition in the pain clinics.

No matter who you are, there is a Pain Level Ten. There's some unendurable moment in your past where the pain blotted out everything and you could not handle it, no matter how strong you were, nothing could break through that pain. There is always a point in every life where the pain wins.

Emotional pain level ten happens too. Some people say "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Not always, sometimes it just catches you up in bad weather and trips you when something you would've been able to outrun is on your tail. Some people say "You're never given any challenge beyond what you can take."

That guilt trips the victims. People get challenges in life they can't take all the time. It's cruel to single out the ones that break and talk about them as if they're unworthy to live. A lot of people do well in life because they're lucky and nothing so vast that it would break them ever impinged on them.

When I lived and worked in Chicago, a suicide jumped from a thirty story building. He was wealthy, wearing an expensive suit. His shoes, fancy ones that must have cost hundreds of dollars, flew every which way. I heard various stories about why he jumped. I saw his hand, a strong well shaped hand, sticking out from under the tarp they put on him, reaching up with long healthy fingers. He might have changed his mind on the way down.

One of the stories was that his father in law was angry with him and they had a fight on the phone. Another was that he'd just heard that he lost his job. Another was that he lost a parent. People break over different things. I think about him sometimes, envied by so many people, lucky all his life until the day whatever was more than he could face drove him out that top-story window.

Life's what it is. We read stories and tell them to make sense of it, to understand the world around us, know what the risks are. We turn to escape fiction to set it aside for a while and then to look at it from a different angle. Maybe come up with something inside that makes it possible to keep going. Or more, to keep going and be the kind of person who'd split a piece of bread in Auschwitz.

So in those moments when you think you're not good enough, remember that no one else is either. Think about the characters you love who wouldn't exist if you don't finish the book and get it out to your readers. More than that, think about your core reader. The one who's going to be reading it on the bus and have a little more resilience, a little more heart, a better chance not to do something stupid when it gets too hard out there.

They were there for me, all those writers of my childhood, living and dead. Bradbury. Ellison. Kafka. Poe. King and Rowling. I have to add to the stream. I can't just sit by and do nothing, it's my job to pick it up and do my share of it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

When the Going Gets Tough...

"Dawn in the Elf Forest" color study, a mood painting in progress.

Sometimes, no matter how often or well you've written, the going gets tough. Projects that would normally be a walk in the park turn difficult. Easy, generous deadlines loom and seem impossible. What causes this problem?

The answer is that writer's blocks are varied. There can be any number of reasons, usually personal, why your writing isn't going well. One way to tackle this is to do a freewrite as a warmup.

If you're doing Nanowrimo, you can put your freewrite into brackets and keep it in the text. That's not cheating. Heck, if you have a writer character, let your character struggle with the block and put your freewrite in italics as the character's writing.

Just start to complain about everything that interferes with your writing. Whether it's that you feel insecure or whether you're physically tired, too stressed and worried about other things, comparing your work to others, any reasons you have why you're not writing. If you write them out, they'll start to disentangle.

Each one may look more solvable after it's down and you can see what it is.

Insecurity is vague and difficult to determine. It's a feeling. There are often external reasons though. Critical comments from people close to you or someone making fun of the whole idea of Nanowrimo might have brought you down.

It's easy to think that you're immune to social pressure, yet wind up hurting because it affected you anyway. We're human. We do respond to the thoughts and feelings of other people and may be very vulnerable to personal criticism. After all, you could be doing something productive like watching television.

That sounds like a joke. It's not. How often in life do family or spouses complain that you don't spend enough time watching TV with the family? Writing takes solitude.

That leads to another source of that insecurity. If you're usually putting it on with other people, once you're alone there's a frightening lack of feedback.

Who are you when you're alone? What do you really think of the people in your life or that face in the mirror? Do you feel abandoned, fear that no one would love or like you if they knew you well?

When you're alone, you face the risks of introspection.

Alone, if you ask "Who am I?" the only answers can come from you. Anything about your life that came from convenience or compromise can be questioned.

Writing a novel will draw out these things. Characters will reveal sides of yourself that you ignored, took for granted or were entirely in denial about. I have a character who's a passionate believer in the paranormal and another who's an extreme skeptic with a fear of the paranormal.

I had to ask myself again, am I a deeply religious pagan or am I a skeptical materialist? Do I fit either of those labels? Which of these characters represents my view?

They both do. I'm a deeply religious pagan who doesn't expect magic to contradict science. I can always see real causality in the events that are coincidence or synchronicity too - and it doesn't matter, because in all the complex ways that human beings interact, what you do comes back to you three times.

I find myself facing regrets about choices I made in youth, from personal ones like not going to San Francisco immediately once I was legal age to ethical ones about whether I was too bitter and agressive as a youth. My characters share my flaws as well as my strengths.

That inner journey is part of the job for writers.

We have to look at the world the way it is, look past the stories we're told to see the things behind the stories. The more honestly we look at ourselves and the world, the richer we can tell the stories that help people face its troubles. There's a reason conflict drives good stories.

They're other people's troubles that take our minds off our own. They often provide solutions, as we get excited and think we'd make a better decision on the spot than the hero did. Or that we'd notice some telling clue or detail the hero overlooked. Truth is, we wouldn't, not if the story's written well. We might be just as easily distracted or confused. We don't have the context of reading the outline or having genre expectations in reality. We have to just take life as it is.

Life in a novel is structured for beauty and meaning. Events are larger than life and more intensely focused on the novel's theme. Inevitably, those themes mean something to the author who's writing them. They may be simple themes you learned as a small child, but they matter a lot.

Worrying about whether the story's good enough is counterproductive.

It won't be. No rough draft is a publishable novel any more than cake batter can hold up to being iced and decorated. The exception seems to happen when someone who routinely edits in process goes slowly through the story apparently getting it right on the first go. That's because they edit while they're writing, not because the original text that flows up out of the right brain is perfect on creation.

It doesn't matter what your theme is. Some readers will get into it and think it's cool. It doesn't matter what your genre is, all genres have readers. It doesn't matter how personal the conflicts in your novel are - a grand discovery in novel writing is that your deepest personal conflicts are common to the rest of humanity.

Loved ones dying or leaving us, the pain of conflicts with people we love, the frustration of struggles with more powerful enemies, that comes into every life. Some people have less trouble than others with some things. A person who grew up wealthy may not understand the survival struggles of someone on the edge of poverty firsthand, but they still might care.

Be yourself. Write what matters to you. You aren't alone after the first page - your characters are there grabbing your attention and carrying you on into their lives too. Relax and enjoy their company.

I've been running into massive slowdowns and difficulty this month since I distorted my process and started editing immediately after writing. They're different processes for me. Both can be enjoyable, they just take completely different states of mind.

Changing gears too often leaves me feeling insecure about whether the story's any good. It breaks my concentration, I can't be in the story writing it or standing back to judge the prose at the same time. Some writers do. I'm just not one of them.

So the experiment of writing this Nanowrimo and editing it in the same month isn't working. All it did was grind down my joy in process to the point where I don't even feel like working on it tonight. If I let go of trying to get it perfect and just lose myself in the story, I'll come out with a good one. I can edit in December or the rest of the year.

I can set a schedule and start working on previous novel drafts, editing those for publication and set this one aside when it's done. That might be the solution to my recent block.

Some of it is exhaustion. I've been going out a lot and when I do, sometimes I wind up too tired to do much. This afternoon though, I found myself sketching rather than writing because I wanted to just goof off and relax. I needed to recharge with creative activity and working on "Trouble in the City" didn't feel like relaxation.

I've gotten too stressed about the deadline. That's ludicrous if I can bang out a novel over 50,000 words in a three day weekend. I might even still achieve my goal of at least one editing pass during November if I get back to just writing the book and don't backtrack to make edits.

So if you're doing this for the first time, consider your method. If you outlined and it feels like the book's already done, perhaps you need to try writing by the seat of your pants. If you tried pantsing and keep getting lost with no idea of what to do next, you could take a few hours to put together an outline that you can rely on. Use the method that works for you and don't worry about how other writers do it.

We all come to the same place afterward, we all create the same thing: novels with a coherent structure, a plot, a theme, characters. Your path to that is as unique as you are. If an experiment doesn't work, it's a failed trial.

I learned again that my best method is to completely forget about quality and just tell the story, edit when it's done. So I'll go back to that and pick up my word count. Right now I'm about a day behind, but next chapter I'll be caught up again and anything after that will start soaring into my usual overachiever range.

Monday, November 7, 2011

How to Handle Interruptions

The above is a pastel challenge painting for the November "Pastel Spotlight" at I've been participating in the Spotlight Challenge every month for a long time now. It's got nothing to do with Nanowrimo or my fiction writing, except that I'll occasionally do an illustration or get a good idea from a Spotlight painting for a plot point or a setting.

I'm seven days in on my 2011 Nanovel, "Trouble in the City." I also had to go out to get my city tax registration done, my state tax registration done, get a doctor's appointment to approve a rollator because my cane is not enough (the gadget is something like a walker with wheels that has a fold-down seat.) In between I had some other outing that was necessary. Three days in a row of going out when my residential hotel's elevator is broken.

If I didn't mention it in previous posts, I have some serious mobility problems. I am that guy who can walk but not too far. I really need a power chair, but can't get one till I move. So while going out for most people is a minor interruption they face every day, for me it's massive exertion resulting in major pain and exhaustion.

I got all three of those "outing" days taken care of. The day after the third necessary outing, my body quit. I was planning to work on a pastel cat commission and then work on my novel. Bang. I wound up so groggy I started to pass out as soon as the maximum dose of pain medication knocked the pain out far enough that I could sleep. That was Thursday after the excursion. No writing. Friday, I slept like my cat, about 20 hours. Still no writing.

Uh oh.

48 hours of gap between novel writing sessions is too long to stay immersed, especially when other immersive activities happen in between. I have Art Mode and Writing Mode. When I'm thinking about painting, my mind becomes wordless and visual. I play with color. I see everything in pastel impressionism. Of course I did a good job on the pumpkin. I don't even remember which night I did it. Only that it was the last concentrated activity I did before I completely crashed on exhaustion.

Painting and writing are both sit still, mental energy activities. Especially at that size of painting. It's only 5" x 7" so it was a good reason to sit still and not go running around the room like mad in an excess of adrenaline. But it was an attractive distraction when it came to working on my novel.

For you it could be something else. A kid getting sick or needing homework help. Something happens at work, a crisis that demands total concentration. A marital or relationship fight in which your well-being and even a good chunk of your identity rests on sorting out whatever it is that bugged your partner or that your partner is doing to bug you. Like interfering with your novel.

You wind up spending a lot of concentrated time and effort on that important something else and then when it's time to work on your book, it's a blank. You can't remember who the characters are or why you care about them. You're stuck. Nothing about the book makes sense. All momentum is gone, it's like starting over. But worse, because you'd have to chuck so much good rough draft that you've already written.

I developed a system to handle it. This is easier the closer to the beginning of the month it happens.

Read through your novel again from page one.

That is the only cure I know of for a Total Break in momentum. When I just can't remember anything about what I wrote, I've got to reread what I wrote. Sometimes later in the book or if it's a minor interruption, just reading back one chapter or a scene is enough to remember what it's about, what's going on and what needs to come next. But if it's a bad one, like over 48 hours without working on it or thinking about it, I usually have to go back all the way to the beginning.

That can take time, especially in a long novel toward the end. Sometimes I'll read and skim, just glancing over pages, skipping chunks, picking up enough to get the drift and remind myself why I love it. But do at least skim the whole book if the interruption was bad enough that you can't remember what it's about or why you wanted to write it.

The lesser version - read back a few pages - that's good for the start of a writing session. If you're stuck at the top of the day's writing, just read back a little to remember where you are and keep going when you get to the part that's not written. It's not just good for major interruptions but for minor ones.

If your dog barked and did the potty dance in the middle of your writing time, read back a few paragraphs when you get its walkies done and come back in. Keep going when you get to the part there's no more story.

If you come to a grinding halt because you're pantsing and don't know what comes next, it's one of the ways to steer past that kind of break too. Reading again from the beginning or skimming can give back your full momentum. It can also reveal little casual details you threw in for fun early on that you can hang later conflicts on.

Oh wow. Brian hasn't told Gina, his new heart-throb, that he is not a Believer in anything. He's a total materialist skeptic. But she's the girl of his dreams. But she seems to be a True Believer in anything and everything, it wouldn't surprise me if the gal also got into cryptozoology and aliens. Yes! I see some trouble ahead for the happy couple. Load that conflict into my plans for the rest of the book and pull it when it'd most inconvenience them both.

My villain is gloating over that one, it's a way he can steer past this new flame to go back to abusing and bullying the girl. He's a garden variety occultist jerk that I loaded with some real power within the novel's universe. Scary yet nightmarishly realistic - anyone who's ever gone to a psychic get together has met someone like this guy and tried to edge away, or been taken in and given him way too much money, emotion and attention.

Whatever you're writing, even in this rough stage, your story has a power of its own. It has momentum. It's going somewhere. You may not always be able to tell where - but it's like picking up a half-read book if you let it sit for too long and forgot what it was about. Just go back a bit and you'll get your balance again.

That's this week's Nanowrimo tip.

The other big point of today's story about my 2011 experience is this important one.

Do not let setbacks stop you.

This is why I put in more time on the first few days to try to get ahead. I gained three "Virtual Days" before I had to use two of them because my body quit on me. That strong start meant I didn't even fall behind. I still had one Virtual Day to go before I was dead even with the Nanowrimo pace.

If you do fall behind, don't sweat it. Schedule in some more hours. Take the time to read back and get back into the story, then write forward for a longer session. If you don't manage that but do get some words in, count that as progress. Always pat yourself on the back for any progress.

Don't bother beating yourself up for setbacks. It does no good and won't motivate you. What works best to deal with setbacks is to just accept them and then do some more, push hard and get ahead again. It's much easier to keep going when you get ahead. If you haven't bought yourself a "Cushion" yet by writing a bit more than the day's words, try it today.

Just double your writing session. Stick with it while it's fun and exciting, follow your characters on their tangents and don't let the surprises throw you for a loop. I was not expecting my characters both to get Love At First Sight and know it. Usually romantic subplots involve unconscious attraction and plenty of reasons on both sides for the lovers to deny it and pretend it's not happening or not that serious.

Instead, Gina took matters into her hands and delivered a passionate first kiss within twenty minutes of meeting the man of her dreams. Wow. He was stunned and swept off his feet and they went from zero to tango within a scene, so fast that even the villain's interruption didn't shatter that lovestruck moment. I love that crazy roller coaster of a chapter. Bang, heroine, best friend and villain all showed up at the same time and slammed right into the first romantic conflict as the villain unsuccessfully tried to tell the lovers that he was Gina's boyfriend, not just her stalker. It doesn't get better than that.

From here it can only get more tangled. Love at first sight has an inherent flaw - you really do not know that person at all. You love them without understanding anything about them or their past or their habits or their beliefs. You could be a night owl hooked up with an early bird who will not let you sleep a full day again in your life. You could be a neat freak meeting a woman who qualifies for a "Hoarders" episode and yet that powerful emotion leads you to just smile and clean up after her despite her objections.

There's plenty of conflict in Love At First Sight.

So when the characters blind side you, play it as it lays. Drop previous plans and look for the conflicts inherent in what just happened. They're there, no matter what it is. The highs are always followed by the swoops in the plotline roller coaster!

Have fun with your book. No matter what happens to interrupt it, when you skim back over what you have you'll know you're still on track for a November win and a great read. After all, you're doing this your way and it's exactly your flavor of story. Like cooking for yourself, you can't go wrong if you get it to taste good to you! Lots of other readers share your tastes, more than you'd believe.

So enjoy it and keep on going! Write on!