Your NaNoWriMo Fate

Today is the day your NaNoWriMo fate is decided. Win or lose, it happens today.

It has nothing to do with your current word count. You can be up to 49,500 words and lose. You can be sitting at 500 words and win. (I’m not joking about that. There are multiple people in my region alone that can manage the entire 50K in a day or two.)

We’re now past the halfway point. By now, the shine has probably worn off a bit. You’ve discovered that a single idea, no matter how awesome, cannot support a novel. You’ve spotted some of the problems with your characters, your plot, your premise. You’ve learned that while parts of this process are exhilirating, a lot of it just isn’t as fun or glamorous as it might seem.

You’ve also seen how writing fits into your schedule–or how it doesn’t. The concrete decisions that you have to make when life intrudes. The cool stuff you’ve missed out on. The sleep you’ve sacrificed. Your word count as it relates to ass-in-chair time is no longer an abstract variable. The magic “words per today to finish on time” number is probably no longer 1667. Whether it’s much higher, much lower, or somewhere in between, you know how big a mountain you have left to climb, and likely have a better idea than you had at the beginning of the month of the effort it’s going to take to get there.

So, are you willing to put in that effort?

That’s all it really comes down to: how bad you want it. You have to decide, right now, with twelve days left to go, if you’re willing to pull out whatever stops need to be pulled to cross that finish line.

I must stress that if you’re not, that’s perfectly fine. About 85% of the people who sign up for this competition don’t finish, and we love our Fail Fairies. This is a glimpse into the life of a professional writer: a significant effort toward the goal each and every day, whether you feel like it or not. Not everyone is meant to be a professional, and that’s fine. I don’t have to start training for the Olympics to enjoy going for a swim. (This is also far from the only way to be a professional. Everyone’s process is different) And even if you don’t hit 50K, you’re still going to have a whole mess of words that didn’t exist at all 30 days earlier. That’s an undeniably awesome thing. Realizing that a winning word count isn’t going to happen doesn’t mean that you should stop, and your ability to share your story with the world someday does not hinge entirely on this month’s efforts. If you want to keep writing, keep writing. Don’t let the fact that you’re not willing to bend over backwards to crank out 5K a day stop you entirely.

But if you do want it that bad, if you can look at the numbers and your track record of writing sessions and the plot holes and pitfalls that stand ahead of you and still think, “Yes, bring it on! I will destroy you!”, if you need that little purple 14 bubble on your NaNo profile as primally as you need oxygen?

Do it.

Ass in chair. No excuses. Make words happen.

Today, you decide how this month will end. After that, it’s just details.

The Zero Draft: In Defense of Writing Drivel

Yesterday, I wrote 1800 words on my NaNoWriMo project, slowly chipping away at my deficit after a couple of terrible days early on.  Yay!

In those 1800 words, my protagonist Tari was shown to her room and took a shower.  So there’s that…

In general, the pacing of what I’ve written has been atrocious.  I mean, it took nearly 15,000 words for the heroine to finally stumble upon the plot.  There are stories that can make something like that work, but I highly doubt this is one of them.  I fully anticipate that much of this is going to die quietly and unceremoniously in revisions.  (Or possibly loudly, to the tune of much moaning and screaming of “What the fuck was I thinking?”)

And I’m okay with that.  A lot of the detractors of NaNoWriMo say that the novels produced within such parameters are generally not very good, and I think that, on the whole, they’re right.  I’m four for four on “wins” (meaning I hit 50K), and here’s the breakdown:

  • One novel that came out clean and coherent; it went through several rounds of readers and revisions, but the draft that I’m now submitting to agents still has quite a lot of material from that November
  • One novel that has gone through one sizable revision, but still needs some significant overhaul, largely due to a completely muddled setting
  • Two unfinished raging hot messes

So my track record doesn’t necessarily speak to the quality of work produced in November.  But that doesn’t mean that those three problematic drafts are complete wastes of everyone’s time.  Sure, they’re not remotely what one would call publishable right now, but there are quite a few bits of brilliance in there, characters and setpieces and turns of phrase that are like beautifully faceted jewels set in a crown of damp wood pulp, worth fishing out, cleaning up, and putting somewhere more suitable.

And here’s the thing: Of those four novels, the first was the only one where I did any sort of prep work at all.  Yes, that does make a decent case for plotting over pantsing, but it also means that no part of those other three existed in any form before starting their respective months.  It wasn’t a case of me having an idea and then sitting down to get it out of my head; all of those bits of brilliance only came into being because I needed something, anything to write.  In other words, without all that damp wood pulp, I wouldn’t have those gems at all.

Basically, for most of my NaNoWriMo career, it has served as an extended writing exercise, more for my own benefit than for the goal of producing anything someone would want to read.  And you know what?  That’s not a bad thing.

Circling back to my dire “getting ready for bed” scene, there’s actually quite a bit that I’ve gotten out of it:

  • Identifying places where I need further research.  So what I’m working on is a time travel story that, as far as I can tell, is going to take place largely in colonial Singapore.  I did some fairly broad and shallow research into that location and era before I started (partly because I only had a couple of weeks), and as I write, I’m coming across all kinds of little details that are going to need some deeper investigation.  Falling down a rabbit hole about turn of the century plumbing would have seemed like a waste of time before I started, but now I can see that it’s the sort of thing that might be useful in determining how my heroine would describe a modern bathroom.  Rather than trying to become an all-around expert in a fairly broad field, I’ll be able to focus on the subjects that have a direct bearing on what I’m doing.
  • Establishing worldbuilding details.  I’m at the point in the story where Tari has found the time travelers’ hidden base and is exploring it for the first time.  Digressions on room layouts and details of how they retrofitted this ruined building would be dead boring in a finished book, but I’m still trying to figure out for myself how all this stuff works at all.  Once I’ve worked through it, I can incorporate those details in a more organic way (and only as needed) in later drafts.
  • Figuring out the characters.  Going in, I had a vague idea of what roles I needed characters to occupy, but as for who they were and what they wanted, not so much.  Now, bouncing them off each other for a while, they’re starting to take shape; Tari is clever and almost suicidally driven, while lead time traveler Raf is awkward and compassionate to a fault.  As they evolve and I get a clearer idea of where their arcs are going to end up, I’ll be able to go back and make sure those arcs start in the right place.
  • Writing every day.  I cannot overstate the importance of this.  The only thing I’ve written all year has been revisions on last year’s manuscript and an abortive attempt at a novella during Camp NaNoWriMo.  Forcing myself back into the saddle has been rough and painful at first, but it’s getting easier.  Writing what is essentially filler is still writing, and as those dormant muscles get loosened up and strengthened, I know that I’ll start getting back into the groove of writing something I can use.

What is shaping up under my jittery hands is essentially a zero draft, something that isn’t coherent or cohesive enough to be properly considered a first draft, something that is likely to bear little resemblance to the finished work.  It can be a bit disheartening to know that what I’m writing will rightfully never see the light of day, but I think it’s worth understanding that there’s value in the writing exercise.  You can’t revise an empty page, and sometimes forcing yourself into a corner prompts unexpected creativity (cf. MacGyver).  Writing a story occupies some nebulous place between art and craft, and in both you have to make mistakes and push through them to get to something special.

Really, if you secretly suspect that what you’re writing this November is crap, it probably is, and that’s okay.  Embrace the crap.  Then take a shower, because ew.

NaNoWriMo Prep for Pantsers, Part Five: Making Noise

Greetings, programs!  We’re only a couple of days away from go time for NaNoWriMo, so this is my final post on getting ready.  You’ve ruthlessly examined your schedule, squirreled away some casseroles in the freezer, resigned yourself to a full DVR, and lined up your treats for winning.  Aside from creating an outline or doing some research (because pshaw, pantsing), what more is there left to do?

Probably the most important part, that’s all.  It’s time to start spreading the news.

Writing is, by nature, a fairly solitary activity.  NaNoWriMo, on the other hand, is all about the community.  Anyone can choose any time of the year to put nose to grindstone and crank out a novel, but this is when we all do it together, when you have a whole gaggle of writers eager to cheer your word count milestones and willing to help you when you get stuck.  This is an extremely valuable resource, and if you want to get across that finish line, you’ll make use of it.

Get accountable

Google+ has an impressively large and active community of writers, and one of the great things that happens is the accountability circle.  It’s very simple: on Monday someone will ask everyone what our writing goals for the week are, and on Sunday they’ll ask if we achieved them.  Since everyone sets their own goals, they can be humble (like “write anything at all”) or lofty, easily achieved or major stretches.  And let me tell you, what gets me pulling up the word processor on Saturdays frequently isn’t the burning desire to write, it’s the knowledge that otherwise I have to admit defeat on Sunday.

The brain works in odd ways, and sometimes aversion is a bigger motivation than desire.  It’s not so much that I want to win NaNoWriMo as that I don’t want to have to tell people that I lost.  And the more people who know you’re doing this, the more it’s going to suck to have to answer their inquiries by admitting that you couldn’t cut it.

This doesn’t mean in general conversation that you have to bring it up out of the blue.  (“Man, it’s starting to get cold out.”  “Sure is.  Have I told you about this contest I’m doing, random stranger?”)  But don’t be afraid to mention it to friends, family, coworkers, and so on when it is relevant.  I’d advise giving a heads up to your nearest and dearest even if it doesn’t come up otherwise.  NaNo often translates to burying yourself in a hole and ignoring all social obligations, which can lead to some very strained relationships if you’re not clear up front that this is not personal and not permanent.  Remember, your loved ones are going to be some of the strongest supporters in your corner, but only if they know you need them there in the first place.

Get official

You may have heard of NaNoWriMo in some other writing community and think it started there.  It’s an official yearly event backed by the Office of Letters and Light, a non-profit organization devoted to advancing literacy.  So if you do nothing else that I’ve suggested, get ye over to and sign up.  That puts you in the official tally of participants, and gives you access to the various shiny tracking widgets and your own personal statistics for the month.  Official participants who validate at the end of the month with 50,000 words also receive access to the winners’ page, which contains various freebies and discounts on things of writerly interest (including half off the full version of Scrivener).

I’d also encourage each of you to buy something from the store or make a donation (or both!) at some point in the month.  It costs quite a bit of scratch to make this thing happen, and most of that is going to come during November.  If every novelist currently signed up donates $5 (or another $5 if you’ve already donated), they’ll hit their funding goal for the year.  Be good to the community and give back.

If you’re interested in joining the craziness but not so hot on the guidelines of writing 50,000 words on a new novel, you can still sign up for the site.  There are people referred to as NaNo Rebels who do rewrites, short stories, screenplays, memoirs, poetry…  Whatever strikes your fancy, really.  You can set your own goal and still sign up (though remember that if you don’t have the 50K to paste into the validator at the end of the month, you won’t have access to the goodies).

Get involved

Signing up for the site gives you access to the site’s forums, which are in general a pretty awesome place to hang out, bounce ideas, and get questions answered.  The most important forum for my money is your local.  The world gets divided up into regions, each one managed by a handful of Municipal Liaisons (or MLs).  These awesome volunteers set up all kinds of events in the area and keep an eye on their forum.

I cannot advocate enough for attending these local events.  Networking with local writers is a valuable thing, especially when it comes to looking for beta readers and trying to get this thing out into the world.  They’re also frequently very productive: you’ll have writing sprints and word wars where people try to beat each other’s word counts, and you have smart and creative people right there to help you out if you get stuck.  Plus, it’s just bloody fun.

Perhaps you don’t live anywhere near any of your local events.  Maybe you don’t work well out in public, or your schedule doesn’t really sync up with any of the official things.  Never fear!  There are all kinds of online events, like silent writing hangouts in the massive Writers Discussion Group on Google+ or hosted by other writers or communities.  It sounds like kind of a weird thing to just stare at a bunch of people who are all working with their webcams on, but they’re a lot of fun and very productive and encouraging.  If you don’t want to go the hangout route, you’ll also find writing sprints (writing as much as you can for a set amount of time) on Twitter where you just chime in with your total once you’re done.

Don’t underestimate the power of the hashtag!  On both G+ and Twitter, hashtags like #NaNoWriMo, #NaNoPrep, and #AmWriting will take you to active and lively discussions.  On G+, you can even limit your NaNo posts to just a dedicated circle so you don’t spam your non-writer friends.  Regardless of where you’re posting, I guarantee there are people who are interested in seeing those updates.  It’s always nice to have cheerleaders, and if you’re a writer, they’re positively everywhere during November.

And that’s it!  If you’ve been following along all month, hopefully you’ve gotten some good ideas and have taken some time to get things in order and set yourself up for success in November.  See you at 50K!

NaNoWriMo Prep for Pantsers, Part Four: Treating Yourself

Greetings, programs!  It’s time for another wonderful post on all the things you can be doing to prepare for this year’s National Novel Writing Month, even if you’re going to make up the entire thing as you go.  We’ve already discussed strategies for figuring out all of the things that you can’t do in November because you’re too busy writing a novel.  But a schedule is like a diet: the more restrictive it is, the more likely you are to crack and blow the whole thing off.  So today, we’re discussing a point that’s very important to remember: rewarding yourself.  Winning NaNoWriMo earns you some pretty sweet bragging rights, along with a draft of a novel that didn’t exist before.  That’s not nothing, but sometimes it’s not enough on its own.  Here are a few ways to refill your motivation tank.

Don’t drop everything fun in your schedule

The previous posts have talked a lot about all of the different things you can cut out to make time for writing, and taken altogether it can seem like that means cutting out everything.  That’s not really feasible, and unless you need a lot more time than average to draft (or fall really far behind), it’s just not necessary.  Your dealbreakers, the things that you absolutely can’t drop no matter what, don’t need to just be the work stuff.

For me, I meet up once a week with some friends for some pen-and-paper roleplaying.  That still continues during November, because it’s an important part of my week (and because being down a player can really throw a wrench into the story, which isn’t fair to everyone else).  I build my writing schedule around knowing that I’m not going to get any work done on Friday nights, and I frequently go into my Saturday writing refreshed because I got to step away from the story for a bit.

This is also where the balance we talked about last week comes in.  It may seem easier to simply not watch any TV or completely avoid social media during November than to mess with the day job and housework, but by the second half of the month, it’s going to get really tempting just to pull them up and peek at what you’ve been missing, and then to get totally immersed and fall behind on word count.  Building in a limited amount of time for the fun stuff holds off that withdrawal.  You can also make adjustments to make it easier to cut down on the time you spend, like doing some circle maintenance on G+ to turn down the volume and create smaller circles of people whose posts you don’t want to miss (so you can safely ignore everyone else).  For Twitter, you can utilize something like Tweetdeck to focus on limited lists and hashtags rather than visiting your main feed.

Bribe your way across the finish line

One of the reasons I don’t do so hot with the marathon sessions is that I’m very easily distracted.  I have trouble focusing, and I can get completely derailed by a tangent.  So I treat my muse like the spoiled little four-year-old that it is, and get things done by means of a system of petty bribery.

It goes something like this: before I settle in to my comfy chair at the coffee shop, I buy myself a drink and a tasty treat.  (This, by the by, is standard etiquette for writing in public: If you’re camping out somewhere that sells something, you need to be a customer.)  I’ll drink freely, but I’ll ration out the snack, holding out for as long as I can and then only getting a bite every 200 words.  If I need a refill or need to get up to use the bathroom, I’ll make myself wait until the next nice round number in the word count to get up.  Silly?  Sure.  Effective?  Absolutely.

You don’t need to go quite so micro as all that.  Set stretch goals that are still attainable (like an extra 500 words per day, or pushing through to the next even thousand if you’re close) and then reward yourself with something fun when you meet them.  Find a way to celebrate milestones like passing the halfway point or working through a difficult scene.  Reward yourself for an especially productive session with some solid goof-off time–just use a timer if you need to get back to work afterwards!  Tying the fun stuff to your word count can give you a little bit of extra push to get through, and can help you feel less guilty about taking breaks because, hey, you earned it.

Big accomplishments deserve big rewards

As mentioned above, there’s not really a prize for finishing NaNoWriMo.  So I like to get myself one.

Since 50,000 words isn’t really a novel, I split this in two.  Once I cross that finish line, we go out to a nice dinner to celebrate.  Then I promise myself something for when I actually finish the first draft, ideally something I’ve been wanting that’s beyond my normal impulse buy limit, but still within my means.  It’s tempting to say that I’ll just go on a mini shopping spree and get myself a bunch of books or DVDs, but I like having one tangible thing that reminds me of what I accomplished.

It’s also tempting to make this reward something big I’m intending to get myself anyway; I’ve been saving up to replace my creaky old iPad, and hey, a new iPad is a heck of a reward!  But the issue there is that if I fail, I’m still going to get the iPad, so it doesn’t really mean as much.  The key with using rewards as motivation is the ability to withhold them if you don’t meet the self-imposed requirements.  If it’s stuff you’re going to do or get anyway, it doesn’t really drive your word count forward.

Most of this stuff isn’t really “prep,” because it mainly involves little decisions you’re going to make in the trenches.  But it’s useful to start figuring out some options, and you should definitely pick out your “prize” and make sure to start saving your pennies for it.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re in it for bragging rights, the Scrivener discount, a Doctor Who box set, or a hundred brownies a bite at a time.  If you leverage it well, it all gets you to a first draft.

Come back on Wednesday for my final installment in this series, where things will get loud.  Sort of.

NaNoWriMo Prep for Pantsers, Part Three: Making Time

Greetings, programs!  So far in this series on the preparations for NaNoWriMo that have nothing to do with your novel, we’ve started to look at some of the things that will come up in November and methods for tackling them.  Now, it’s time to get to the heart of the issue: making time to write.  Make no mistake, this is the core of NaNoWriMo, and where many if not most will find themselves falling short.  You can have the most detailed outline imaginable, but if you don’t have a reasonable plan for getting the wordage out, it’s just going to stay in your head.

As is my wont, I’ll start by asking you a question.

How long is this going to take, anyway?

If you’re going to clear space in your schedule, you need to make sure it’s the correct amount.  Overestimating won’t hurt, but underestimating just how many hours your ass will have to be in a chair is death.  Death!

Ahem.  For NaNoWriMo, the magic number is 1667, the daily average you’ll need in order to hit 50,000 words in 30 days.  Everyone writes at a different pace, so you need to start by figuring out yours.  If you don’t already have a decent idea of this, take a couple of runs at a current WIP or nice warm-up short stories, and pay attention to the numbers.  Personally, when I’m fully engaged with my word processor of choice and merrily typing away, I can produce roughly 1,000 words per hour.  (Some compose significantly faster, some significantly slower.  It’s all about your style.)  So, in theory, it should take a little over 90 minutes for me to hit my daily quota, which is totally manageable.

In reality, 90 minutes of ass-in-chair does not equate to 90 minutes of productive typing.  Depending on how distracted, tired, or stuck I am, it generally takes me 2-3 hours in front of my keyboard to hit the quota.  Still not impossible, but if I’m only budgeting to clear 90 minutes from my schedule, I’m definitely going to come up short.  Again, overestimate.  If you finish the day’s quota early, it’s a great bonus.

The obvious candidates

Even the busiest of us are likely to have some time currently in our schedules where we’re not really doing anything productive.  Playing video games, watching TV, golfing, bingeing on Buzzfeed…  Leisure time, basically.  It definitely seems like an easy way to cut things out to make time for writing, and in many ways, it is.  You don’t have to cut out all the fun stuff, but for most people, this is where they’re going to start.

It also seems very easy to say you’ll just get up earlier and/or stay up later, but be careful of that.  Sleep is a very important thing, especially if you want to end up with a coherent first draft and not stream-of-consciousness hallucinations.  (Unless, you know, the hallucinations bit is what you’re going for, though I’m not sure I’d advocate going Method as a writer.)  Remember, don’t sacrifice your health and well-being over a silly bragging rights contest.

This is probably the part where I’m supposed to provide some secret magic bullet, some secret guru tip that will be the previously unknown key to a successful career as a writer.  Given my tone, you can probably guess that ain’t gonna happen.  However, there are a few ways you may not have considered to increase your writing time, especially if this is your first NaNo.

There are really two kinds of writing sessions you can squeeze into your schedule: big chunks and little crumbs.  Big chunks tend to be “instead of” time: write instead of watching TV tonight, instead of doing the yardwork this weekend, instead of going to the bar after work.  They’re good for momentum and getting into a certain mindset and groove, and are probably where the bulk of your work is going to be done.

The little crumbs, on the other hand, tend to be “while” time.  Rather than cutting out an activity in favor of writing, you multitask.  This may not necessarily be the most productive output in terms of words per minute, especially if your attention is very divided.  However, you’d be surprised how quickly a few sentences here and there can add up, and each and every word gets you closer to the finish line.

Essential to the little crumb sessions is portability: you need to be able to write wherever you find yourself with a spare moment.  Technology is a beautiful thing, and there are several systems out there (Dropbox, Google Drive, My Writing Spot, Celtx, Yarny, etc) that allow you to work on the same document from whatever screen is handy, retaining your changes between sessions and devices.  You wouldn’t think that writing on your phone is a good idea, but if you find yourself, say, unexpectedly sitting at the side of the road waiting for AAA without any of your other gear (which may be a thing that has happened to me), being able to sneak a few words in feels fantastic.

Perhaps you’re not a techie, or perhaps your writing solution of choice (::cough::Scrivener::cough::) leaves you tied helplessly to a single machine.  But not to fret, you can still take advantage of those little writing crumbs.  When I was in high school, in the pre-laptop, pre-mobile days, I used to keep a printed copy of my work in progress in a folder, and I’d handwrite additional material throughout the day.  Then, when I got home, I would transcribe the day’s progress and keep writing.  New pages got printed out the next morning and added to the folder.  Not the prettiest or most eco-friendly solution, but man, was I productive.  Even if keeping a running hard copy isn’t feasible, you can still keep a notebook on hand and jot down a few sentences as you find a spare moment.

Keeping your eye out for those spare moments is the trick.  Waiting for the water to boil for dinner?  Have your laptop fired up and ready to go.  Boss running late to a meeting?  Pull out the notebook.  Take public transit to work?  That’s solid writing time, baby.  Some people even use dictation software so they can write while driving or at other times when they don’t have their hands free.  Stay prepared for those opportunities, and it will be easier to take advantage of them.

Putting it all together

As I’ve been saying all along, your writing schedule is probably going to consist of combining several of these strategies, rather than taking one and running with it.  All of this stuff is in your schedule for a reason: you want or need to do it, and a writing competition doesn’t change that.  Remember, we’re supposed to be having fun, and sometimes having fun means taking breaks, too.

Also keep in mind that the daily 1667 is an average.  If you find that writing during the week is simply impossible, it’s certainly a feasible strategy to do your entire week’s worth of words on the weekend; there are some people that can finish the entire shebang in just a couple of ridiculous marathon days.  Just recognize that it’s going to be much, much harder.  The further you fall behind, the more words you have to write every day to catch up.

I tend to find it’s better to front-load.  There’s a tremendous amount of energy, support, and enthusiasm in the first 10 days of the month, as everyone is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.  If you’re a plotter, you’re finally getting to write down words you’ve been mulling over for weeks, months, maybe years!  Everything is new and exciting!  You haven’t had a chance to start hating your characters or write yourself into a corner or just get bored!  If you ride that push and aim high at the beginning (especially if you’re a more experienced writer and have a good idea of what you can manage), you give yourself a nice buffer later on in the month when the novel starts getting harder and the things you’ve been ignoring start calling out to you.  Even if you don’t find yourself needing a lazy day or an entire day off, you can just finish early, which is pretty awesome.

For example…

My own strategy tends to be a couple of big writing sessions each day (one on my lunch break, one before bed).  I occasionally supplement with crumbs, but only as the mood strikes me; I find those spare moments tend to be better for mulling things over and getting ready for the next session.  When possible, I get out to a coffee shop or library, either as part of a write-in (more about those in a couple of weeks) or just on my own.  Housework doesn’t usually get too bad, since it’s only the two of us and my husband is very supportive and generally awesome.  The DVR tends to fill up, but I can stay caught up on The Daily Show and with my G+ and Feedly.  Stuff for my Etsy shop and other crafting and painting probably suffers most, so I try to start early on stocking the shop for Christmas and just accept that my other projects will still be there when the draft is done.

Unless you’re trying to finish very early in the month (like if you know the latter part of November is just going to be impossible), it’s not necessary to be writing constantly.  There’s still plenty of time for other things; though it seems daunting, 2-3 hours out of 24 isn’t that much.  The trick to getting through NaNoWriMo, and to building a good writing habit in general, is ass in chair.  Whether you’re in the mood or not, even when it’s hard, make it a priority.  Writers write.

Since this one got a little long, next week’s post will be a little less stick and a little more carrot.

NaNoWriMo Prep for Pantsers, Part Two: Cleaning House

Greetings, programs!  Last week, we talked about thinking through your plans for coping with NaNoWriMo in November.  This week, we’re going to discuss putting some of those plans into action.  I would move on to exactly how you’re going to schedule in those 1667 words per day, but that’ll be next week.  I figure we need to get today’s topic out of the way as early as possible, so you have more time to get through what needs to be done.

So, let’s get into your standard of living.

Of that mental assessment of your time budget from last week, how much of it went into housework, errands, chores, and so on?  I’m guessing probably a lot of it.  Cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping… it all adds up to a pretty huge chunk of your week.  This is one of those places that seems non-negotiable, but taking advantage of the time you still have, you can temporarily free up at least a little of that with some preparation and planning.

Set your baseline

Honest, icky question: How bad are you willing to let it get?  If you were to entirely cut out a certain task for a month, would you be able to live like that?  How long do you think you could put off that task before it reached a danger zone?  (Realistically, you’re probably going to be cutting a little bit here and there rather than just ignoring one thing for the whole month.  We’re still in thought exercise territory for now.)

Obviously, a bachelor living alone is going to draw the line in different places than a mother of four hosting Thanksgiving, and things probably aren’t going to hit rock bottom in the relatively short span of thirty days.  But you may find that there are chores that you’d be comfortable with putting off entirely, and it’s very likely you’ll find things that you can do less often (like yard work or laundry) and still keep the place acceptable.  Prioritize what stuff absolutely has to get done and where you’d be okay cutting corners, so you have a better idea of where you can be flexible, especially when you need to make such decisions on the fly.

Work in advance

Even if there are places where you can’t really cut corners during November, like keeping yourself and your family fed, you can still free up time then by preparing now.

Making meals ahead of time is key.  I’m a big fan of cooking up a big casserole, then portioning it out into individual bags and freezing those.  It’s a lot healthier than relying on the processed frozen foods, but requires about the same effort come mealtime.  (Unless you decided that a month of only processed foods fell into the acceptable range, in which case, shine on, you crazy diamond.)  You can also mix up sauces and stocks in advance, and freeze them into ice cube trays, making it easier to defrost only what you need while preserving the rest.  Sides are also good for preparing in big batches and resurrecting later.

If you don’t have a crockpot or slow cooker, consider investing in one or seeing if you can borrow one.  There are tons of recipes out there that let you toss in some ingredients in the morning and come home to deliciousness that’s ready to serve.

One of the things that makes November suck is its proximity to the holidays, and all the decorating, cooking, baking, shopping, and other insanity that those entail.  If you can get any of your Christmahanukkwaanzikahstice stuff out of the way now, it can help take some of the heat off going into December.

No matter where you set your baselines for cleanliness, if you can get things looking their best now, you can buy yourself some time in November.  Maybe a big load of laundry right before kickoff means you can cut out a laundry day later, or maybe if you get your bathroom sparkling clean it can survive most of the month without a revisit.  Even if you aren’t willing or able to cut down on the frequency of certain chores, starting from a clean slate can make them easier and faster, which is time that can be spent writing.

Use your resources

NaNoWriMo is a pretty awesome thing, and chances are that your friends, neighbors, and loved ones will think that you’re pretty awesome for doing it–and will want to help.

Maybe your spouse or kids would be willing to take over certain tasks just for a few weeks.  (Unless they’re participating as well, in which case the other prep stuff is going to be even more necessary!  Yeah, learned that one the hard way.)  Would you be willing to bribe or barter with friends to help out with things like daycare or cooking?  You could maybe offer to watch their kids before or after NaNo if they’ll take them off your hands a time or two during the month, or use your particular talents in thingmakery in exchange for a couple of meals.

If it’s in your budget, there are things you can do to create a cushion while you’re busy writing.  Perhaps planning on having a professional come in and get your house back into tiptop shape will make it easier to cope with the prospect of it getting messy, or can keep it from getting there in the first place.  (Groupon and other social deal sites frequently offer discounts on such services, so keep an eye out.)  The cost of dining out or grabbing takeout can add up quickly, but the time you’re not in the kitchen might be worth it.  Paying for some additional childcare or a night away from home might be a splurge, but can give you a very valuable writing session.

None of these suggestions need be all or nothing propositions, and you certainly don’t have to resign yourself to living in squalor.  But skipping a chore here and outsourcing a meal there can all add up to a significant time savings, and every minute you can clear for writing gets you a few words closer to the finish line.  We’re still 18 days out, so that’s a lot of time for you to pave the way to making your life slightly less crazy in November.

Next week, we’ll be looking at other places where you can free up some time for writing, from the common ones to things you might not have considered.  In the meantime, got some tips of your own for keeping the place acceptable while your head is buried in your word processor?  Some fabulous go-to recipes that can be prepared in bulk or in advance?  Share in the comments below!

NaNoWriMo Prep for Pantsers, Part One: Taking Stock

There are generally two camps of NaNo writers: the plotters and the pantsers (as in, flying by the seat of).  I am generally a shameless pantser (although my most successful year was plotted, surprise surprise), and in the past I’ve taken this to mean that there’s nothing I need to do until November 1st.

This is a very good way to risk not finishing.

It’s true that many people stumble and give up because they run out of story, because the characters have stopped talking to them, because they’ve written themselves into a corner and don’t have time to fix it again.  These are the places where outlining can help.  But more often, people find themselves bowing out and the deadlines passing unheeded for a much simpler reason: life got in the way.

Now, you’re not going to be able to plan for, say, a major illness striking you or a loved one in November, or someone losing their job, or a natural disaster, or any of the other unforeseeable calamities that can cause a writing competition to get pushed aside.  But even if you’re not working out a single detail of your story in advance (and hey, even if you are), you can still take this time to set yourself up for success.

This week, we’re not even really acting on anything yet.  The task this week is to assess the situation.  There’s a lot to think about before you dive into this thing, especially if it’s your first time and you don’t quite know what to expect.  I’d like to stress that none of these questions are meant to discourage you from participating, merely to help you formulate a game plan that suits your situation.

That said…

Are you up for this?

I first heard about NaNo probably back in 2003, and thought it was an awesome idea.  I first participated properly (not counting the year I started late and never actually signed up for the site) in 2010.

Why the delay?  I’m not sure if you know this, but November sucks.  Seriously, I’m glad it worked out so nicely for the original participants who put it together, but for the rest of us, it’s horrifically stressful and already overbooked.  Personally, I didn’t even bother attempting until I had graduated from college.  As much as I liked the idea, by the time I was an upperclassman I was already pumping out about 70-80 pages of material for school in November, working two jobs, and running on about 4 hours’ sleep per night.  Adding another project on top of that would have driven me insane.  I have intense respect for students who compete in NaNo, but I wasn’t cut out to be one of them.

And you know what?  That’s perfectly fine.  Above all else, keep in mind that this is supposed to be fun.  If the prospect fills you with dread, or if the idea of deadlines stresses you out more than motivates you, or if you know you just don’t write fast enough to keep up, don’t force it.  Consider sitting out a year, seeing if there’s a modified goal like a lesser word count that you can make work, or waiting for one of the other events in a month that’s less horrible.

What are you trying to get out of this?

Are you hoping to have a workable first draft at the end of November (or sometime in December or beyond, depending on length)?  Are you just trying to get into the habit of writing every day without worrying about the end product?  Are you only here for the anarchic fun and don’t care if what you have at the end even resembles a novel?  Are you rebelling and doing something other than 50,000 new words of a novel?

All of these are absolutely legitimate approaches to NaNoWriMo.  All of them are going to require very, very different processes to get through.  There’s a ton of advice floating around out there to help out WriMos, and much of it talks at cross-purposes because it’s not all leading to the same place.  Knowing where you want to end up will help you sort through to find the stuff that will actually help you get there.

What are you willing to sacrifice?

There are plenty of people here who are already spending at least two hours a day, sometimes much more, sweating over their writing machines.  Those guys are rock stars, no question, especially the ones who do that on top of day jobs.  For the rest of us, it’s probably a safe bet that you’re not currently spending large chunks of your day just staring at a blank wall.  Turning yourself into a rock star means coming up with those hours for writing that, at the moment, are being spent doing something else.  Whatever that something is each day, it’s not getting done during November, at least not as frequently as you’re used to.  There’s absolutely no way around this, unless you have a time machine of some sort.  (In which case, why aren’t you sharing?  That’s not cool, man.)

My next couple of posts will be talking about specific strategies to carve out that writing time.  But for right now, take an honest look at where you’re spending your time.  I mean, every minute of the day, because squeezing a few extra words into those stray minutes is what this thing is all about.

Think of your schedule like a Jenga tower.  Some pieces are going to pop right out, some can be very carefully removed with skill and patience, and some are just going to topple the whole tower if moved no matter what you try.  Right now, you can start tapping delicately at those wooden pieces to see which ones are loose.  This is the time to be brutally honest with yourself, because you’re going to have to start pulling those Jenga blocks pretty soon, and convincing yourself that a particular piece isn’t load-bearing isn’t going to prevent it from dropping the whole thing on your toes.

Also remember that your dealbreakers aren’t going to be the same as mine or anyone else’s.  All of these suggestions are just that.  It’s going to be up to you to figure out how to incorporate them into a plan you can stick to.

That does it for this week.  Tune in next week, when we talk housekeeping.  Literally.

The Sin of Inconsistency

I don’t watch videos online.  When I’m dicking around the internet, I’m usually in skim mode, and I’m usually multitasking.  Neither of these lend themselves well to stopping on one thing for 2-5 minutes.  Occasionally a one-off will get my attention, but there are only two channels I watch regularly: Zero Punctuation, a hilariously vulgar series of video game reviews (NSFW), and Cinema Sins, which is rather as it sounds.  Breaking down point-for-point everything wrong with a particular movie is not only entertaining, it’s a critical part of developing the instincts of a writer.

In addition to pointing out laughably bad line readings or failures to understand basic scientific concepts, CS’s stock in trade is inconsistencies, the bumps in the road that can throw you headfirst out of the story.  Examples include:

  • Visual continuity errors: Cigarettes that unsmoke themselves, shirts that magically change color from shot to shot, people who teleport around the room with each cut to a different camera
  • Wild shifts in tone: Deadly serious moralizing in a comedy, awkwardly comic moments shoehorned into serious dramas
  • Out of character behavior: Someone acts in a way that doesn’t quite fit with, or even wholly contradicts, their character as established, usually for the sake of moving the plot forward
  • Breaking your own rules: Perhaps surprisingly, the CS guys rarely quibble with the rules a movie establishes for itself (unless it’s ostensibly realistic but has characters who are basically indestructible or supernaturally talented).  But if the movie then breaks or changes those rules on the fly, oh, there will be quibbling, yes there will.

All of these are issues that plague all writers, no matter the medium.  Visual continuity might not seem like a concern for a novelist, but have you ever read a novel where the redheaded heroine suddenly becomes blonde halfway through with no acknowledgement or explanation?  What about the sex scene where someone magically sprouts an extra hand?  The dude who just disappears out of the party because there were too many characters for the author to track?  If anything, maintaining the visuals is even more difficult for the fiction writer; it’s much easier to make sure your hero is wearing the same color shirt the whole day when you have to go out and buy it for him.

It’s fairly easy to look at a bad movie and see how these problems can add up to making it a complete mess:

But CS’s tagline is “No movie is without sin,” and while a good movie will certainly minimize these issues, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid them entirely.

It comes back down to that all-important willing suspension of disbelief.  Sure, every story has plot holes and cheats, but if the audience is sufficiently entertained or engaged, they won’t care.  It’s only when they’re not enjoying themselves that they’re paying attention to what’s gone wrong.

Still, it’s best to catch these issues when you can, especially when they can be fixed without doing too much damage to your planned story.  The necessary skill is spotting these issues in your own work, which can be tricky because you’re so close to it that your brain fills in the details whether they made it to the page or not.  Editors, beta readers, and critique partners are all indispensable in this regard, but it’s possible to train yourself to be aware of these things.  As I said earlier, it’s an instinct, a bone-deep understanding of structure, character development, and the other nuts and bolts that make up a story.

If you haven’t gotten to the point where you can spot this stuff on your own, it can be helpful to have it pointed out to you.  That’s why Cinema Sins is so useful, especially for a developing writer.  Try watching a few of the videos for movies you’ve seen.  Did you notice those problems before?  Do you understand now why something is a problem?  Is a given sin something you think you could fix, or something that gets to slide because it’s still effective?  These sorts of questions can help you develop a critical eye for the work of others, which you can then use to strengthen your own stuff.

Case Studies: Where to Start Your Novel

Case Studies: Where to Start Your Novel

(Standard spoiler warning applies to Chalice.  Additional disclaimer: I’m working off an uncorrected galley I scored a while back at San Diego Comic-Con.  One of these days I need to pick up a final version and see if anything’s different, but if I say something that makes you go, “Where the hell is she getting that?  It’s nowhere in the book!”, that’s why.)

You guys, I’ve become kind of addicted to Twitter live-slush.  On #tenqueries and its endless variations (I think the search function on my Tweetdeck is considering a restraining order), agents, editors, and contest readers go through and very briefly give their reactions to submissions.  Even before I started my own querying process, I found the cross-section of submissions and general consensus about what works and what doesn’t utterly fascinating.

Naturally, you start to see patterns crop up.  One I’ve been seeing a lot of, especially on the contest circuit, is the novel that starts in the wrong place.  It makes sense that this is a major stumbling block: slush readers go through a LOT of openings, and the sheer volume of submissions means they can’t allow much time to get hooked.  (Before you go complaining about the unfairness of it all, readers do the same thing.)

But this can also be murky water for a writer.  What does it mean to start in the wrong place?  What if you have a story whose relevant action covers years, generations, or longer?  What’s the balance between diving in and providing necessary exposition?

I just re-read Chalice by Robin McKinley for roughly the dozenth time, and I think it might provide some useful insight.  Here’s a basic recap of the story in chronological order (I assume you’ve read it if you’ve made it this far because I am really not kidding about these spoiler warnings):

In this world, the land is basically alive, tended by a Fisher King and council (at the head of which are the Master and the Chalice).  The old Master of Willowlands had two sons, the older careless and irresponsible and the younger more deeply invested in the land.  When the eldest becomes Master, the two clash to the point where the younger is sent away to become a priest of Fire.  The older brother proceeds to run roughshod over his land and his people, holding debauched parties and letting Willowlands literally fall apart.  One of these parties ends in a fire that kills several members of the household, including the Master and Chalice.  The role of Chalice passes to Mirasol, a beekeeper who received no training for her new powers, and a few months later, the younger brother returns from the Fire to become the new Master.  But he is no longer human, and his people fear and mistrust him.  Just as they’re all starting to get a handle on things, the Overlord names a new Heir, who almost immediately issues a challenge for the Mastership.

It’s complicated, to say the least, covering nearly a decade.  From this perspective, it seems difficult to find a way in that will immediately engage the reader and not drown them in history, politics, and mythology.  The point McKinley chooses as an opening might initially seem odd: the first scene shows the ex-Fire priest arriving to take his place as Master, an event that occurs less than a year before the end of the overall story.  And it’s not a How We Got Here scene, either, that frequently obnoxious tactic where a flash-forward to something actually interesting serves as a prologue to hide a slow beginning; action proceeds in a roughly linear fashion from this late entry.  Yet it’s exactly the right place to start.

So how do we know that this is where the novel properly begins?  After all, conventional wisdom says that the story should start with the pivotal moment of change for the hero, and our protagonist Mirasol has been Chalice for months at the novel’s start.  No, here we employ a different technique: to see where to begin, you have to look to the end.

The climax of the novel is the duel between Master and Heir.  The result is treated as a foregone conclusion, since the Master is still more flame than man and cannot lift a sword.  However, Mirasol’s bees intervene, swarming both men, stinging the Heir to death and restoring the Master to human.  (This last bit is never adequately explained, beyond the implicit “It’s a fairy tale, just go with it.”)  It ends with Master and Chalice standing shabby but victorious, having secured Willowlands and resolving to see it fully healed.

So the climax helps us determine the shape of the story (and not just the plot, meaning the stuff I described a couple of paragraphs back): it’s about Mirasol and the Master’s struggle to fit into the roles they’ve been unexpectedly and unsuitably thrust into, driven by their love and loyalty for their land and for each other.  The plot is about the restoration of Willowlands, but the story is about them, so naturally the first scene is their first meeting.  For bonus points, it also gives us a bookend, which is a favorite device of mine.  On each end of the novel, we have the Master and Chalice (along with the Grand Seneschal, next in command behind them) observing a complex and important ritual in front of the Master’s house; the beginning sees the three exhausted, uncertain, and impossibly distant from each other, but by the end, they are firmly united and hopeful for the future.

But then, what about the rest of the story?  All the stuff that came before that first meeting?  That’s the “roughly linear” part I mentioned earlier.  Though it seems like an awful lot of ground to cover, it’s really limited to two extended flashbacks: Mirasol first encountering the power of the Chalice, and the episode with her sealing up a fissure in a field.  This latter serves to neatly illustrate her time as Chalice with no Master, showing her inexperience and the instability of the land, condensing several months of the story.  As for the fatal accident and the history that led up to it, that’s all laid out in conversations between various characters throughout the novel.  The information is interwoven when needed, once we’re already invested and grounded in this world and its people.

Now, I don’t know what McKinley’s writing process was on this novel, whether she saw its structure from the beginning or had to tease it out over several drafts.  She had a few decades of experience by this point, so she may well have just walked in, knocked it out, dropped the mic, and walked out.  But for the rest of us, especially the pantsers, it’s something that takes time, perspective, and above all revision to find.  This is why I don’t bother to break myself of the execrable habit of starting the first draft with a character waking up.  It’s like doing vocal warm-ups before a concert: essential for me, but tedious and clunky for the audience, so damn good thing they don’t see that part, innit?  It’s only once I’ve gotten all the way through that I can see what the opening needs to accomplish and how to make that happen.

If you’re getting feedback that your story starts in the wrong place, take a step back and look at the big picture.  What story are you trying to tell?  What’s it all leading up to?  Once you find the thread that is going to take you all the way through to the end, it’s easier to trace it back to its beginning–that’s where you start your novel.

Case Studies: The Awesomes and Twisty Twists of Twisting

Case Studies: The Awesomes and Twisty Twists of Twisting

(Standard spoiler warning applies to season 1 of The Awesomes.)

I’ve not been doing much in the way of reading or writing lately, because my brain has been a tepid, unseasoned bowl of oatmeal that’s just shy of congealing.  In lieu of actually accomplishing anything yesterday, I watched the entire run of The Awesomes, Hulu’s excellent animated comedy about a team of powerful but unbalanced superheroes.  If you have not done so yourself, get over to Hulu immediately, you silly person.  There are only 14 half-hour episodes to date, it won’t take you that long.

Back?  Great!  Let’s spoil the shit out of some twists.

I have to admit, the big reveal of the mole perplexed me.  At the end of “Pageant” when Malocchio takes a call from his daughter, the cut back to her side of the conversation is accompanied by a tense music sting and dramatic close-ups.  My reaction was, “Wait, were we not supposed to know this?”

Seen here: Drama

Seen here: Drama

I may not be the best representative of this experience, since I am a TV Tropes search index that walks and talks in a rough approximation of a human woman.  But still, I feel like a good twist is really difficult to pull off.  You have to provide enough setup so that it doesn’t feel like an ass pull, but if there’s too much, it’s easily guessed by the viewer.

In this case, there’s honestly so much setup to Hotwire’s real identity that I’m not sure it should even qualify as a twist.  It’s abundantly clear that there’s something shady about her, as early as “Baby Got Backstory” when she can’t keep details straight and declines to go into a flashback.  Even in the pilot, Concierge points out that they don’t know anything about her history and background, when she’s fully researched all other members of the team.  If you haven’t picked it up by then, they pretty much come out and say it in the parallel world.  To recap, the Awesomes get zapped to an opposite world where heroes are villains and vice versa.  In this world, Malocchio is actually Benocchio, a hero who’s lost his sight.  He mentions that Hotwire’s voice sounds familiar and that he’s lost his daughter.  Then, near the end:

Hotwire: Your daughter…  She saved the day.

Benocchio: She was your opposite, yes?

Hotwire: Yes.

Benocchio: So that means–

Prock cuts in and drags Hotwire away, so we don’t find out what realization Benocchio just had.  Except we don’t actually need him to explain it, right?  The only real way his revelation could have been phrased is, “You are a villain because she was a hero,” or possibly, “You are the daughter of my opposite,” and they’d set up enough to confirm that before the interruption.  If Parallel Hotwire is Parallel Malocchio’s daughter, by the transitive property, we already know all we need to know.  There’s nothing more to reveal to the audience.

Of course, that makes it all about the dramatic irony.  Indeed, the conflict of “Pageant” centers around Prock’s suppression of his instincts and continued trust of Hotwire, juxtaposed with both Muscleman’s growing mistrust and Hotwire’s snooping.  Since Prock is our main protagonist and viewpoint character (as evidenced by the fact that we stay with him whenever he stops time), his being in love with a traitor is a major driving force of the story.  When he’s around for the revelations, the drama-heightening cues of cliffhangers and musical stings and camera angles all make sense.

But I’m still stuck on that one phone call.  Prock isn’t in that scene, so those dramatic cues aren’t meant to convey his emotional and mental state.  They’re purely for the audience, an audience that isn’t remotely surprised if they’ve been even half-awake up to this point.  Is this merely a misstep?  An overplaying of the hand?  Or is it something else?  It’s worth noting that The Awesomes is a comedy, so perhaps undermining the dramatic reveal is part of the joke, although the show is not particularly meta.

Perhaps the biggest lesson to be taken from all this is that you can’t depend on the big reveal.  The plotline of Hotwire torn between two loyalties and Prock blinded by his feelings, it all still works even if you see it coming.  A lot of stories bank so much on that A-HA moment that they forget to have it make sense.  (I’d make the Shyamalan joke here, but I don’t think it even needs to be said anymore.)   Certainly manipulation of the audience’s emotions and expectations is a big part of the game, but the audience isn’t a uniform entity.  Some will be way ahead of you because of spoilers or TV Tropes addiction, some will be lagging behind because they weren’t paying attention or ate paint chips as a child or whatever.  The story has to engage on multiple fronts, so that if some of them falter, it doesn’t bring the whole thing down.