NaNoWriMo Prep: The Final Countdown

This is is, folks.  The last day before the madness, before the explosions of creativity, before you lose yourself to the stories already eating up your minds.

It’s time to make sure you have everything you could possibly need before NaNo begins.  Lucky for you, I made my own handy-dandy check list so feel free to use it and change it as you see fit.

Story-wise:

  • Outline and notes, if needed
  • Reliable typing machine
  • Reliable backup software/method
  • Writing warm up routine
  • Ideas
  • Time (if you can’t make it, steal it)

Person-wise:

  • Snacks
  • Drinks
  • Comfy writing space
  • Comfy writing clothes
  • Rewards
  • Near-inhuman excitement

That’s it, folks.  That’s all I’ve got.  I wish you all the luck and creativity the multi-verse has to offer and here’s to seeing you on the other side.  Just remember:

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NaNoWriMo Prep: Easter Eggs

The best thing you can give yourself when writing is Easter eggs.

No, not the chocolate ones, although if you have any tucked away in the freezer then yes, by all means, definitely treat yourself at some point when you deserve it next month.

Every writer has certain things they adore writing.  Certain tropes or situations or events just get you all excited and ready to jump in the middle of it.  I absolutely love writing snappy dialogue between sarcastic characters.  I also absolutely love infusing history with fantastical elements, which is why I eat up genres like steampunk.

In my outlining process I’ve added a new series of cards to my ring with Easter egg ideas.  Now, I won’t be able to use all of them, I’m sure, but there’s quite a few promising ones that I’m sure will jumpstart my imagination and make me excited to spice up scenes as I work through them.

Writing isn’t always glamorous work, and it’s easy to fall into ruts, fixated on where you think the story should be headed, but have zero motivation to get it there.  I’ve learned that when that happens I have lost interest.  No one is going to want to finish a book where the writer isn’t excited about the material, it bleeds right through the paper.  So I monitor my attention span.  If I start drifting or searching out distractions then it’s time to evaluate where the story is headed.

That’s time consuming work, and not productive when you’re in the middle of NaNo.  I take an afternoon or so and daydream about all the things that excite me to read and write.  How many of them will fit into a story?  It’s always more than I think.  So I put them on my notecards and stick them in the outline where they seem to fit.  This November as I work my way through the outline I’ll have plenty of prompts and inspiration to keep the momentum going.

When the goal is 50k you need a lot of steady momentum.  It’s not worth pushing through unless you’re writing what you love.

NaNoWriMo Prep: Word Count

I am not a runner.  I am not a jogger.  I’m not even a power walker unless I am in a grocery store trying to get what I need and get out because there are too many people and I am peopled the hell out.  Which is, like, always, and also why I prefer human contact through a computer screen, but that’s neither here nor there.

In order to run or jog it’s important to warm up and practice before doing a marathon, otherwise, you run the risk of doing yourself serious damage.  Writing is no different.  You may be sitting in one place, but your fingers and your mind sure aren’t.  So October is a great month to warm up to the word count you want to accomplish during November.

A good method that I like is word sprints.  The NaNo boards have great threads for this where you can check in with other people who are doing the same thing and they can offer encouragement and camaraderie.  If you aren’t used to writing much start off with 200 – 300 words.  Find a prompt that sparks something for you.  Or, if you prefer, write to a time limit, like 15 minutes.  If you can, keep going, if not take a break and then do it again in ten minutes or so.  Carve out a little time a couple times a day to practice sprinting.  That will train your fingers and your brain to take off and go, and you can build up your endurance along the way.

I write year round, but I also write inconsistently.  Due to day job constraints, health, and real life with all its un-lovely curveballs, I may go a couple weeks or a month without writing much.  Other times I may work steadily for weeks.  That comes with its own price tag, namely stiff fingers and sore wrists, as well as mental exhaustion.  This fall I have been making myself work nearly every day on my writing, though much of that has been revision and editing, which require different warm-ups than straight writing.  That consistency has helped better me by training my mind to get into focus when I need it, rather than when it feels like it.

I’ve found my Novembers tend to start off explosive because I’m excited and ready to create, but if I haven’t warmed up properly beforehand I tend to slack off around the middle of the month and then struggle to catch up by the end.  I’ve always managed to by sheer force of will and absolute pig-headedness, but that’s not a good habit to stick with.  It doesn’t help me outside of November, and it doesn’t better my work ethic.

With seven days left until NaNo starts, there’s really no better time to start practicing so you’re ready to take off from the start line and keep yourself on track all the way to the finish.

NaNoWriMo Prep: Characters

I debated on whether or not to do a post about characters for my NaNo prep since every writer and all their imaginary friends have written blog posts on creating characters, but I decided to do one anyway.  Because I honestly love talking about characters and all their many layers, so why not?

I usually don’t set out to create a new character unless I need a side or supporting character to perform a necessary function.  My main characters tend to find me, so it’s just the rest of the cast that I struggle to sketch in as I expand the world and the storyline.  Sometimes the side characters become more important than I intended, sometimes they just fill the role I needed.  I don’t try to predict which one will happen, but I use the same method to create them.

I start with a name.  My go-to site is behindthename.com, and it is a treasure trove of names and meanings as well as links to its sister surname site, a highly customizable name generator, and lists of name themes.  I decide what nationality I want the character to be if that will have any bearing on the story and then I go searching through that language link.  Sometimes I choose a name because of it’s meaning and how it pertains to the character, other times it’s whatever sounds right.  I like the name combinations to roll off the tongue.  If it’s a name that sounds easy for a parent to shout at a misbehaving child I find it’s usually easy to write out as well as read.

Once I have a name I jot down some initial details as to what they look like, where they’re from, what they are doing, how they serve the story, etc.  If the character ends up sticking around for any length of time I will then summarize a backstory just so I have a uniform set of details to expand from and to give the character more weight.

Every character on the page has to have a reason for being there, but they also have to have their own agenda.  One of my weak spots is not fully shaping a side character who ends up being a wooden puppet feeding the main character ideas and lines without any other purpose, and I work hard to fix it in my revisions.  I’m learning that if I do the homework as soon as I know I need a new character then the story itself doesn’t snag on the flat new presence.

Also, if I do that homework well enough, and the character ends up not working for their intended purpose, I then have a decent character I can save back for something else whether it be a different part of the same story or maybe a new story of their own if they’re interesting enough.  No work you do on your writing is ever wasted.  Everything can be repurposed.

NaNoWriMo Prep: Outlining

I never used to be an outliner.  The most I probably did was sketch out a couple vague scenes I really wanted to write and figure out my main characters before I started NaNo or any project.  But after 11 years of doing NaNo and about 20 years writing total, I’ve got to admit that not having an outline screws me every time.

I get distracted.  I get bored.  I get stuck.   Those guys are the wretches and goblins that work so hard to keep me from achieving my goals.  So instead of getting overwhelmed by them, I’ve started to fight back with an outline.

Honestly, it shouldn’t have taken me this long to realize that’s what I need.  I use an outline at work all the time.  That one tends to be a running list of things that need to be done during my eight-hour shift, but it’s an outline none the less and it keeps me on track when phone calls, customers, and unexpected side missions happen.  Because they always happen.

So, my outlining method is pretty malleable.  I’m still figuring out what works because each project has different needs and so do I on different days.

This NaNo I am using a note card ring for a lot of my outlining, you’ll remember this picture from my last post:

I’ve been getting my note cards written out and in order, and so far this is what I have for each chapter:

  • Complete list of characters
  • Complete list of places
  • Short background bio on each character
  • Defining characteristics of locations, history tidbits tied to it, etc.
  • General summary of each chapter
  • Key scenes
  • Emotional journey in the chapter
  • Information on key objects pertaining to chapter events

This is enough to give me an idea of where I’m going in each chapter, and I add as little or as much information to each thing as I feel I need.  I like to have some room to improvise if the mood strikes me, but I also need a general line of sight to keep my goal in view to avoid following tangents into the wild blue yonder.

I also did note cards for the following:

  • Defining events
  • Twists
  • Theme
  • Histories and world building notes
  • Checks and balances
  • Beginning, Middle, End
  • Overall summary

Out of all these, I think the checks and balances cards are the most important for me.  My world has magic so I need clear rules of what magic can do and what it can’t do so I don’t stray off into the realm of Deux ex Machina midway through November.  The second most important would be the Beginning, Middle, and End, which gives a framework to where the story is actually going.

I don’t treat any of my note cards as written in stone unless it’s a fundamental foundation of my worldbuilding.  I keep myself open to inspiration and allow certain changes during the writing process because sometimes the best ideas happen when you’re in the thick of it all.  Outlines are more guidelines, after all.

NaNoWriMo Prep Time

Another year, another October and you know what that means: National Novel Writing Month is almost upon us!  Every year writers all around the world flock to nanowrimo.org to participate in the 50k word event during the month of November.  This will be my 11th year to participate and I wanted to kick off these last few weeks of October with some tips and tricks that I’ve tested out myself and found helpful.

With two and a half weeks left until the starting gate there is still plenty of time to get ready for NaNo whether you’re starting on something fresh or, like me, using it to finish something you’re already working on.

For this post I wanted to share some of the tools and methods I use for bare basic prep.

First, I write all my material in Scrivener.  I like that program best because it gives me a ton of tools and options to customize every project I work on.  I also like the fact that I can break up a project into files and folders and rearrange at will without risking damage to the overall piece.  My typical template set up looks something like this:

Nothing too fancy, just the generic Novel With Parts template Scrivener comes with.  I will write myself notes on each chapter or scene on the note cards to keep them straight and start importing research from the web so I have all the info I need in one place and I’m not tempted to break during a writing session to look up the count of Jim Bowie’s nose hairs or what date the telegraph was invented.

I don’t personally utilize the Character and Places folders, though.  I found I need a more physical means of keeping those straight so I’ve made myself a note card ring:

I’ll put a hole punch through the top left hand corner and add to the ring as I get information written out.  I find it helpful to break from the computer during the planning stages because it cuts down on distractions and sometimes just the act of writing with a pen helps the ideas flow better.  I seem to retain the information I write down better as opposed to typing as well.

One of the last bits of prep I like to do is my goal setting.  I am capable of writing 2000 words a day as a baseline, but I know from experience that the first two weeks are crucial in getting as far ahead as I can so there is a word count cushion for the end of the month when things inevitably get crazy.  There are the holidays and mandatory family gatherings, of course, but also business at work that saps my energy and the occasional cold that loves to pop up when it’s least convinient.

So this year my goal is to write 5000 words every other day and strive for 10-12k on the weekends.  That would put me halfway done by the second week.  If that is a pace I can sustain then I will finish my 50k well before the month is over, leaving me free to either write more or take a break and then get into revision.

I haven’t set it up yet, but I am going to create a calendar with my goals penciled into each date and hang it on the wall next to my bed so I can see that goal whenever I need a boost or a reminder.  Reminders, with me, are key.  It’s easy to lose focus if I don’t define my steps.

Last, but not least, an encouragement.  I found this little wall banner on sale at a crafts store today and knew it was just perfect for me.  I hung it by the door across from my bed so I will see it every time I look up from my computer:

 

Stay tuned for more NaNoWriMo tips and remember, be epic in whatever you do.

Writing Update

Okay, writing update:

Rewrites are DONE on the first couple chapters, which is great, because I’m tired of looking at those monstrosities.  Going back to redo the beginning is always hard and I always try to do all the editing at once on them because I want them to be ~pretty.  They aren’t, not in the slightest, but that’s what copy and content editing is for later.

I cut out a bunch of excess flab on the story, about seven to nine chapters worth, including a POV character I really liked but the didn’t work for the story as it needs to be told.  I also added a completely new character who does fit and is pretty awesome, they add a whole new dynamic to the story that was lacking.

I have a good outline!  I’m tweaking it as I go to keep it updated, but it’s concise and helpful, and color coded, so I am ecstatic with its existence.

I have a loose outline for the entire series, which was fun to do.  I now have a good idea of my core and secondary characters, main events, and how people are gonna die.  I probably spent a little too long writing up the latter, but I can’t help it.  Plotting out angsty death is fun.

Yesterday was a productive writing day despite a recurring headache.  I wrote about 3000 words and I’m loving how the scenes played out.  Two words: train robbery.  *squeals!*

I have only a couple more days for writing or rewriting in since I’m preparing to take a trip to see my brother in North Carolina.  Cannot wait to get there!  My mom is going for the first time, so I’m going to enjoy taking her around to my old haunts and visiting the beach again.  I plan to come back with shells, and hopefully a tan instead of a burn.

Once I get back from the trip I’ll be rotating my rewrites and edits with writing the bare bones of the next book.  I’ll be doing that through Camp NaNoWriMo and I’ll provide a profile link for my progress bar.  That’s the plan right now, at least.

And, to sign off, have a picture of my perpetually happy Boston, now dubbed Muse Dog, who helps bolster my creativity and general mood.  She’s good luck for writers:

Ohana means family.
Muse Dog believes in you, you can do it!

Cheers!

NaNo Lessons: Character Voice

I’ve talked before about the challenge of writing the same character at different ages, but I had a difficult time with it this November.  The series I’m writing, Witches of Texas, is not a new story for me.  I’ve been writing the main characters since I was seventeen or eighteen.  They have evolved with me into adulthood, and their old stories tackled adult themes from a grown up perspective.  Their personalities were firm and established.  They came to me as thirty-somethings with chips on their shoulders and a wider knowledge of their world and how they related to it.

Then I had to decide to write their origins when they were teenagers and young adults.  Should be easy, right?

Yeah, no.

The biggest challenge has been their voice.  You see the world differently as a teen than you do at twenty-two and more different still at thirty-three.  I have to keep in mind how they end up, and then find out what makes them that way, all the while trying to keep a consistent thread in their voice that will bridge the gaps between those ages so they don’t seem to hop all over the place.

Yesterday I talked about writing through the garbage, and a lot of that garbage was failed attempts at finding their voices.  I wrote many scenes that completely threw their voices off, or made them so out of character it might as well have been a completely different story.  By the middle of the month frustrated didn’t even begin to describe my state of mind.

So I broke away from the story and wrote a scene with their older selves.  It was a stupid scene, just the main characters bickering with each other over a goat herd and a pile of nicknacks, but it brought back the rhythm I was missing in their origin story.  I figured out I was making everything too dark and the characters too reactive, I wasn’t allowing them enough agency to really say what they thought or to act in the way they wanted to.  It was me forcing them along with the shambles of the plot instead of following them.

So I started a new page and kept the plot in mind, but let them wander around screwing things up to make it happen.  Will I keep all of that for the final drafts?  No.  But the exercise of getting back into their natural voices reminded me how to write them.  It reminded me what these characters held in value, what their real motivations were, and what they sound like inside, and out, of their heads.

Characters change over the course of their story, and their lives, but even the characters who go through a galactic amount of crap still have a recognizable thread from beginning to end.  Whether it’s cutting sarcasm, the drive to succeed, unkillable optimism, or a need to protector something else, parts of that survive their transformation.  I managed to find the bits that survive in my characters.

NaNo Lessons: Write that Garbage

Every first draft is a mess.  It’s a handful of diamonds covered in a ton of raw sewage and garbage.  It is imperfection and weirdness crossed with this expression: 

It sounds fine when you talk about writing garbage, or when you read about others talking about it.  But it doesn’t feel fine when you actually sit down and write it.  Even if it’s your 8th frickin’ year to do it.  I go through this every November, because outside of NaNo I fall into the unfortunate habit of editing as I write. Which slows production epically.  Yet I keep doing it because I can’t stand to have red squiggles underlining my words or the same word used three times in a single paragraph.

But NaNo demands you overlook those glaring blemishes to get on with the story.

And, you know, actually finish under a deadline.

It sucks, it’s hard, and it’s the best kind of motivation to just ignore what’s underfoot and keep going.

My head is full of garbage writing and garbage ideas and garbage scenes.  Thing is, I know that, and I get scared of letting it out because it’s, well, garbage.  I know I can do better.  I know I have done better, and I really don’t want anyone else to ever see this kind of blech.  That’s just the insecurities and ticks of doubt talking, though.  Once I push them out of the way and let the garbage flow forth, I trod through a lot of yuck, but I end up with some puddles of hey, that’s not so bad, I can work with that.

Writing is work, and it’s messy, but you can’t make it pretty and tight and awesome until you’ve sorted the parts of it that aren’t.  Most of writing is just holding your nose and diving in over and over.  Then there comes that threshold where you can either back off or keep going.  For me, that is the end of November.  I usually keep it up for a few days, maybe a couple weeks, but then I slip back into editing as a I go.

This time I’m working to consciously break that habit.  I came out of this NaNo with a lot of good material, but I still need to write at least 70% of new material for the book.  So I am not going to edit it until I get that 70% written.  What I have now is a seeping, saggy, soggy mess.  It’s a glaring eyesore and my fingers itch to beat out spelling mistakes and horrible writing.  But I’m going to keep going.  Even when I slip up and waste time editing last night’s passage, I’m going to stop, take a breath, and keep writing.

Because I’ve seen a glimpse of what treasures are hidden under the garbage prose and dialogue.  I want to see them in their entirety, and I can’t until I have the entire fetid bundle, complete, in my hands.  I just need to trust myself and my instincts to get me there.

Cheers.

NaNo Lessons: Self Discipline

Self discipline is something no one else can teach you.  You have to do it for yourself and find what works.  For me, it was a simple phrase: you messed up, let’s try again.

I have a day job.  Fortunately, it’s a day job I thoroughly enjoy, but it’s still challenging work and it does leave me drained at the end of the day.  When I get home, despite all the new ideas and scenes rattling around my brain, the only thing I want is food and Tumblr, in that order.   So I tell myself, just spend a little while on Tumblr, then go write.  You’ll have plenty of time to write.

Cue obnoxious, braying laughter, because five hours later I’m still on Tumblr.

I am a selectively competitive person, and NaNo is always included in that selection, so I had to figure out a game plan.  Social media, blogging, email, all those distractions and open tabs were too tempting.  I would check one or the other, just for a second, and lose thirty minutes.  When it happened in the morning before work, which was my prime writing window, I knew I had to make a change.

So, bye-bye internet.

I turned the wifi off.  I tossed the phone (gently) to the other side of the room.  I put on a music mix, and got down to business.

It was horrible.  Like being Tom Hanks on Castaway and fixing your own dental problems.  Like reaching for the bowl of chips and discovering you already ate the last one and didn’t realize.

In no way was this easy.  I turned the wifi on multiple times in a fit of childish stompy feet.  I justified it in every way possible.  Then I sighed, acknowledged what I was doing, and turned it off again.  I messed up, so I tried again.

And again.  And again.  And after a while I didn’t miss the internet.  I would even forget I hadn’t turned it off because I got straight to writing, bypassing go, not worrying about the $200.  It took time.  It took doing it over and over.   And it took being calm with myself, acknowledging that I didn’t meet my goal, but saying try again.  This is writing, not open heart surgery.  If you mess up, only fictional people may die, but they can be resurrected.  You can try again.  And again.

It’s become second nature to judge and taunt or belittle ourselves mercilessly when we make mistakes.  After all, that’s all we see when we look at social media or the news or the people around us.  It’s become “acceptable” and expected to kick people when they’re down, to expose their faux pas for all to see, and to rip them to shreds in a duel edged and misguided attempt to shame them into doing better while elevating ourselves as above them.  Then, when we screw up, we turn the same viciousness on ourselves and become depressed and angry when it doesn’t help us improve.

I can’t work under that kind of negativity.  I refuse to.  For too long I did that to myself and to others and it did nothing but make me feel like dirt.  It took years to come out of that.  I love myself, I love my imperfections, and I screw up.  I’m human, but my mistakes do not define me or my writing.  So I just acknowledge that I fell short, that I need to dust off my knees, and try again.

And that was not meant to turn into some kind of inspirational rant, but whatever.  Sometimes those happen, too.  The main point is, NaNo helped guide me back into self discipline.  Making a new habit, especially a productive one, takes time.  Takes vigilance.  But more than that, it takes guts to look at yourself with compassion and say, hey, you fell short.  Let’s try again.

Cheers.