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.

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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.

 

NaNo Lessons: The Crazy Ideas

Wild.  Hair brained.  Weird.  Fantastic.  What the hell are you drinking and can you stop.  You know what kind of ideas I’m talking about.  They’re the ones that creep into your head while you’re trying to write something else.  Something more professional.  Something that actually, you know, makes sense.  These ideas come to us when our brains are too constricted by boundaries that mean well, but aren’t always necessary.

If you’re like me, or any other writer, you get doubts.  You write something off the wall and think, no one is gonna get this, or this is taking it too far.  Those little doubts nibble their way in through the skin and bed down like ticks that turn into wire that turn into fences and before you realize it, they are restricting your craft and imagination.

Well, get out the tweezers and the cigarette lighter, because it’s time to pull those ticks out and kill them dead.

Starting NaNo I had a PLAN.  An outline, one that was logical and cool and had just the right amount of surprises, or so I thought.  Within a week of writing to that outline my brain rebelled.  I got so b o r e d.  Well, okay, I thought.  Let me just scrap it and see what happens.

“Time travel!” my brain screamed.

“Um.”

“And orphans.  And a wagon train.  And throw in that freak lightning storm with the teenage thunderbird.”

“I don’t think–”

“DO IT.”

I rebelled against my brain for a while.  I waffled and poked at the bloated carcass of my outline, all the while falling behind in my word count.  I was so damn invested in that outline, even though I knew and posted that outlines are changeable.  Still.  It bugged me.  I wanted to stick to a plan, to write the right way for once.

And that’s when it hit me.  I had doubt ticks, a rash of them, stuck in me.

Doubt ticks are invasive little critters.  They crawl in the cracks left by insecurity and make a home for themselves.  I wanted to be “professional”.  I wanted to write to a logical formula.

I was trying to write like someone else.

I am a messy person.  A messy writer.  My life and mind is chaos and I don’t make logic leaps, I make intuitive leaps.  More often than not, if I trust those intuitive leaps, I end up being right.  That is me, that is how I work, but I still admire people who are neat and organized and can churn things out with a formula.  But there is a big difference between admiring someone else’s methods and holding them up as The Way I Should Write.

Pulling doubt ticks out is hard.  Setting them on fire is satisfying.  I wrote the weird time travel wagon train with orphans and the angsty teenage thunderbird.  It made no sense for the overall story and will, probably, never see the light of day.  But you know what?  It was FUN.  It was ME.  And getting the idea out on paper put it in the light where I could see all the ways it wouldn’t work, and the smaller pieces that did.

Plus, once that crazy idea was out, it was like clearing the blockage in a stopped up sink.  My writing sessions went smoother.  Ideas –some crazy, some not– flowed through.  Writing through the crazy opened up the other parts of my brain that made the intuitive leaps and produced material that will end up in the final version.

And, through it all, I got a better handle on what my story is really about.

Coming in from the cold

Snip20151227_1
A lull in the storm. Not pictured: Howling, 50mph winds from the bowels of Hades with cutting, razor teeth, and crazy drivers.

My part of Texas is currently experiencing epic blizzard conditions at the moment, and I have to tell you, all that snow?  Entirely unwelcome here.  It can go take a hike in some other state, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to.  So I am going to sit here in my bed, my little dog warming my feet, and pretend Jared Padalecki is going to come in with cups of hot cider and keep me company.

*drools*

Anyway, with the weather and time off for the holiday, I’ve had some more time to write, and I can finally update the blog!  I didn’t forget about it, but the holidays are the worst time for me to do anything here with all the preparations and coming down off my NaNo high.  Now that I’m pretty much snowed in for the next couple days, I will be lining up posts to breathe some life back into the site.  😀

First up, my writing projects:

I am knee deep in work for my NaNo novel, the next Witches of Texas book.  It’s coming along nicely.  I took a break from revising and writing to do some brainstorming and plan out what I want to keep or cut.  The result is cutting a lot of what I wrote during the first part of NaNo, but I’m happy with that.  Most of that was crap and did not jive with the overall story at all.  The writing I produced near the end of November actually had good merit, so I’m parsing that away from the rest and building around it.

I wrote short stories!  Two of them so far.  One takes place within the Witches of Texas universe, the other does not.  I’ll be posting them after another round of editing, so be on the lookout.  I have plans for a couple more shorts; additional news on them when they are underway.

Second up, my NaNo reports:

This NaNo was a great one.  Hands down, I had fun, I learned (and re-learned) some important writing lessons, and I churned out some good material at the end.  Some of the things I learned were:

  • Outlines change.  You can maybe keep 10% of an outline by the time you’re done writing.  And that’s okay.
  • You need to test out all your ideas.  Yes, even the wacky time travel one where they end up babysitting a passel of kids while traveling wagon-train style through the wilderness.  (Yes, I really did write that in November.)
  • Self-discipline is hard, but oh, so worth it.  Turning off the internet greatly aids the process.
  • It takes writing a ton of garbage before you can find your character’s true voice.  Even a character you’ve known and written for a long time.
  • Throwing everything and the kitchen sink at your characters’ heads might feel too over the top, but it keeps the writing interesting and the writer interested in continuing.  Excessiveness can be fixed in editing, but lack of excitement can kill the story before it’s ever finished.

I’ll expand more on those in the coming days.  Suffice to say, this NaNo was productive and educational, and I’m happy with what I wrote.

Now it’s off to make some breakfast and finish editing those short stories.  Doesn’t look like Jared Padalecki will be stopping by anytime soon with that cider.  Ah, well.  A girl can dream.

Cheers!

NaNoWriMo: Day 30

NaNo-2015-Winner-Banner

You can’t see me right now, but I’m smiling sleepily and blowing my nose.  Another NaNoWriMo has come to an end.  I’ve clocked in at 50,642 this year.  The novel is by no means done, which means I’ll be continuing into December to finish my first draft, but I’ll expand more on that later with a proper blog post about the things I learned this NaNo, the challenges I encountered, and why I owe, like, half of my entire word count to Shinedown’s new album.

Until then, I think I’m going to get some much deserved sleep.

Cheers, y’all.

NaNoWriMo Day 13

NaNo day 13

So, you’ve probably noticed I stopped posting after day 6.  This has been that week.  That week comes at different times during every November.  It’s something that cannot be avoided or remedied, only lived through.  Mine started with getting sick, so I wasn’t able to get sufficient word count in.  Then my dog got hurt and I’ve been up most nights with her.  Then we were short staffed at work, and so on and so forth.

That week always happens.  There’s a time where things, inevitably, go wrong all at once and the outside world demands your attention and energy.  I’ve been so exhausted after every day that all I can do is fire off a couple hundred words, queue up Netflix, and eat before trying to sleep.

So, from one NaNo vet, just remember, it’s okay.  Things go wrong.  You fall behind.  You will not always make your word count goal.  That doesn’t mean you should just give up, just cut yourself some slack for being human.

As it stands tonight, I’m about 5,000 words behind.  Not as bad as I feared, because I’ve had some of those weeks in previous years that left me 10, 15, even 20,000 words behind.  Even those were okay in the end.  I worked until I could make them up once the week was over and I could breathe.

And that’s the secret to remember.  Just breathe.  Your story is inside you and is not going away anytime soon.  Breathe.  You can always make up your word count later, just take a look and find some time when it’s calmed down.  Breathe.

November is not the only time you have to write this story.  And winning NaNo is not the stick by which to measure your worth as a writer.

Just breathe.

My week has come to an end.  Friday is here with now until midnight for me to make up what I lack and get on with the story.  My story is going to be just fine, and so am I.  And so are you.

Just breathe.