Yet Another Nano – On planning and spontaneity

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Aware that my focus had drifted a bit in March, I set myself a personal goal of 30k for the month of April.

And I was pretty sure this was a daft thing to do.

April is traditionally my busiest month of the year. In fact, now that I’ve got the TimeHop app, I can verify that I spend every April over-booked and under-slept. This year the usual fluster of activity was further complicated by the fact that I spent fully one-third of the month travelling internationally, first to Vancouver and then to London. Both are a bit of a haul from Virginia. When I was home, there wasn’t a day in the month I wasn’t at one job or the other, including most of my evenings being taken up by rehearsals. Making time in the rest of the hours to eat, exercise, and occasionally sleep… It didn’t leave a lot of time for writing.

But a thousand words a day really isn’t that much. A thousand words a day is manageable. A thousand words a day I really ought to be able to do, even in a busy month, if I want to be the kind of writer I think of myself as. And it was nice to remind myself that, yes, I can do that. I have the discipline. As you can see from the chart below, I mostly stayed on par. Those stalled days are when I was in London, and admittedly, I could’ve found time to write then — but it would’ve meant not walking through Hyde Park or visiting museums in the hours I wasn’t at the conference, and I just wasn’t willing to make those sacrifices. I don’t get to London often enough to pass up those opportunities. (I actually did write a bit on the plane both ways, but it was in a different file and didn’t get toted up till towards the end).

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What surprised me was which project ended up getting the bulk of the attention. I’ve got two that I’m working on right now, and since Camp Nano’s rules are less strict than November Nano’s (and since I’m a bit of a Nano rebel in these regards anyway), I had pre-determined that I’d let myself work on both towards those 30k. That in of itself was a big help. While there’s a lot to be said for having a solid focus, as I did when I was editing Aven, there’s also a lot of value in flexibility. It meant I could come fresh to either project, and if I started feeling sluggish on one, I could pop over to the other.

I’d been charging ahead on secondworld fantasy The Seventh Star in February, but in April, I spent much more time on Goldheart, a space opera. The Seventh Star has a more solid structure, nice markers for its plotline’s progression, a very neat and ordered plan behind it. Goldheart is, well, sort of a hot mess. But that was where I wanted to play! The fact that it was so scattered and unstructured actually worked in my favor while Nanoing. I’d thought, going in, that having the strong skeleton I already had for The Seventh Star was going to help, but when I was working with such little time and had to seize impulsive moments to write, it ended up being easier to dive into Goldheart at random. I didn’t have to worry about where or how a scene fit — I could just write it, unencumbered by the constraints my own brain tends to impose when I’m working on something with a more distinct outline.

And lo and behold, on the very last day of April, I realized… I actually had a structure in there. I’m going to have to do a lot of trimming and rearranging, but I realized that I can actually hang the protagonist’s arc on something resembling a typical Hero’s Journey. It all clicked. And now I’ve got even more to go on as I move forward with the project.

Thoughtful structure is super-important when writing novels. But sometimes, in order to find it, you have to give yourself the freedom to play, first.

A Nano Victory

50k in November 2014!

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As I said on Twitter, 50k in a month is not, in itself, that much of a challenge for me anymore. I’ve done it enough times that I certainly know I can. But there’s still something so cool about doing it with other people, all striving for the same goal in the same time frame. And it is important to sort of reset my focus. After the heavy editing I was doing the past few months, I had sort of gotten off-track when it came to generating totally new material. Nano helped re-align my discipline.

Of course, I was also a Nano Rebel, so my discipline was perhaps lacking in that regard. Only about 30k of those 50k were on one project — a space opera that’s actually based, quite tangentially, on the very first thing I ever tried to write, at the tender age of 11. It’s a concept I return to every once in a while, reworking and reimagining. No idea if this most recent iteration will take root in a way that will be useable later, but I enjoyed playing with the main character, particularly. I wanted to take a roguish, devil-may-care, Han Solo-like figure… but make that character female, and also make her the central protagonist of a traditional hero’s journey. It’s not meshing together quite as I’d like yet, but the seeds are there, and I might be able to do more with them later.

The remaining 20k came from not one, not two, but three others — all of them in the Aven universe. One is a few scenes from the immediate sequel. I haven’t written much of that, but sometimes I was just getting the itch to spend time with my familiar, beloved characters rather than building whole new ones — so that’s what I did. The two others take place 200 years and 500 years on, respectively, and were full more of world-building than of plot or character, really. I’ve been trying to sort out how the political realities will shift and reshape over time — which may then help me work backwards to find the correct path for the conclusion of the current story. It’s a fascinating way to think, as a historian — playing out the alternate possibilities that my domino-flicking changes create. Will anything come of those? Maybe. I don’t know. But if anything, it’s giving me a new angle on the world I’ve been living in for so much of the past few years, and that’s always exciting. I don’t feel bad about being a Nano Rebel in this way, because the important thing for me is no longer to make sure I finish a single project — I know I can do that — it’s making sure I make room for writing in my daily life. Switching between projects made sure that I didn’t lose that joy. Writing is a job, for me, but it shouldn’t be a chore. Giving myself a little extra freedom, even if it was outside Nano’s strictest boundaries, made sure my heart stayed as engaged as my head.

The thing that does make this year’s win a bit impressive, in my opinion, is that I actually did it in 21 days. I was in Disney World at the start of the month, so I had an 8-day deficit to come back from. A few 4k days brought me back up to speed — but 4k days aren’t easy to come by, either in terms of time or creativity. You have to really want it. I owe a shout-out to @NanoWordSprints for helping me with that — their prompts and pushes are a great way for me to keep myself on task (and not, say, Tumbling or Pinning).

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This is, if not the very latest I’ve won Nano, then pretty close. Most years that I have won, I’ve done so around the 25th. Was this year slower because of that 8 day deficit? Maybe — but I caught that up pretty fast, then just stayed right about on pace the last week or so. Perhaps it’s because the Thanksgiving break usually falls a bit earlier? It’s easier, not just to find the hours to write, but to find the brain space when I’m not sitting down to it after work. But that’s just an excuse, really — I’m perfectly capable of pounding out a thousand words even when I’ve worked 14 hours at my other two jobs (or, as happened a few times this month, after getting home from a 4 hour Star Wars: Edge of the Empire campaign session).

To all my fellow Nano-ers, whether you’ve won already or not, whether you think you’ll make it in tomorrow or not — Congratulations to you! Taking on a project like this is a success in of itself, and it makes us all a part of something pretty special.

#WhyNaNo?

For anyone who missed it, there was a pretty incredible National Novel Writing Month chat on twitter today: #WhyNaNo. It’s part of #NaNoPrep — a chance for veteran Nanoers to talk about what keeps us coming back and to convince the potential newbies to join in the madness. The conversation was lively and inspiring, and it got me thinking about my own reasons for Nanoing over the years.

Why (quoteymcquote)Why did I start to Nano? To show off. 2001, senior year of high school, and I mostly wanted to prove that I could. And I did! Though it was far from good — a lot of self-indulgence, a lot of waffling, a lot of fanfiction muddled with original stuff (not that there’s anything wrong with fanfic). But I did 50k in a month, and it felt good. My friends and I read bits of it aloud at lunchtime and giggled a lot, and their encouragement kept me going.

Why did I keep Nanoing? I discovered how much I liked it. And I wanted to keep showing off. In college, it was pretty easy. For as much as college students complain about overwork, even at William & Mary (where your best hasn’t been good enough since 1693), I had free time. And finals weren’t till December, which left me days after Nano to write those papers. So I kept pounding out stories that, in retrospect, weren’t very good. But some of that went to creative writing classes as well, and one of them held the seed of a project that I still turn over in my mind every couple of years, hoping to find the right angle on it. And someday I will.

Why did I stop Nanoing? Graduate school happened to me. And a working adult life happened to me. Man alive can those things, however wonderful they are, suck the ability and the energy for creative writing out of you. Particularly, in my case, because I was doing so much academic writing (and still do, at work), which is an entirely different skill set. My graduate thesis left no room in  my brain for creative endeavors, and for the first year I was working, it was just too hard to come home and make myself sit down in front of a blank screen again. I gave up on Nano for a couple of years the same way I’d given up on almost all creative writing.

Why did I start Nanoing again? Because I hated that I’d given up on creative writing. I knew I still had stories in me. I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was eleven, and I hated that I’d lost sight of that. So I used Nano as a kick in the ass to find it again. And it worked. Aven began life in Nano 2011. It bears little resemblance now to what it was then, but that was the start. I immersed myself in a new world for the first time in years, and I gloried in it. I got back into the habit, and I’ve managed to keep it up in the three years since. 1667 words a day no longer scares me. 3000 words a day is a stretch, most of the time, but I know it’s not impossible, so it doesn’t scare me either. One Sunday during this past summer of revisions, I managed over 6000 words in a day. That Nano was a major step on the path of turning me into a working writer, not just someone who daydreams about being a writer. I made myself do it, discovered that I could, and decided that I must.

Why do I keep Nanoing? For the joy. It’s still a great activity. I’ve Nanoed and Camp Nanoed these past few years, with varying degrees of success. I used the Camps of the Summer 2012 to finish Aven‘s first draft, so those went well. But sometimes I fall on my face — life gets in the way. Or, it’s been a month where editing and revising Aven took precedence over creating something new. I don’t beat myself up about it — I know I have the habits now. I know I can’t write 3k or even 1k every single day of my life. But Nano got me into the pattern of doing it regularly, of always working on something, new or old. I do like being able to participate properly in November, though — there’s a delicious energy to it, the mania of keeping up, the excitement in the forums, the challenges and sprints and encouragement on Twitter.

Why will I Nano this year? If I do, that is. It will depend on where Aven is, really. It’s likely that it will be out to editors, and I’ve learned that the very worst thing I can do is look at the manuscript while it’s out with others, because that will just make me crazy. So, if that’s the case, I’ll Nano, for the joy, and for something to keep me occupied while we’re waiting to hear back. It’ll be a challenge this year, since I’ll be spending the first week of November at Disney World — but I’ll give it a go anyway. Just to see what I can do.

So how many of y’all have Nanoed before? What drove you to it? What have you gotten out of it?

And sometimes you fall on your face…

Welp. April’s attempt at Camp Nanoing the new project was… an unqualified failure, really. I was aiming for 30k. I made it a little past 6. Maybe 2 of them good.

There are a lot of reasons. I could plead how busy I was during April — I worked enough extra hours that I could basically take an extra week and a half off without burning any PTO, and I was rehearsing the new murder mystery. I was traveling the first half of the month and so exhausted that I didn’t know what day it was for the second half.

But all that is just excuses. I could’ve found the time, and somehow, I probably could’ve summoned the energy. The truth is that… that story just isn’t ready yet. It needs a lot more percolation before it will be anything resembling coherent. I was trying to force something to work that just wasn’t, and when I realized that, I lost steam and decided to spend my energy elsewhere (mostly in naps, if we’re being completely honest with ourselves).

This is okay, though. Failing is important sometimes. This gif came across my Tumblr the other day, and at a moment when I was primed to appreciate it:

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Failure is part of writing. Sometimes the stuff you try just plain doesn’t work. It might work later. Or pieces of it might. The important thing is not to let the failures stymie you. So I’m picking myself right back up and working on a new project. Well, a new-old project. All that Star Wars business has me wanting to dip my toes in sci-fi again (in female-centric defiance), so I’m taking a handful of ideas from across years and years of writing — some of them originating in my very earliest endeavours — and giving them a respin in a new universe. Will it work? No idea. But it certainly won’t if I don’t try.

On the need for a new project…

TlatelolcoHaving a manuscript out on sub is a bit of an odd experience when it comes to continuing to work as a writer. It was true when I was querying agents, and it’s true now that we’re out to editors. I need something to do — writers write, after all. Not having something to work on feels like laziness. While it was nice to take a little bit of a brain break after the last round of revisions, I’ve been getting twitchy lately. But I quite specifically don’t want to work on the project that’s currently out. If I work on the manuscript as it is, I’ll just make myself crazy with second-guessing — worrying if we subbed too soon, if there’s something else I could’ve, should’ve done first, will they like this, will they like that, and so forth. And I can’t really work on the next book in the series more than I already have, because further revisions to Book 1 might negate anything I did there. I do have another WIP, the steampunk project, but I sort of lost the flow there, and I think right now I’d have trouble leaping back into it in a thoroughly productive way.

So, for the past few weeks, I’ve been letting a new idea percolate. And I’m tentatively excited about it. It’ll be a second-world fantasy, but with some different cultural influences than I’ve worked with before. I’ve been delving into some new areas of research, playing with some social constructs and diversity aspects that I like but couldn’t work into Aven, and thinking out a little bit more of a quest structure to mix in with a dynastic dispute. (At the moment it’s feeling a little bit “Wars of the Roses” meets Stardust, minus pretty much all of the English-ness from both). I’ve got a few characters sketched out, a few potential relationships to work on, and almost no plot points determined. I’m okay with the blurriness, though. I like to start projects open-ended so I can feel my way through it all. It may mean a lot of editing and a lot of scrapped material down the line, but that’s all part of the process for me.

In that spirit, I’ve decided to work on this new project for Camp Nanowrimo. It’s partially because I’m just getting stir-crazy writing-wise, and partially because I’m superstitious enough to think it’d be bad luck not to. But, should news from an editor necessitate more revisions on Aven, it’ll be something I can easily put back down. This will be something to occupy me, to keep me from fretting, and to keep the creative muscles active. So… onward!

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” — Terry Pratchett

In the past ten days, I have created a villain, orchestrated a sex scene, and killed half a dozen people who didn’t exist in the first place. I’ve been editing, and I think can count the number of chapters left un-tampered with on one hand. Something like seventeen chapters saw substantial alterations, two of those were re-written entirely, and most of the others got continuity tweaks.

As it seems, January and February are “Now What?” months over at NaNoWriMo. As I just finished my third round of revisions for Aven since signing with Connor back in October, I’ve been following the conversation pretty closely, since it’s relevant to my current headspace. There’s been a lot of great advice, both from the pros and from the community. There’s also been a fair bit of, well, whining — from people who think revision is too hard or too depressing. From people who find accepting criticism to be stressful. And from people who have realized that being melodramatic on the internet, particularly about artistic endeavors, is a good way to get attention. (An unkind assessment of the population of the web, I know, but not, I think, an inaccurate one).

And in some ways, I get that. It is hard work, and in a lot of ways it’s the exact antithesis of what gets people through November, especially those who are new to writing, or new to writing such long projects that they might actually want a future for. Now is not the time to throw everything at the wall. Now is the time to hone in, to admit that a lot of what you flung earlier isn’t working for you, to scrape that stuff away without mercy, and to figure out, with precise vision and control, what you need to add in its place. And misery does love company, so I thoroughly see how this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle when Nano openly asks people to talk about their experiences.

My opinion of editing? I find it fun. It’s like a puzzle game — you have to figure out what doesn’t fit, and what new piece might fill in the gap. Maybe something just needs to be twisted another way, or turned upside down. If you move something, it might create a gap elsewhere, and then you have to figure out what to do about that. It’s definitely intellectual exercise, and the workout can be exhausting. It can sometimes melt your brains and make you a little crazed, especially when you plunge in deep and don’t come up for air for hours on end. But then it feels so good to know when you’ve nailed it! So some days, it’s a little like this:

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I just happened to run across the Pratchett quote in my subject line today, and I quite like it. The first draft is where you find the characters and get a sense of the shape of things, but it won’t have the sharp definition or the right energy. Aven began life during Nano 2011. I think there might be a couple of scenes that are sort of intact from that first draft. A lot of material got shuffled off and will hopefully appear in a later book. A lot of material got extracted completely. Maybe it will come back, maybe it won’t. But it doesn’t stop existing just because I had to take it out of the working draft. It doesn’t get unwritten just because I do that — because I don’t delete anything. I make copies and shove the old material into different files, so that, should I ever want to revisit it, I can. But even if those fragments never come back to life, either in this or a future project, that’s okay, too. I still had the joy of writing them. And they still helped shape the novel into what it is today. If I hadn’t written those words, I couldn’t have gotten to this point.

I can look back and know that I’ve always been this sort of writer. I find new things through continuing to play with the story. Back when it was all OC Star Wars fanfic all the time, I wrote and re-wrote some key scenes over and over again, across months and years of living in that story. My problem tends to be more that, if left to my own devices, I’m never satisfied. I’ll keep fussing and tweaking forever. I always feel like there’s something else I could say, something more, some new angle worth exploring. (Neil Gaiman, according to his blog, sometimes has a similar problem, which makes me feel better about it).

And that’s a lot of why I feel like the best part of having an agent so far — beyond just, y’know, having one — is having someone to help focus and direct my edits. I’m fortunate that Connor is an editorial agent — not all of them are, and not all writers want their agents to be editorial, but this was clearly the kind of relationship I had to be able to have with an agent. His eagerness to work with me and to develop the product from something good into something great has been magnificent. It’s wonderful to have friends and family members who are willing to read what you write, but even if they are willing to be constructively critical, they don’t have the insider knowledge of the publishing industry. They can’t tell me how certain popular series have changed the expectation for the genre. They don’t know how the trends are ebbing and flowing. And, frankly, they tend to not be great with the kind of revising help I need the most — they’ll either just think everything’s great because I wrote it, or their advice will be so super-specific as to not be helpful, more line edits than conceptual. Working through it with a professional in the industry gives me much better ways to focus that energy that drives me to pick and twiddle and micro-adjust. It gives me things I can really lock my jaw around and shake the life out of — which is great, because it’s so much more satisfying than those vague micro-adjustments I’m otherwise prone to. It’s like how you feel better after eating a really great meal than you do after snacking indiscriminately all day.

All of which is to say that, as I stated on Twitter last week, I’ve been enjoying a lot of deep and artful thoughts about sex and murder.

Nano Survey

Taken and adapted from The Polling Booth, because I like surveys and they’re a good way to kill time. 😉

THE SURVEY

– What age range are you?:  Late 20s
– Male, female, other?: Very much female.
 If 1 is 100% Masculine and 10 is 100% Feminine, what number would you rate yourself for your country/background?: Er. I dunno. 8? I very definitely identify as very female, but I also definitely have traits that others would probably consider masculine… but I don’t view them that way. It’s just the sort of female I am. I have trouble with this question.
– Country and/or Ethnicity (if you are comfortable telling this)? Southern American with Anglo-Welsh heritage.
– Myers Briggs Typology? (Take the test here): ENFJ (which is an evolution. I used to be an ENFP, but that’s definitely shifted in the past few years)
– What number of years have you participated in Nanowrimo?: Every year since 2002, except for 2006, when I was directing a show, and 2009, when I was writing my Master’s thesis. I’ve won about half the time, and I’m hoping to fulfill a three-year streak this year.
– Do you write books outside of Nanowrimo?: Obviously, given the nature of this blog. 😉
– Did you write before you participated in your first Nanowrimo?: Yes.
– How long have you been writing fiction for? And if before Nanowrimo, what forms?: I’ve been writing seriously since I was eleven (there’s a whole story about how Star Wars changed my life that I should probably tell here sometime), and I’ve been a natural storyteller for as long as I can remember. I was always the kid coming up with ridiculously complex worlds for us to play in. I discovered fanfiction as a teenager and spent a lot of energy on it, honing my skills. I never gave up on original things, but there were definitely periods of time where they fell to the background. Its’s only in the past few years that I’ve shifted to original writing almost exclusively (though the occasional fanfic does still prick at me for attention).
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Nano Prep — Unleash the Hounds

2013-Participant-Vertical-BannerIt’s that time of year again! Sign-ups have started for National Novel Writing Month. I’ve already set up my profile and conned one local friend into joining the madness with me. I just realised that this is my tenth year of participation. (My first was in 2002, but I punked out in 2006, thanks to directing Romeo and Juliet that month, and in 2009, thanks to writing my Master’s thesis, which I guess are both okay reasons). I’m looking forward to continuing my winning streak — 2011 and 2012 were both very good for me. I believe 2013 will be as well. I’m so excited for it that I’ve already started diving into the forums — and I’m clearly not alone in wanting to immerse myself in Nano’s special energy as soon as possible. There are nearly 29,000 writers signed up as of this moment, and several forums have taken off like a shot — particularly the Fantasy Genre Lounge and the Reference Desk.

October at my real-world job is completely bananas. Especially this year. We host a conference towards the end of the month, where a few hundred of the experts in our field descend upon our Playhouse for almost a full week of paper presentations, staging sessions, shows, and festivities. My boss and I spend several weeks preparing ourselves and our volunteer coordinators and teams of helpers, and then spend a series 16-hour days herding the cats, guiding our volunteers, schmoozing the VIPs, and just generally being as capable and charming as we can manage. I’m presenting my own paper, so, y’know, no pressure there. This caps off a month where we’ve had two teacher seminars in a row, last weekend and this, a few leadership seminars, and a host of other normal, non-conference responsibilities that always crop up at the beginning of the school year. So, really, while Nano is always a bonkers challenge of its own, this year, it’s also a reward. After a month of bleeding out for other people (happily! I do love my job, it’s just seriously exhausting sometimes), in November, I get to retreat into a world of my own creation. I’m really looking forward to it.

This year, I’ll be working on re-envisioning my screenplay, Tallows House, as a novel, The World is Always Ending. (Working title, at least, thoroughly stolen from a Neil Gaiman short story). This is a pet project, and I freely admit that. I’m more interested in getting The Antares Project to a finished, query-able state, and I think it’ll meet with more success. But, it’s also at the fill-in-the-gaps-and-fiddly-bits stage, which isn’t good for Nanoing. I’ll share some more about TWAE’s premise later, though, and probably some character sketches.

Honestly, at this point the hardest part is not writing. I had a snippet of exchange in my head yesterday, and I just have to hope it’ll still be there to recall on November 1st. I’ve had a great idea for dealing with the timeline and communicating its non-linear bits, and I can’t let myself scratch down more than a few memory-jogging notes. But that’s part of the fun of it. I like letting the pressure to write build up, like a champagne bottle ready to pop.

 

NaNoWriMo Writing Prompt – Where’s My Character?

So, as part of the gearing-up for Nano, they’re posting writing prompts on FB’s. I don’t always manage to see them in a timely fashion, but I did today’s.

For today’s writing prompt, we’re playing a game we like to call: “Where’s My Character”! Describe the city or location your novel takes place in with 100 words, without mentioning any names or dates. Make it evocative enough that others can guess where your novel takes place in the comments!

As I set to it, I realised I could really best identify my location by what grows there, even moreso than the scenery itself. Which was sort of interesting. So — where am I setting my Nano13 novel? (Some of y’all who already know the project — or me — well enough will already know).

Three farmhouses, square, paint chipping, nestled into a sunny valley between old, careworn mountains. Wrap-around porches crawling with ivy. The surrounding fields grow corn for grain and trade; the vegetable gardens yield pumpkins, asparagus, squash, beans, many herbs. Berries grow wild. The families trade east for peanuts, potatoes, tomatoes. It’s particularly good country for apples, turkeys, and horses; the families also keep a few hogs, chickens for eggs, and a couple of milk cows. The landscape grows calmer to the east, towards the ocean, but swiftly sharper and denser to the west. Long, plentiful growing seasons, but potentially temperamental winters.