NaNoWriMo abridged

While experiencing the busiest autumn in recent memory, I decided not to do NaNoWriMo.

It’s strange how guilty I felt about that decision. Though my reasoning was 100% based on health and sanity, I was still disappointed in myself. It’s ridiculous, because unless I gave up sleep and exercise altogether, I was not going to be successful in the first ten days of NaNoWriMo. I had three galas within a week (including one I helped plan) and the launch of several big projects at work.

But still… I like participating. I like carving out a more-than-average amount of time for writing. I like seeing what ungainly monster emerges in the rush and bustle of 1600 words per day. So now that the blaze of obligation has chilled in anticipation of winter, I’m committing to an abridged version.  On November 15, I’ll be having my own, half-sized NaNoWriMo journey. Same number of  words-per-day, just for half the time.

Happy November, friends.

NaNoWriMo “fail,” Toronto inspiration, and other news

Hello dearest readers,

Hey, remember that time that it was November, and I committed to NaNoWriMo without a plot?

… apparently that doesn’t work for me. I didn’t “win” this, my second year of attempting, but I did learn that I shouldn’t try for NaNoWriMo on a whim.

This last month was not as productive as one would hope, writing wise. I wrote maybe 20,000 words on my NaNo project, but stalled due to 1) an awesome vacation to Florida and 2) the busiest work month I’ve ever had. I’m not using these things as excuses (especially not the vacation, on which I certainly could have written more), but working half again as many hours as I typically do certainly demanded that some part of my schedule be sacrificed. For my brain’s sake, I let it be the writing.

Why was I so busy at work? I was put on a national project  that was all kinds of neato. It centered on innovation,  and I was working with the kickassiest team imaginable. At the end of November I was even sent to Toronto to help out on the day of (and days leading up to) the big event. It was tremendous. Toronto and I have a much better relationship than before: I got to see one of my best girls in the world (and eat much Korean BBQ with her); I fell in love with the people with whom I got to work; I even enjoyed the Toronto vibe — after I had thoroughly mocked the lack of cold weather hardiness in the very non-Prairies people. Picture me, scampering down the street, jacket open, smiling up at the medium grey sky, breathing in the cool breezes. Now picture others, Canada Goose jackets zipped to the neck, scowls and shivers as adornment, squinting eyes braced against the buffeting winds. They thought I was peculiar, but I hope there was a charm to it.

I really enjoy going somewhere new. Though I’d been to Toronto before, it was never as an adult and never on my own. It’s a small kind of exploration, but I enjoyed finding my way down the city streets, trying to make up shortcuts through the downtown buildings (with limited success — my sense of direction is comically bad), absorbing the emotional atmosphere of the place.

I feel like I could write it now – the feel of downtown Toronto – much better than I would have with my teenaged, chaperoned memory of the place. But I will not. Instead, I want to write characters. ‘Cause boy did I meet some.

Just finish it

I had a lovely walk with JT a week or two ago — a six kilometer round trip to get an apple fritter. I confessed to him that I’d stalled on my Nereid project. “Project” sounds pretty corporate, but I hate to use the word “novel” when I don’t think it’s deserved. Anyway.

I don’t talk about writing with JT much. While he is super supportive, he’s not a writer or a reader (I’ve mentioned his bookshelf before), and he generally chooses not to offer advice on subjects in which he is unfamiliar or inexpert. By the way, this is an admirable rule that more people, including me, should adopt.

In an effort to keep myself accountable, I shared with him my woes.

SE: I haven’t written anything on the Neried project in a month.

JT: Oh? Why not?

SE: (woe #1) I was very disappointed with how the trip to Whistler went. I had a plan to finish the first draft by writing like a possessed thing while you were in class every day, but because I ended up having to work, I probably got less done than if we weren’t away from home. I feel discouraged that I didn’t come close to meeting my ambitious goal.

JT: Yeah, that’s shitty.

SE: (woe #2) It sure is. I’ve also reached one of those stretches where everything seems stupid. I have no idea why I would have chosen to write in this point-of-view, and it’s a mess anyways; my main character is super boring; and I had the bright idea of writing all the “exciting” scenes first to keep me enthused… except it means that now I only have the vaguely plotted in-between stuff to write.

JT: I know you want it to be great, but it seems like you’re being pretty hard on yourself. How many words have you written?

SE: I don’t know. I had to trash at least half of the NaNoWriMo draft just so things make sense. Right now I have like 55,000 words that will be in the complete first draft.

JT: That sounds like a lot.

SE: (woe #3) Yeah maybe, but some parts are just painful to read. So bad. It takes all of my willpower to keep myself from revising, because I don’t want to get stuck in a editing spiral and never actually write anything new.

JT: You just have to finish it. Even if it’s really bad.

SE: I guess but…

JT: I don’t know anything about writing, but if I was doing this, I think I’d want to get the story done, so I could at least look at it and be like “It’s done enough that someone could pick it up and read a whole book – even if it’s shitty and they hate it.” And then I’d maybe put it away for a like a month or something and then try to make it good after. But maybe that’s stupid.

SE: No, that’s not stupid. It’s… very astute. It’s what probably most writers do.

JT: Oh good. So I helped?

Sometimes it’s nice to have JT around to make me face the obvious.

Organization, multi-level lists, and the numbers of editing

Hello dear readers.

Shall I express my sincere apologies for posting nothing but writing prompts for the last number of weeks? I shan’t, for I was deep within a story that demanded every moment of focus and creativity, and I happily neglected this blog. The Nereid is the story that emerged from the rough, disorganized, hopelessly bland mass of words I squished out of my mind from NaNoWriMo 2013. In all honesty, I had intended to pick it up again in January… but when I read it through I could not mentally traverse the leagues of work that remained to be done to salvage it.

Then, about a month ago, something clicked. And then something else clicked. Then things were clicking all over the place, like being surrounded by people cracking their knuckles (except, you know, in a pleasant and productive kind of way…), and I was able to move forward on the project.

The greatest issue I was having with my story was how it would be told through time. My draft was a hodge-podge of different techniques.

Inspired by my new job, which at times requires me to format hundred-page, multi-level documents, I did a timeline of my story – from the beginning of time until a generation past its “conclusion” – and assigned each level of the story a number.

For example (not actually the plot of The Nereid):

Part 1: Pre-history of the protagonist
Timeline: 2002-2027
Section 1.1: Protagonist has an accident-prone childhood
Chapter 1.1.1: Protagonist falls down the stairs
Chapter 1.1.2: Protagonist gets hit by a car
Chapter 1.1.3: Protagonist gets hit by a meteor
Section 1.2: Protagonist has a period of incredibly graceful teenage years
Chapter 1.2.1: Protagonist is forced to take dance lessons in high school gym class, and has natural talent
Chapter 1.2.2: Protagonist auditions for a reality dance show
Part 2:  Main body of the story
Timeline: 2027-2034

When I created a timeline for my story, I listed the general plot points that coordinated with each Part, Section, and Chapter in increasing detail. Then, where applicable, I pasted any corresponding parts of my NaNoWriMo draft in the appropriate chapter.

This was an incredibly useful process that I’ve never used before. This multi-level timeline allowed me to see the progression of events from the first moment to the last, assess where my plot was fuzzy or inconsistent, see the places in the story where I have opportunities for character and plot development, and – perhaps most importantly – get a good sense of how much work there still is to do. But my favourite thing about working in these numbered portions is how simple it is to manage my master file. Believe me. It’s a dream.

Until next time, readers.

Unplugged.

A Facebook friend of mine (our relationship used to be face-to-face but now exists purely through the evil genius of Mark Zuckerberg) is also a hobby writer. He suffers, like I do, from follow-through issues stemming from habitual procrastination and a willingness to be distracted. I figure he’s talented. Years ago he promised that I could read something of his and shortly after our friendship dissolved… perhaps the pressure of my possibly judgemental review of whatever he was planning to let me read contributed to that. But I’m getting off topic. The point is he’s funny and creative and one of the rare people whose Facebook statuses are very frequent and completely personal, but somehow entertaining and engaging.

(To me, the worst Facebook offenders aren’t the vapid daily selfie posters, or the people incapable of spelling any words correctly, or even those glorious few who have uncomfortably personal conversations and arguments out there for the world to see – my dark side finds these last examples a certain kind of wonderful. What I can’t stand on social media is people being BORING: “Just got a grilled cheese. Yum!” “Ugh. More snow.” “Watching hockey with the fam. #blessed #goteam #hashtagsonfacebook.”)

This friend’s ability to post about his unextraordinary life is a friggin’ miracle. I look forward to reading what he has to say in three sentence tidbits, and I’d love to be able to read something longer. Last week he took a break from social media and the internet as a whole. My Facebook feed suffered, but his writing flourished. In his words “An entire week offline. I haven’t thought this clearly and undistractedly (not a word) since the 90s […] this is the key to being able to write. Being unplugged for relatively extended periods.”

I’m trying to decide if I agree with this statement. For the first two weeks of NaNoWriMo, I turned off the internet while I was writing. I had a rule that I could only go online once an hour for fifteen minutes, or every thousand words, whichever came first. It worked wonders, forcing me to put (virtual) words on the (digital) page because there was nothing else to do. However, about halfway through the month, once the daily writing had started to be habit and I didn’t have to be as vigilant about avoiding distractions, the tools that the wondrous internet provided were essential. I became a devotee to the @NaNoWordSprints Twitter account, which had me competing for word counts against myself and others while throwing in optional challenges like using the word sloth or writing a birthday party scene. My personal beast to slay was the #1k30min. If completing NaNoWriMo was my primary goal, completely a #1k30min was a very close second. I managed it with a few days to go while writing a scene about a shark attack. No kidding.

I’ll say that if you’re stuck, uninspired, lazy, or procrastinating – definitely unplug from everything. Go out somewhere. Sit in a quiet space with a pen and paper and watch the world. Then write stuff down. For me, if inspiration comes from the physical world, motivation can come from the digital one. If you must be plugged in, find online outlets that will push you to write – communities, writing challenges, blogging.

(Psst: My Facebook friend doesn’t know I’ve posted about him, but I guess that’s the risk you take when you say anything online).

NaNoWriMo: so how did that go?

This may sound obvious, but I learned that it takes real effort to put 50,000 words on (digital)paper in 30 days. It also requires a general culling of all of your leisure activities – like watching Netflix or, y’know, doing laundry.

The people

The staff and volunteers at NaNoWriMo are endlessly supportive. With pep talks from notable authors sent to you twice a week, virtual write-ins to attend, and my personal favourite tool, Twitter sprints, you always feel like they’re your biggest cheering section.

The real glory of this challenge is the community aspect of it all. Writing is essentially solitary, except I always felt like I was part of something larger. The forums on NaNoWriMo.org are filled with thousands of people willing to offer support, sympathy, inspiration, or a kick in the ass at any moment of the day or night. The participants of NaNoWriMo are crazy, random people from all over the globe, but I was immediately a part of their club, their family, their in-jokes.

The process

NaNoWriMo has a helpful website that calculates how you are doing as you go, and also updates a super intimidating bar graph (below) as you enter your daily word counts.

NANO bar graph 2013

As you might notice, I started strong. I had a goal to write 2000 words per day (instead of the 1667 words/day that would get me just over the finish line by November 30) and for almost the first half of the month, I did a reasonable job of meeting that goal.

Then, around day 13, the totally expected happened. I got the flu. I was an absolute mess for a good week… getting well just in time to go on the weekend away that JT and I had been planning since September.

I was so thankful I had overachieved those first two weeks. It meant that the deficit to make up was not impossible. Actually, I wrote 5000 words on the way home from our weekend away (eight hours in the car will give you that opportunity).

The second half of the month was both harder and easier. It was harder because I was focussing on other things in my personal life (I got a new job; I curl competitively; Christmas shopping had yet to be started), but easier because I had built up a momentum. I knew my characters and where I was taking them… sort of; I knew how much time I needed to put in daily to reach my goal; I knew I wasn’t likely to get sick again; I knew I had all of December to binge-watch Walking Dead and Community.

Time for the cheesy ending

I feel as of NaNoWriMo did all I hoped for and more. It demolished “writer’s block” excuses, forced me out of my comfort zone, and helped me create.

Looking forward to next year!

NaNoWriMo: an overview

Hello dear reader.

I’ve missed you, which means it’s about time I get back to this whole blogging thing. You’ll be happy to know that in the last two years, I have not been idle. I mean, of course I’ve been idle occasionally. But I have been writing.

Most recently, I had the very exciting, overwhelming, mind-boggling experience of participating in National Novel Writing Month.

From the website:

“National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 p.m. on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought fleetingly about writing a novel. Here’s a little more about how it all works.

I’m not certain how I managed to be unaware of NaNoWriMo for the last few years (it began in 1999 with 21 participants and in 2013 I was one of 365,519 who made the attempt), but in the last week of October it came across my path and I embraced it.

I decided to take part for a few reasons.

  1. I’ve had a story outlined for almost two years now, waiting for the time when I would commit it to (digital)paper
  2. I have a love/hate/romantic/skeptic relationship with fate, and the timing of learning about NaNoWriMo a week before it began seemed… fortuitous
  3. NaNoWriMo is specifically designed to help me overcome my greatest weaknesses in writing. Namely, over-editing, needing everything to be perfect the first time it’s written, stalling on a story early. It was as perfect of a writing exercise as I could imagine
  4. The over-achiever inside liked the idea of an ambitious but not impossible project

So I refined my outline, did some preliminary research, wrote and signed a contract with myself (e.g. Point #4. For every 30 minutes of writing, I will do 10 minutes of exercise), elicited the support of the stalwart JT, got acquainted with the forums, and off I went.

The result? I won. I did it. I started writing on November 1 at 6 a.m. – blurry-eyed, pyjama clad, grumpy but motivated – and stopped writing on November 29 around 5:30 p.m. with a total of 50,250 words.

I’ll go into more detail later, but the main point is this: My story isn’t great. Maybe a tenth of it will survive editing, and much more still needs to be written. But I wrote 50,000 words… in a MONTH, and that feels incredible. I worked through unlikeable characters, massive plot holes, inconsistent timelines, and a number of other issues by just continuing to pound the keyboard. Somehow, I also managed to have a few moments of beautiful writing, and found a community of crazy, creative word nerds just like me.

Yours,

S.E. Lund