Nanowrimo and the risks of research

nanowrimo‘Stretch goals’ we used to call them, when was that? The 90s maybe, then ‘audacious’ goals and then goals somewhere along the line morphed into either challenges or indicators – depending on if you get paid for delivering them. Nanowrimo is a challenge that stretches what you think might be possible for you to achieve within the arbitrary timeframe set for your challenge by the rules of the game . There are lots like it (Inktober for example) and nearly all of them hold their traps and risks. In Nanowrimo, one of the demoralising traps is ‘comparisonitis’ and a risk is ‘research paralysis’.

Nanowrimo and ‘Write what you know’

You’ve probably heard the advice to ‘write what you know’ and during the NANOWRIMO challenge it makes sense because you probably don’t have time to research the thing you want to set your story in or around. If it is fantasy, no worries, make that stuff up and move on (this can be tiring, but there are heaps of tricks to this). You might think you’re off the hook with Science Fiction (or speculative fiction) but oops, not so. Readers are wonderful, clever people with all their attention on your world.

You better have a decent excuse for how that spaceship got to where it is if you expect any of your other technological excuses to fly too. ‘Continuity of world’ is so very important. Readers don’t mind suspending disbelief in one or two areas in the name of entertainment, but you cannot afford to jolt them away from your narrative with broken edges or logical gaps they fall into and cannot get out of.

Nanowrimo can feel like a sprint when you’re trying to get down dialogue between your characters or descriptions of their world, but the moment you come to a real world detail that you know is going to matter, unless you already know it, you stop and check. If you’re experienced at this particular game you do not do this, you simply put in your own code for ‘check this detail later’ (BARNACLE for example – anything you can do a ‘find’ command with) and keep moving because you know that to stop now for research is a terrible risk to run. A risk you probably can’t afford to take.

Research is not writing

Oh it feels so good to be learning something and you just know your characters and plot are going to explode with this fantastic detail you’re getting! Trouble is, oops, where did that hour go? And that one? You’ve only got a limited amount of time for writing and every time you hit up Dr Google to help you with a name for someone or a town or any detail you know you need, you’re going to be distracted. There’s 20 fantastic search results in less time than it took you to hit enter. Even skim reading those is taking your mind away from building what you were going to say next. Research is awesome and one of my favourite parts of writing, but honestly, when you’re up against the clock, indulging in it is a bit of a rick. Type in your best guess, whack a BARANCLE to it, and move on.

Happy story telling everyone.

Buried stories – digging in nanowrimo

Ready to writeCreative writing is an act of faith. It is, of course, also a process and work and I will be taking my own advice in those regards but none of that can happen without the trust that inspiration will come. Do you believe in your muse? Do you have a creative faith that you can form something with your mind or hands that didn’t exist yesterday?

Turning up ready to be inspired, making the time and the space for it to happen, listening closely for those soft but magical words “what if…” those are all the ways that stories begin to edge their way into the world. By the time I’m inside that story, I don’t feel that I’m creating it but rather that I’m digging up something my muse buried for me.

That’s when it is going well. It doesn’t always go well.

Last week I was so sick that I didn’t feel like writing. Actually it was worse than that. I wanted to and couldn’t. I wanted to draw some meaning from being ill, to find some message we could all tuck into our hearts and feel positive about. There was nothing. It wasn’t ‘writer’s block’ so much as ‘writer is empty’. Obviously, if one is not writing, one is not a writer. It is with great anticipation then that I look forward to the culmination of my course of antibiotics and of October with the deeply held hope that November will fill me up again to overflowing with words.

November is the annual National Write a Novel Month (Nanowrimo for short) and you’ve heard me be a fangirl about it before. It is a challenge that gives some extra purpose and pleasure to my life, even though it has never yet resulted in a published story (although for hundreds of participants each year it does exactly that). Every year I try and dig up some tasty fiction. It is a choice I make knowing that I might fail (and knowing that I will feel like a failure anyway), that I will have to give up other things in order to do it, and that ultimately it doesn’t matter.  I do it because I love it. It makes me happy to try.

It is uncomfortable to admit that I don’t know what might come (or not come). I have my ideas and themes, my egoic attachment to producing a single, 50 000 word chunk of fiction during November. I have faith that something will come along. I am here in my chair at the keyboard typing that prayer out to you right now.

Hear me Muse! Lead me to a buried treasure!

Get uncomfortable

uncomfortableSometimes, when things aren’t working, the best thing to do is to get uncomfortable. Start again, this time outside of your existing comfort zone. Let yourself be a beginner with a fresh slate and no expectations. For example, I’m someone who “can’t draw” but I really value my ability to be creative with words, so this month I’m doing InkTober as my warmup for Nanowrimo. A month of producing a drawing every day – crazy! That makes no sense! I feel uncomfortable doing it, looking at the outcomes and of course sharing it here. Lady Liberty never looked so wonky did she? (Maybe she’s uncomfortable there on her feet all day…)

Last week was uncomfortable in a different way

I shared some of my perspective of living with depression and although that was an uncomfortable thing to do, it opened up the floodgates of conversation about this topic in every realm of my life. People far and wide share their perspectives either publicly or privately and that changed the experience for me. What are you experiencing that you wish was different for you? How are you comfortable in a way that is actually unsatisfying for you? Is it in a job where you don’t feel valued or heard, or perhaps in your relationships where somehow the conversations don’t feel as real as they once did? Perhaps it is with yourself – are you a little bit bored with yourself? Do you know exactly what’s coming next?

Change is uncomfortable

Like travel, change is uncomfortable at an immediate level and yet satisfying from a larger perspective. This is one of those contradictions of life, that comfort feels secure and gives us happiness until too much comfort is smothering or boring. *sigh*  That is a bad deal, but that is how it is. You’re the one in charge and it is your sense of happiness, freedom or fulfilment that ultimately sets the compass on this topic. It takes a little bravery though – to accept the truth of what you’re feeling and to start over.

We start over in all kinds of little ways all the time, and yet we carry so much from one place to another. The sense of new beginnings can be palpable and yet we don’t usually change our name, or throw out all of our clothes and change our favourite meal. So take comfort from the fact that it is just uncomfortable, not annihilating and give yourself permission to try something new.

Go ahead, get uncomfortable. It might be the secret to a happy you.

NaNo-riffic writing fun

NaNoWriMo participant banner 2014It is November and so the Nanowrimo is upon us. Praise be!

I love this crazy, silly fun and free festival that over the years is helping me learn how to write. This is my 8th or 9th year now (? I’ve lost count)  and maybe it has taken that long to learn how to participate, but finally I enjoy this personal challenge more than nearly anything else. I did a beginner triathlon – not as hard. Rode a bicycle 100klms in a day – sure it needed a lot of snickers but it was done in a day. Writing 50 000 words in a month – you need to really turn up for that. Of course here in Week One it does seem like fun, you’re a lot less likely to hear many participants extolling the joys around week 3 when everyone’s stamina and plot seem to run out at the same time.

That’s a thing I’ve learnt, Nano has its own rhythms and as a writer you’ll need a different strategy for each week. The organisers understand this and the support structure is incredible. If ever you have considered that you’d like to write a novel or a play or the story of your Great Grandmother, now is the time to start. Jump in to the idea that you can do a lot more than you imagine. Join the groups where people share their dark moments and their wins. Strangers will cheer for you as you meet your own goals and people who are also writing will understand the tears and joys you’re having. Writers don’t generally stride around in big groups banging drums and cheering everyone having a go – during November it is different – there’s somewhere just for you. I love seeing those posts coming through – people dancing for joy in their lounge rooms or bedrooms saying things like “I never thought I’d make it, but I DID!” and your own heart swells for them.  Then you have a draft. A whole draft. Imagine that, it is dizzyingly exciting.

Editing and rewriting, well that’s for another time. Right now you just need to hit today’s word count target and then tomorrow’s. And then the next day, and the day after. Etcetera etcetera, etcetera. See you in December.

 

Revising a first draft for the first time

Last November I wrote about being half way through writing a first draft of a novel. It did get finished (triumph!) and now I am half way through revising it.

revision of first draft pages
This edit has already taken as long as the entire drafting process (in calendar days – I should have tracked working hours and didn’t) and the single word I would use to describe this process is humbling.

The focus for the first draft was to get it down, just get an entire draft done. Revising (with a patiently waiting small group of ‘first response readers’ standing by tapping their feet) is about all the usual editorial stuff, but the big thing has been to address all the bits that got tagged with “fix this later” or summarised as “something great happens here so they get to blah”.

Those were fine stopgaps at the time and the right thing to do to keep the draft moving, my challenge now in this first mammoth rewrite is to find fresh creative juice to solve the problems I made and then walked away from. Coincidentally nearly all of them are where the story took another turn away from the outline.

Each step away from the outline made the final shape of the story and of the characters different to what I had planned. A better, more interesting, and authentically driven from the characters’ viewpoints story, but different enough that now I feel on my own and overwhelmed trying to patch it seamlessly into a readable experience.

I’m loving the process, by the way, in case that sounded like a moan.

I’m learning too (I can’t help but learn when the red pen tearing the draft apart is my own) which is delightful. This is my first time on a big job. Over the New Year break I took the opportunity to read and re-read a few tips from those who’ve been down this path before me, and they all agreed on one thing “stop procrastinating and get back to work”.

What is your number one tip for taming a first draft?

Halftime is not halfway – Six writing lessons from Nanowrimo

Writing at Sandgate

It is November 15 which means I should be halfway through drafting a novel, and I am, so the world is a shiny, happy place for a few hours and I dance and I smile and my workmates edge away from the crazy lady.

I love NaNoWriMo for this annual push and sense of communal urgency to create a work of fiction as whole as possible inside the month. In some ways, the arbitrary restrictions of the Nano game have taught me a lot that I needed to learn about the discipline of writing. I’ve had a crack at Nano every year since 2006 and ‘won’ it only twice so far but I’ve got my best game on this year.

So what exactly has NaNoWriMo taught me about writing?

  1. Turn up and tune in. Sit. Write. Sitting in the chair is no good if the clock’s not ticking and the words aren’t coming.
  2. Deliver the words. Want to write a book? Produce a daily word count towards it. You set the rules, but measure yourself. Do whatever works for you. I like gold stars. There is a part of me that is still 8 years old and will do *anything* to get a gold star on a chart. I wish I’d known years ago that all it would take to relight my writing was about $3 worth of shiny stickers and a wall calendar!
  3. Have fun. If the writing is getting boring, you’re doing it wrong. Call a friend and bring in your plot ninjas or drop your characters into hot water.
  4. Say no. Say no throughout September, and October to things in November, especially if you hold down a day job. You’re going to need those weekends for your story. You’re going to wish you had some holiday time to take or a long commute. Daydream and note down ideas and keep saying no to everything else. Time is words.
  5. Kill your darlings. Yeah, I stole that one from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch* (via Faulkner). I’d heard it before but never really understood it until I re-read some of my rambling, no tension, and precious manuscripts and nodded right off to sleep. I’d put so much effort into making beautiful characters I didn’t want anything bad to happen to them. Oh dear. Total snooze fest.
  6. Finish. Is that obvious enough? I didn’t get that for a long time. I thought – ‘I’ll get back to that one next week’ and … nothing. So now it doesn’t matter how, or where the plot ends up, or what weird contortions I put those characters through, together we’re all getting to the finish.

That gets a first draft done. It is admittedly small draft, but a whole one. It is no where near half way through completely finishing a novel, but it is an incredibly satisfying milestone along that path and it feels great. So today I mark halftime in the word production schedule and celebrate being on track with a nice shiny gold star. I wish you all the very best in your writing goals too.

Have you played the Nano game? Please share your writing tips in the comments.

* The full quote.
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings”.