NaNoWriMo: How I wrote over 50,000 words

To be completely honest here – I am more than a little chuffed with myself. One week out from NaNoWriMo (that’s National Novel Writing Month for the uninformed) and completely on a whim, I decided to participate in the challenge. That challenge is to write 50,000 words in the month of November. I am ecstatic to report that I succeeded in this challenge, and this post is to tell you exactly how I did it. My final tally was 50,314 words.

My greatest problem with writing for the longest time has been actually writing. Yes I’ve written a short story or two – but I’ve then fallen into the trap of editing them until oblivion. I think about writing all day and all night but I can’t actually make myself write. How the hell can I call myself a writer if I can’t do the most obvious part – the writing?

Having hoovered up every writing resource under the sun, from plotting to character development and everything in between, by far the most challenging part of writing is just sitting down, bum on seat, and making words appear on the screen. No Reddit posts, no blogs – just fiction!

So what was different this month? I don’t really know! But this is what I did:

  • What was I going to write? I have been thinking about an idea for a novel for a long time now – at least 1-2 years. I’ve given this considerable thought, including the setting, characters and the basic plot. I’d written a few thousand words into the first chapter but that was about it. Going into NaNoWriMo I decided to write this novel and progress from start to finish – rather than writing just any old crap. I wrote a basic outline of the key points and there ended up being 14 of them. This took the story to around the halfway mark, but I figured if each of them had around 3-4000 words (which is what my average short stories tend to be) I would have enough – or at least by the time I’d written all 14 points, I’d have a better idea of where to go next.
  • My philosophy: Ok this one sounds a little wanky but there’s some important things that I like to remind myself when setting out on such a massive task. Specifically – a quote and a concept.

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A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – Lao Tzu

I found myself coming to this quote time and time again when studying Mandarin Chinese. In the beginning it seemed an insurmountable task to learn that particular language, and while it still seems so 7-8 years later, the only way to learn it is one step at a time. The same is true of writing a novel – a ridiculously massive undertaking when you consider it as a whole, but as soon as you write that first page, and then another, and another – suddenly you’re well on your way. It’s important not to let yourself lose sight of this idea or you’ll quickly watch your motivation to continue plummet.

My second inspiration comes from watching artists paint. Have you ever watched someone paint an oil painting? They don’t paint the perfect house then the perfect door, besides the perfect tree in the perfect garden – they slop down big slabs of colour to vaguely illustrate where these details will eventually be. Then they slowly build upon these slabs with basic detail, which is built up and up and up until it begins to resemble the finished subject. But then they take it so much further again. Watch this video as an example.

The basic image is built up and up – the detail layered in on top of the sketch.

Drafting a novel is exactly the same concept – your first draft while potentially horrible, is only the starting point. Each time it’s re-drafted the writing gets better and better, the characters grow and take on lives of their own. But without that first draft beneath it, unless you’re some kind of freakish word wizard, you’re not going to get there. And as a friend often says, “You can’t edit a blank page.”

  • 1600 words per day target: With NaNo specifically, you need to write 1600 words per day (actually it’s like 1612). With this goal in mind and using the NaNoWrimo dashboard counter to collate them – I started to bleed onto the page.
  • Story milestones: And this was the key for me– as I sat down to write I knew that however bad, I simply had to get to those story milestones I have previously written down – the 14 points of outline. The dialogue was terrible, the characters were flat and lacking their own voices, but I forced myself to keep writing until I reached those milestones. The first few thousand words were easier as I knew where I was going, but soon I was into brand new territory and having to make the story up as I went. Having a mini-goal at the end of every section was ridiculously helpful – that and knowing I could go back and fix those earlier words when I begin the redrafting process.
  • Don’t get bogged down in detail: Anytime I reached a name of a place/character/concept that I couldn’t think of straight away, I put in a placeholder type comment along with a square bracket]. This would be easily located down the track and would prevent me from bringing up Google and starting to research something – however basic. Research is essential in a novel but has the distinct habit of getting in the way of actually writing.
  • Ignore consistency (for now..): At several points I had realizations that certain events needed to be foreshadowed earlier, or certain characters needed to already be at a certain point of change and again would need earlier re-writing. Rather than going back and changing those things in this draft it’s important just to carry on. One character of mine picked up 20 years of age, another suddenly had abilities he didn’t have previously. I just wrote like that was the new norm, conscious that these too could be fixed later on.
  • Find that right time to write: Writers often talk about finding the right time of the day to write and by god is this true. A friend of mine recommends getting up an hour earlier before work and well I’ll admit, I’m not that hardcore yet but I did realize during this process that there were times that were unbearably difficult to write. For me – I had to start during the day, the earlier the better, and finish at night. I would often start during my lunch break at work and get as many words down as possible and then finish when I got home from work or early evening after dinner. IF – and this happened a few times, if I got to 9pm or so and then started writing? Sweet Jesus that was difficult! By that time of night, after a long day of work and various other family related issues, I simply did NOT have the mental capacity to write new words. I would sit there looking at the keyboard and force myself to type, updating my word count every few minutes, 100 by 100 excruciating words until I got to 1600. By comparison, if I got 7-800 under my belt, knowing I only had another 6-7-800 to finish at night was considerably easier.
  • Edit the last page and continue: Knowing I have a tendency to re-write indefinitely, I didn’t allow myself to re-read anything I had written previously other than the last page. I would then begin to re-write/edit this last page and continue on into the next section. Not only did I often pick up a lot more words from fleshing out this last part of the writing, but my mind would return to that place in the story and it was a lot easier to begin again. I found this particularly useful.
  • Know what you’re writing next! I found a fantastic piece of writing advice along the way- actually a quote from Ernest Hemmingway:

Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next

This was fantastic – even if I finished the night on a chapter but only a few sentences into the next one. It was important that I knew where the next one was going as I would think about it in that time before I started (often at work or when out and about).

  • Pace yourself: And finally, this one applies specifically to NaNoWrimo – pace yourself! There are people out there who write a few hundred thousand words during the same time many of us struggle to hit a mere 50,000 and good on them – but the challenge is designed not as a ‘see how many words you can humanly squeeze out of your head’ but for people such as me who are having trouble writing. It’s about establishing a regular writing routine rather than just writing the word cats 50,000 times! If you feel you can blast the daily 1600 out of the water and finish halfway through the month then great – but don’t burn yourself out! There’s a reason why you cant claim the win until the 20th of the month – it’s designed to get you writing ALL month. It’s a mighty challenge, but make the most out of it.

And finally – here’s my NaNoWrimo baby below – damned if I am not proud of him/her! My plan now is to hang onto that momentum. I’ve had a few writing free days since finishing on Monday 28th November but now it’s time to get back on the horse and keep writing! I banged out 1800ish words yesterday but realistically, my daily goal will be around the 800-1000 mark. Whether I can hold onto that momentum going forward – well time will tell!

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Did you participate in NaNo too? How did you go? Do you have any of your own advice to share?

THE PRE-WRITE PROJECT: AN EPIC WORKBOOK

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I’ve been spending a lot of time developing an idea for a novel that’s been percolating in my brain. It’s been at least a year now – maybe two, a process that’s taken far more time than I would have anticipated. It started out as a germ of a story which evolved into a setting and eventual world – well a continent on a world. I began building various systems, governments, cultures and a vague sense of the characters and themes I wanted populating this place.

Currently I have developed all of the above, 3 main characters, 2 antagonists, 2 clear cultures and a 3rd that’s still hazy, and the beginnings of an outline. But it’s getting out of control! Every day there’s something new that needs to be determined, some other painful question that needs answering and the worst part? It needs to be written! Other than the beginnings of a prologue and several partially written chapters, it’s a mountain I’m still down here looking up at the foothills.

So as usual, in my quest to do anything other than actually write – I started hitting up Google for some means of collating this information because it’s getting simply too much to manage. I have Word documents everywhere, notes in my phone, emails to myself, you name it! So much information in so many places it’s ridiculous.

And I came across THE PRE-WRITE PROJECT over at She’s Novel. For $7.00 USD this was exactly what I was after – a series of sheets designed to collate these thoughts into what the creator Kristen Kieffer calls a Story Bible. This bible effectively contains everything I have described above – but more. It drills right down into the details, from initial story intentions to character motivations. In a nutshell – it’s fantastic. For that price it was a bit of a no-brainer for me but I find myself having two problems with it:

  1. It’s sold as a digital workbook but other than being a PDF – it’s not actually a digital workbook. Annoyingly, you cannot enter text into the documents themselves. You’re either going to have to print them out and fill them in or transcribe them yourself. I’ve been trying to unlock the PDF’s and have done so, but it’s not ideal as it’s still not direct text entry. IF these were truly digital workbooks they would be amazing, but for now, they’re simply good.
  2. I need to find the motivation now to actually fill them out. You would think that based on everything I said above that I would be leaping at the opportunity. But nope – the writing muscle I possess is still about as flaccid as it comes. As I begin to fill it out I….Reddit. House of Cards. Stare at closest wall.

One great thing about these workbooks however is they come at you with a plan. Kristen has put down a timeframe and a rough amount of hours needed to fill it out which is really quite realistic. If I can whip my ass into gear, I’ll report back – just don’t hold your breath.

If you pick up these workbooks and find them of value let me know – it might just inspire me to fill them out! If you can find an easy way to unlock the text fields without the Acrobat typewriter thing, double let me know!

Take off your pants!

I recently read a post over on Reddit (aka the most addictive goddamned website on the internet bar none) about a guy who was having issues writing, read a book and bam! Suddenly it all clicked and he started cranking out books like there’s no tomorrow. The guy sounded a lot like me – constantly victim of distraction, starting but never finishing, full of ideas but unable to find the inner whateverittakes to get them out of the head and onto the page – and so I thought, hey, the book he spoke about was only 4 bucks on Amazon, I’ll give it a crack!

The book in question is Take off Your Pants! : Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing: Revised Edition. It wasn’t a long or difficult read but was enjoyable enough. Written by Libbie Hawker (who appears to write literary historical fiction) – she lays out a basic outline which she says has drastically improved her ability to write – removing the hurdles of unknown that keep cropping up, while still giving allowing for considerable creative discovery in the writing process.

There was one thing about the way she presented this outline that I found really interesting. Initially Libbie has you consider a number of key factors.

  1. The Main Character/Protagonist
  2. Their External Goal
  3. The Antagonist
  4. The End.
  5. The Protagonist’s Flaw
  6. The Protagonist’s Ally
  7. Theme

Now obviously she goes into considerably more depth than just the above, also adding in there a whole series of key story points which I will not go into here. In addition, she uses examples of several other books and her own writing to help explain these points, something that authors like KM Weiland also do particularly well and really help drive the understanding home.

What I liked most about the above points however (and they all made perfect sense once explained) – is she describes them as the story core, or story bricks – and creates this image of building a bridge (the outline itself). Each time you create an element of the plot via the outline, it has to be using one of these particular bricks. It constrains the writing in such a way that you’re staying within an overall framework that really is quite logical.

For example, any decision the protagonist makes is determined by the theme, or his/her’s flaw, or their external goal. If you consider this right the way through, you’re basically identifying the story for no other reason than you’re making logical choices that apply to the story as a whole, creating a cohesive piece that sticks to the fundamental elements of good story.

So while I haven’t yet sat down to solidly work out my outline, I do have a very good idea of a lot of these concepts – it’s just now that the hard work begins, little old wuss bag Marcus hides in the corner.

One other thing I found interesting was her descriptions of using the above method for multiple protagonist/antagonist stories, where you need to go through the entire process for each main character and logically link them together later in the story. This was interesting to read and I am glad she covered it as I rarely see that particular topic come up in every day writing craft type articles.

If you’re like me and struggling to get your ass into gear and write, and feel that developing a basic (yet also quite comprehensive) outline might help you, I highly recommend checking out Libbie’s book.

pants-off

It’s 2016, Happy New Year!

2015 went unbelievably fast. We say that every year but it truly did. For me, 2015 was a crap year. On a personal front there were issues, but moreso on a work front it was a nightmare – a goddamned nightmare that I am glad to be done with.

Will 2016 be any better? It’s hard to say but one thing is for sure I have some personal and professional goals that I aim to achieve this year and so that’s a start. I don’t believe in new years resolutions – I don’t need a change of year to start something new, but this year I am looking at it as a fresh beginning as 2015 was a write-off, and it can quite frankly, stay out!

From a writing point of view it’s time to stop pissing around, time to remove the finger from bottom and most of all, time to stop not writing. I’m going to force myself to outline this novel and then actually write it. I’ve tried multiple times to get it moving and after a few chapters it just hasn’t gone anywhere. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself when it comes to writing (when writing fiction, anyway) it’s that I need to know where I am going.

And I’m almost there. I’ve given this story considerable thought and it grows by the day. Funnily enough my thoughts on plot have moved from an endless cycle of contemplating the first portion of the story to considering some approximate resolutions. There’s a big old gap in the centre where the front and end need to be bridged, but hey it’s a start.

I’ve also got a series of named and known characters now along with some very plausible motivations and conflicts. The only thing left is to really get an outline down and start to put down some horrible words that can be hammered into some semblance of goodness down the track.

From a non-writing point of view, this year will be one of considerable change for me – and not just my wanting change, big change is coming and I am waiting for it with open arms.

I wish everyone a happy and prosperous 2016, whatever it is you are up to!

If like me you had a craptastic 2015, I’d love to hear about it 🙂

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RIGHT- JUST WRITE! (damnit!)

Do you know what I have found to be the hardest part about writing fiction? The physical writing.

In general I am a particularly fast typer and can usually sit before a blank word document and fill it in no time flat. I can write rambling blog posts, or emails to friends, or posts to forums or any number of things, but when it comes to writing fiction? BUH-BOH.

I’ve self-studied writing in quite considerable depth over the past few years and have come a hell of a long way in my understanding of writing mechanics. My original problem was a lack of ideas – something that troubled me back in my school days. I felt that I could never come up with ideas unless someone gave me a prompt. I remember effortlessly writing a story during one of my English exams back at school, a creative writing piece where I was given a line about some guy standing there, looking across the plains his cape swirling about his shoulders (or some such). And the story just came out. But in the years that followed, I drew blanks. I couldn’t think of anything to write about and was frustrated by it.

But part of my study of writing craft involved developing ideas and in particular the development of conflict. These days I find myself overflowing with ideas and if I am quite honest, some of them are pretty damned good too!

But my problem lies in the actual writing. I’ve tried both outlining and free-writing (pantsing) and find myself hitting those same problems. The act of placing fingers on keyboard and just writing towards a specific end – it kills me.

I’m into my early 40’s now and I think that one thing I’ve picked up in my older years is a bad habit to over-think things. It definitely affects my writing. The act of writing a particularly shitty first draft, I understand why people say it and agree that you really can’t edit a blank page – but just letting myself write in that way engages every mental roadblock my mind can find.

To boil down some of the most common writing advice that practically every source will touch upon looks something along the lines of:

  1. Write every day.
  2. The first draft will be terrible – allow yourself to write terribly.
  3. Write X amount of words every day.
  4. Remove all distractions (particularly internet and phone related).
  5. Close the door (Thx S.King).

I most definitely don’t have a daily writing habit yet – not where i’ll sit down and focus on writing 500 words, but i do tend to write a lot daily. When I’m not writing, I’m also thinking a lot also (which might be part of my problem).

I’m currently working on a novel length story in which I am chipping away at the details. The characters are slowly becoming real. I’ve been increasingly using a bit of a ‘dear diary’ type system to get inside the heads of the characters, particularly when I don’t yet know the characters. Some characters I know very well, but others remain somewhat mysterious. And so I’ll sit down and just write:

“My name is Marcus and I find myself frustrated in my ability to sit down and write. I often look out the window and wonder what the hell is holding me back…and then usually pad off into the other room to watch TV. When I was young I used to spend a lot of time….blah blah blah”

Like this, but from the point of view of my characters. I guess I could count the words in each of these as they usually come in around the 500 word mark and I pretty much write them without thinking and instantaneously. But man oh man how i wish i could do what i do above, and do it towards the actual novel length story. Now THAT is the bit eluding me.

In summary: GRAGH!

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So…where we at?

As I recently posted, I’ve set out to write something of a novel length – or around the 80-100k words mark. I mentioned that I was going to simply start and work out problems along the way – whether they’re plot, setting, system, character – whatever.

I have started – but hoo boy have there been hurdles and roadblocks of every description popping up left right and centre.

To name but a few:

  1. The entire naming convention – the main ‘race/culture’ of the book is inspired by Japanese culture and I’ve gone with names to match, but – and the big but, it feels wrong to lift this culture from the real world and use it. I am not lifting it in its entirety as I am not Japanese and despite my quite intimate knowledge and passion for the culture and history, I can’t possibly know enough to do it all justice. So by taking the cultural influence and the names – something just isn’t sitting right.

– As a sub-point here, I am not overtly using the names and language. Tatami mats for example are referred to as bamboo matting, and the characters may eat rice, and may admire a koi filled pond. I’m not dropping overtly Japanese names as I can’t see any reason to. And the names of characters while also Japanese inspired, I’ve gone for the more western sounding names. But ultimately, I’m thinking of renaming everything as really, it doesn’t matter. It’s just to satisfy my own jollies that I’ve named them this way.

  1. Characters – I have a solid protagonist, two antagonists and a variety of quite well thought out supporting characters, however I also have supports who are there to serve a purpose…but then are effectively useless. But the flicker of a flame is there – there’s this one guy in particular who I see great things for – I just haven’t yet been able to work out what they are. And there’s this other great character – but now he’s even muddier based on that last guy. Blargh!
  2. Plot – I know how i want it to end and i know how we get there, but the mid to three quarter mark is problematic. And more – I know there’s an entire sub-plot with sub-characters that needs to go in there, but I havent yet worked it out. This world has sizeable conflict, and rather than simply tell it, this sub-plot will show it. BUT IT NEEDS TO BE CREATED!

For every answer there’s at least 3- 4 more questions.  I’ve re-written chapter 1 multiple times now and have a fairly solid chapter 2. I’ve tried to start chapter 3 but I’ve found myself going back to 1. I know this is a no-no, and it’s entirely possible the first chapter(s) might be outright dumped (if all the writing advice i read is true) – but I feel that I need a solid foundation from which to launch into the following chapters. I’ve been concentrating on finding the right voice with the protagonist and establishing the conflict. There’s a soppy element here early that I dont want to detract from the rest.

But hey – let’s see where this goes – hopefully somewhere.

Chapter 2….and a lil map making

Alright so I think I’ve finally escaped from chapter 1…having only re-written it a handful of times. I’ve realised that in order to map out this world, I need to just start writing or risk being stuck in the permanently planning phase – though I have also come to the realisation that the starting chapter(s) need to be solid enough of a platform to spring off from as regardless of how many times I re-write it in the future, if I don’t start off on the right foot it can potentially taint everything that comes after it.

In this case a minor character has changed from female to male, the protagonist has changed from a crying sap to a more typical hold it in type and I’ve been able to put some names on various plot elements and locations.

Onwards and upwards!

In other news, I’ve been watching this series of YouTube videos on map making and damn if they’re not fantastic. Check out the below video for a really straight-forward method of mapping with little to no Photoshop skill. Much kudos to Jessica Khoury – also be sure to check out her website!