Writing my way to the next plateau?

In my New Year’s post on my writing goals for 2014, I asked whether my goals met the Attainable part of SMART goals. That’s a very good question given that I’ve failed to meet my “write two, publish two” goals each of the last two years. Those goals were the equivalent of “write 200,000 words, publish 200,000 words,” and I hit about half that. How do I think I can now jump to a million new words written and half that much published? The betting alien would say I’ve got a comet’s chance in a supernova, and on most days, I would agree with him. But not now, and to explain why, I have to go down the rabbit hole of “mastery” for a bit first.

There’s a book called Masteryby George Leonard that talks about learning a new skill. It describes the path from novice to master. It frequently falls back on the metaphor of sports (aikido and tennis specifically), but I have found that the broader topics are applicable across a wide variety of skills. This is also somewhat related to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, where he states that it typically takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master a new skill.

Anyway, on this path towards Mastery, Leonard talks about how we spend most of our time on a plateau. We’re not really getting any better, despite all our efforts. In fact, some days we almost feel like we’re getting worse at it. Then, out of the blue, we suddenly jump up to a new level of skill. It’s that breakthrough moment when you suddenly “get it.” It’s wonderful. You gain a lot of understanding and apparent skill very quickly. It’s that time when you feel the most fulfilled for learning this new skill.

Aaaand then you’re back on the plateau. It’s a higher plateau, and you are better than you were before, but that flash of sudden insight has passed. You have to learn to love those plateaus, because that is where brand new skills go from something you think about to something you do automatically.

I have been on something of a plateau for the last year or so. I have learned how to write a good novel, how to edit it and polish it and how to get it out the door to readers… eventually. Still, I spend a lot of time struggling through that edit period, but in the last month or so, I’ve begun to see why I’m struggling and how to fix it. It feels a bit like I’m on the verge of making that breakthrough to the next plateau of smoother edits and significantly faster production.

So I feel like challenging myself to do what had previously seemed impossible.

The last time I did that was in 2004 when I first attempted NaNoWriMo. I had never written a novel before. In fact, my total short-story fiction to-date was only then getting up to novel length. My previous three attempts at writing a novel had gone from bad to worse and ultimately ended in a six-year period of not writing fiction at all. But I felt like I’d worked through what was going on with that. I felt poised to make that leap.

And sure enough, I did. I pounded through that NaNoWriMo with relative ease, and I did one again the next year. In fact, I’ve completed four NaNoWriMo’s in the last decade. I’ve also ground through two complete edit/publish cycles and most of two others. And it feels like I’ve worked it out, that I’m no longer groping my way forward through the dark.

At least that’s what it feels like. Who knows? But anyway, it feels like the time to make the attempt to leap up to that next plateau. I’d say I’m going to try, but Yoda instructs otherwise.

So I guess I will.

NaNoWriMo: Why I love it, why I hate it, and why I’m not doing it this year…

As October winds down, new writers across the globe are gearing up for NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month of November. The challenge is to start with a blank page and write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. It boils down to 1667 blood-soaked words every day, and at last count, more than 125,000 wordsmiths are gearing up for it this year.

squirrel-winner-100I love NaNoWriMo! After piddling around for twenty years with outlines, back-stories, and world-building – and barely three chapters of actual novel – NaNoWriMo got my butt into the chair for some serious work. In 2004, I put in 51,000 words on a novel that was something like Pinocchio’s tale but with androids. I never did actually finish off the plot for that story, but by the time I finally gave up, I had more than 65,000 words of a novel. The story has its problems, and it was on target to be a bloated 150,000 words, but damn it, it was more than I had written in any single tale I had ever attempted. It felt good, and it made me the dedicated pantser that I am today.

And NaNoWriMo has done more than clutter my closet with unfinished drafts. My first published book, Beneath the Sky, started with my 2005 NaNoWriMo win. I finished it off in the summer of 2007. My upcoming entry into urban fantasy, Hell Bent, started with my 2010 NaNoWriMo win and was finished off the next September. And Ships of My Fathers, the start of the Father Chessman Saga, was my 2011 NaNoWriMo book, actually completed in December immediately after the rush of my fourth NaNoWriMo win!

2005_nanowrimo_winner_largeI love the camaraderie, the constant updating of my word-count spreadsheet, and even the crazy rush as the week of Thanksgiving rolls around. It takes one of the loneliest tasks in the world and turns it into a party. The success and failures of those around you gives you both inspiration and cautionary tales. So, if you have ever thought about writing a novel, I encourage you dive on in and make NaNoWriMo 2013 your path to wordsmithing glory!

But I also hate NaNoWriMo! Yes, I know… it’s great for getting you moving, for getting a lot of those glumpy words out of the noodle factory between our ears, and for daring you to even make the attempt. It’s not quite Steal Fire From The Gods Month, but sure, it taps into stuff only the immortals can handle. Yep, great stuff… in November.

The real problems show up on December 1.

First of all, you very likely don’t have a novel on December 1. I know that e-books and the liberty of self-publishing are shattering the preconceived notions of proper book length, but the reality is that readers are used to books of certain lengths in different genres. Light romances and quick mysteries might squeeze down to 50,000 words, but most start at 60,000. Sci-fi and urban fantasies like to play in the range of 80,000 to 120,000 words. And then there are a number of weighty tomes across those genres that flop down on the beach with 150,000 to 250,000 words.

nano_10_winner_120x240-6Even apart from word-count, did you actually get to the end of the story? Have Bilbo and the dwarves defeated Smaug, or are they just now leaving Rivendale? When I bailed on my 2004 effort (the unnamed Pinocchio tale), I was barely past the 40% mark of where that story was going. On December 1, 2005, Beneath the Sky had just dealt with the pirate attack. That pattern carried through on both Hell Bent and Ships of My Fathers. I was proceeding at the right plot-pace to get to 80-100,000 words, but I simply hadn’t gotten there yet. No one wants to read a book that ends in Act II.

But even once you finish a novel-sized draft – truly, an accomplishment even greater than a NaNoWriMo victory – you’ve only just begun. If your first drafts are anything like mine, what you have is a bucket of words. I say bucket because if this is your first NaNoWriMo, then you will be vomiting forth a fair number of those words, and it shows. I don’t merely mean typos and sloppy grammar. No, I mean that there are fundamental problems with your plot, your characters, your… your… well, your everything. But that’s what editing is for, and NaNoWriMo at least gave you something to edit.

But it is not a ready-to-publish novel. In recent years, I have often heard that most terrible claim, “All right – just need to run the thing through spell-check and then format it for Kindle!” No. No, NO, NO!

So that’s the main thing I hate about NaNoWriMo. It suggests that you have won the race when in truth, you have only gotten off the starting blocks. The race is long, and it’s going to take a lot longer than a month – even one of the ones with thirty-one days.

Winner_120_200_whiteSo, I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year, but not because of the reasons I hate it. Nor am I dead set on never doing NaNoWriMo again in the future. It’s just that I’ve gotten past the point where I need it to be November for me to pile on in and write a new novel. Since 2011 I’ve written two other novels, neither of which were in November. I plugged away with NaNoWriMo intensity – typically shooting for 2500 words per day, not a mere 1667. I think I’ve mastered the process of getting that first draft out of my brain and onto the page.

But what I’m still struggling with is the process of turning that bilious bucket of draft into a publishable novel. Right now I have three novels grinding their way through the editing gears. The furthest along is Hell Bent, but the highest priority is Debts of My Fathers. Shattered, my attempt at a mystery, is going to wait for a while.

And here it is, the closing days of October, and believe me, the adrenaline rush of NaNoWriMo is calling to me, but I’m not going to do it. I certainly don’t need an unfinished draft distracting me in December, and even if I finished it off in November, I don’t need to have a fourth novel cluttering up my editing queue. No, what I need is the month of November to work on the novels that are already written and fighting their way towards publication. I know this sounds lame, but I’ve got to make the grown-up decision and work on edits this November, and that means I don’t have the hours in the day to do NaNoWriMo.

But somewhere down the line, I will find myself gearing up for another draft in late October, and when I do, I will almost certainly put on my NaNo hat again and ride off to do battle with the 1667.  In the meantime, I salute those of you heading into the fray this year.

Shattered Complete

shattered_vaseSo… I finished off my fifth novel this morning, or at least the first draft of it. It’s a mystery, tentatively titled Shattered. I wrote it mostly as an experiment, and I did learn several things from it. It will likely see publication sometime next year, but given the genre difference, I will probably publish it under a different author name.

First, the vital stats: It came in short – quite short – at 51,551 words. As I’ve often said regarding NaNoWriMo, 50,000 words is not a novel. Well, at least, it’s not a novel by sci-fi, urban fantasy, or epic fantasy standards. My two published novels are 90k and 85k words long, and even then, they’re on the short end of SF. However, many mysteries tend to be much shorter, in the 60-70k range. This draft is fairly rough – as most of my drafts are – so I expect it to bulk up about 7-10k during my first pass of edits. That’s a typical expansion in actual word count, though obviously it’s a larger percentage. However, this draft has a few notes like “[Whoops, forgot to mention the thing about the ammunition and the lock and the loading procedure. Put that in during edits.]” That’s 500 words right there, and that note is not exactly rare.

What did I learn?

For starters, outlines are still not my thing. It sucked my energy for writing the actual draft, and in the end, I didn’t follow it all that closely. For the 3 days and 5,000 words I put into the outline, it didn’t really help me much at all. I think all I really needed were my destination and waypoints, and once I had those in my head, the rest didn’t really matter.

Then there’s the matter of writing in a completely new genre. Yes, I can do it. I didn’t particularly feel the passion for it, but I was able to sit down pretty much every day and crank out the words. I didn’t need to light the magic candle or wait for the Spirit of the Muse to descend upon me and fill me with her divine inspiration. Nope, it was mostly a matter of putting my butt in the chair and pounding out the words on the keyboard. I think that just comes from the experience of past novels. I did pick up a couple of minor productivity tricks, and I’ll see if they work out again on the next book.

Also, the fact that it was a mystery pointed out a couple of specific lessons I should be able to carry elsewhere. First, character’s motives need to be believable, apparent, but not shouted out at the reader. Apparently some of my background characters have been a little two-dimensional, so I’ll be keeping this in mind going forward. And second, it’s hard but not impossible to spread out all the pieces of the climax to where they’re not obvious and then pull them all together for the big “Aha!” moment. I think I had an intuitive grasp of this already, but doing it in the mystery genre made the act of doing so much more explicit.

But probably my biggest take-away today is that my reaction has been decidedly business-like. I remember the first time I finished off a complete novel draft. I was euphoric for days, but with each novel completed, the emotional reaction had been less. This time, it was pretty much just, “Check that one off the list… what’s next?”

So yeah, what actually is next? I’m finishing off my edits to Debts of My Fathers and getting it off to beta readers. Then I’m doing the post-beta edits to Hell Bent and drafting its sequel, Stone Killer. Then it’s post-beta edits to Debts of My Fathers and drafting Oaths of My Fathers. And somewhere in there, both Hell Bent and Debts of My Fathers will go through copyedits and production to be released late this year.

So, it’s back to the word mines…

Novel Done, Moving Forward

It’s been quiet here for the last couple of weeks, but I finished the draft to Debts of My Fathers. I put in the last word Friday the 16th and went out to celebrate. Then came family, holidays, and so forth, so I decided to take a week off from all writing tasks, both fiction and blogging.

The novel itself is my longest draft so far, coming in at 99,269 words. Previous first drafts have come in around 75-80,000 and then stretched towards 90,000 during edits. This one is probably going to need to be cut some through tighter writing simply because even now I realize there a few more scenes that need to be added along the way.

The irony is that at the beginning of Act 3, I was worried that it was going to come in short at 65-70,000 words. Mostly that fear came from the no-outline vision of the climax I had in my mind, i.e. they get into this predicament and then with a little trickery, they get out of it. In the end, the trickery became… well, involved.

It is the sixth novel I’ve started and the fourth I’ve completed. (The first two unfinished novels are old and unlikely to see the light of day again.) I wrote it in five and half months, which is about the middle of the road for me so far. The others took three years, one year, and two months. I did the bulk of the work in June and the first part of July, and then I struggled over the next fourth months finishing it off. In retrospect, there are a couple of things I would have done differently schedule-wise, but I’m learning as I go. It’s also the first completed draft I’ve done that was not a NaNoWriMo attempt.

But for now, it’s done. I’ll probably print a review copy in the next week or two, and then that will sit on my shelf for a few months while I get some distance from it.

In the meantime, I will be returning to do the next edit pass on Ships of My Fathers. I’ll have to see how I feel at the end of it to decide whether it needs another beta reading or if it’s ready to go into the polish and proofreading stage.

Next I’ll do the edits to Hell Bent, my urban fantasy set in a cross-dimensional Pittsburgh. I wrote that one back in 2010-11, and it was a lot of fun. It’s a completely different setting, and I wrote it in first person. It’s a little on the short side at 71,000 words, but I know it’s going to grow about 10-15,000 words during the edit pass.

Once I get that off to my beta readers, it will either be back to polishing Ships of My Fathers or diving into the sequel to Hell Bent. I’ll just have to see where I am by then. Right now I don’t have a clear vision of how that sequel ends, and I can’t really start until I know where I’m going. Failing that, I’m still toying with the idea of writing a vanilla-world mystery for my mother.

The blog should return to something like its regular schedule, and I’ll probably have two Jim Butcher reviews up before the end of the year. I recently finished the second book in his Furies series, and the next installment of the Dresden Files comes out tomorrow. I had been dreading reading that one in hardcover, but it looks like my new Kindle jumped ahead in the production queue and shipped this morning.

What about the rest of you?  I know many of you were doing NaNoWriMo this year.  How did that go?

5 Ways to Keep Grinding out NaNoWriMo

Well, November 1st came and went, and I did not start on NaNoWriMo this year. As I mentioned in last week’s post, I had several reasons not to do NaNoWriMo, and the one that really killed it was the over-full writing schedule. Specifically, November arrived without me finishing the draft to Debts of My Fathers. Add to that the edits and polishing needs for two more novels, and jumping ship to do NaNoWriMo this year just seemed to be a bad choice for my long-term goals. However, I am still hoping to squeeze out one more draft this year, so my December might turn into Personal Novel Writing Month (PeNoWriMo).

But with four NaNoWriMo wins under my belt from previous years, I figure I’ve got a few useful things to say about getting to that 50,000 word finish line. I’ve done it with time off. I’ve done it on death-march projects. I’ve even done it with a pretty serious chest cold. In short, it can be done.

But how? More specifically, how do you keep going when you hit the wall of plot confusion, self-doubt, and fatigue around 18,000 words? Maybe it comes early, or maybe late, but somewhere in NaNoWriMo, you’re bound to hit some kind of wall. Here are some ways to keep grinding out 1,666 words each day when even 100 seems impossible.

1. Build momentum while padding it out. If you have a hard time starting at the beginning of the writing session, just pad out the text with description or trivial dialog. Yes, that part will need to be cut, but that will happen months later during the edits. Put it in now, get your fingers moving, and once the words start flowing, segue into the morgue scene where Dr. Pickles finds the missing bullet.


2. Park downhill. This is another technique for easing your way into the next writing session, but it requires you to plan ahead. When you’re running out of your allotted writing time (or you’ve beaten back the daily word count to nothing), don’t wrap things up. Instead, leave things right there in the middle of the action with just a couple of notes to remind you what happens next. That way, when you come back the next day, you don’t have to stare at the blank page wondering what comes next. Instead, you can pick back up with the grenade still sailing through the air past our intrepid hero.

3. Knock something over. If you’re pantsing it (or if you suddenly realize your careful outline isn’t working), you can get stuck, unsure of what happens next. This is pretty common around the 20-30,000 word mark. You’ve established the setting, put the characters in motion, established the conflict, and now you’re left wondering what to do between now and that distant climax. This is the perfect time for something unexpected. The car breaks down. Your hero gets arrested. The dinner guest is carrying the pox. Shit hits the fan! You’ll crank out 10-15,000 words recovering from this, and very likely it will set up something important for the end.

4. Burn your thesaurus. Well, not literally burn it, but try to stay away from it. The point here is to not get bogged down in the wordcraft. Yes, there are writers who turn out beautifully poetic first drafts… in eight years. They do not do it in thirty days. More than once, I’ve just thrown down some crap and followed it up with a note to my later self, “That doesn’t work as well as it needs to. Fix it.”

5. Resist the urge to edit. You’re twenty thousand words in and you realize your hero needs a sidekick. Do not go back and edit what you have to add the sidekick. Just drop in a little note to your later self that you are adding the sidekick and that it will need some exposition and interaction earlier on. Then start writing as if the sidekick has been there the whole time. The same goes for evil nemeses, long-lost brothers, and dead mentors. Even if you did an outline, the act of writing that first draft reveals what the story really is. You can deal with that extra leg later on.

If that doesn’t keep the words flowing, you might need chemical intervention or a neural interface. For other thoughts on NaNoWriMo, see my column last year: Nah Know Rhyme Oh!

To NaNo or Not to NaNo

That’s the 50,000 word question. More specifically (yet in less than 50,000 words), I mean to ask whether or not to participate in this year’s National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. In general I’m positive on NaNoWriMo. If you’ve never written a novel but always wanted to, I highly recommend it. Either it will give you the kick in the pants to actually put in the effort, or it will force you to admit that after all these years, you don’t really like to write after all.

But I’m in a very different situation.

I’ve already written a novel. (BTW, that’s it on the right-hand column. Go buy a copy so that I can eat lunch.) In fact, I’ve already written three novels, and I’m rapidly closing in on the end of my fourth. I don’t need NaNoWriMo to find out if I can finally write that book.

What’s more, I have a pretty full writing schedule right now, and a number of my required tasks should realistically take priority over starting a new draft. First, I really do need to finish the draft of Debts of my Fathers. My original plan schedule had been to finish it in July, but as I’ve said elsewhere, I hit a snag. Second, I have first-reader comments back on Ships of My Fathers, and I need to make another editing pass on that, polish it, send it to my proofreader, and then start pushing it through the publishing process – something I had planned to do this calendar year. And third, I still have to do the edits to Hell Bent and get it out the door to first readers. Those tasks could probably eat up most of my writing time for the rest of the year.

Plus, this November is going to have less free time for me than previous years. I’m looking for a new job (mad C++ skills if anyone has a spot), and my wife may have to do some travelling this coming month. Add to that the ongoing demands of special needs kids, some teaching that I do, and a decent social life, and it’s going to be hard to make the time to do NaNoWriMo on top of all the rest of the writing-related work on the three projects already in progress.

And yet…

NaNoWriMo is an adrenaline rush for mad creativity junkies like me. It’s a blast. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had out of the bedroom. Hell, considering that I’ve done some of it on my laptop in bed, I suppose it also counts as some of the most fun I’ve had there too. There’s something about it that just sucks me in and squeezes those creative juices into a tangy fiction cocktail with just enough sweetness to cover the raw grain alcohol underneath. It’s heady stuff, and it’s hard to walk past it without at least taking a sniff.

I actually have a project in mind. By my original schedule, I was going to start it in October. It’s the sequel to Hell Bent, and my plan was to do the first-pass edits to that novel in September, so that in October I would be fully steeped in the character and universe and ready to go. As it is, I still haven’t done those edits yet. And of course, I was going to do the Ships of My Fathers work first while the draft of Debts of My Fathers was still fresh, allowing me to go back and drop in any details to the earlier work that were needed to set up the sequel.

Which brings me right back to where I was before: needing to be the responsible professional and do the scheduled work first.

So, right now I’m all over the map and completely undecided. With a day to go, I honestly have no idea whether I’ll be doing NaNoWriMo or not.

I guess we’ll see what happens Thursday morning.

Five Reasons to do NaNoWriMo

Jo Eberhardt, a blogger from down under, wrote a piece last week, giving Five Reasons Not to Do NaNoWriMo. You might think I’m disagreeing with her, but in truth, I completely agree with her. You see, she wasn’t saying not to do it at all. Rather, she was saying not to do it if you’re motivated by one of those five reasons. If you’re tempted by the looming November mass insanity, be sure to give her column a read to check for bad motives.

But if she gave us disastrous reasons, what are some good reasons to actually try NaNoWriMo?

1. Because it’s there.

I don’t think I’m ever going to climb Mt. Everest, but there’s something to be said for trying hard things. Succeed, fail, or surrender, you’ll learn something about yourself. In this case, you’ll learn something about your writing. Do you write more easily in the morning? Is description easier than dialog? Do you prefer to outline or make it up as you go? Do you even like the actual writing part of all this?

If you’ve never tried it, and especially if you’ve never completed a novel, it’s worth making the attempt just for what you will learn about yourself.

2. Because you can make the time for a month.

This is one of the best reasons for trying it. If you have trouble making the time to write, NaNoWriMo gives you a big tool for making that time. No, it doesn’t give you the secret recipe for time (for the curious…2 parts eternity, 1 part deadline, mix well, bake in crucible until hell freezes over). Instead, it gives you a temporary excuse to do what you always knew you’d have to do.

What you don’t want to admit is that making time for writing means giving up time for something else. Maybe you play a lot of video games. Then there are those seventeen TV shows you just can’t miss. Facebook might bring you joy, but it’s two hours a day. Let’s not even talk about the audiotapes from the Klingon Language Institute. And if you think you’ll simply sleep less… well, be thankful if you even get to Thanksgiving.

But you can give up the video games for a month, and if you put all your friends on some kind of no-spoiler-notice, those TV shows can sit on the DVR until December. And so on. You will survive without those things for thirty days. Cut them out, and you’ll have plenty of time for writing in November. I’m not saying it will be easy, but you can just keep telling yourself that it’s only for thirty days.

3. Because your friends and family will let you for a month.

Even after all the private things that take up your pre-November time, there are also the things you do with others. There’s that dance troupe, Aunt Milly who needs to go to the doctor, your roommate who hates to do dishes, and even that boss who expects you to come in for unpaid overtime on Saturdays. A lot of people have expectations on your time. It’s one thing for you to decide to give up TV for a month. That’s just you. But decide to bail on your friends and family? You suck, Mr. Writer.

Well, you’ll be there for them again in December. It’s just the one month, right? Someone else can drive Aunt Milly to the doctor for a while. Bobbi can take the lead in the Nutcracker this year. And for God’s sake, someone else can go into the office to reboot the server for once!

They’ll scowl at you. They’ll feel hurt that you cut them instead of someone else. They might even secretly hope for your utter failure. But it’s not like you’re personally pumping the blood through their body. They can do without you for thirty days, and at some level, they know it.

4. Because you might actually finish the damned thing.

Even if you “win” NaNoWriMo, you won’t really have a ready-to-publish novel. Novels range from 60,000 to 120,000 words, and they’ve been edited, revised, polished, and proofread. What poops out of the back end of NaNoWriMo is not a complete novel, so don’t think that that’s what you’ll have.

Instead, you’ll have the first 50,000 words of the unedited first draft of a novel. It’s no more publishable than when you had zero words, BUT – and this is big – it is still 50,000 words closer to that goal than you were on October 31. For some people, the hardest thing to write in a novel is the very first word.

So maybe you’ll need to take a break at the start of December. Maybe you have some DVR to catch up on. Maybe Aunt Milly is getting tired of taking the bus. Maybe you’ve put on ten pounds sitting at the keyboard and need to hit the gym.

But you managed to make the time for writing once. Sure, it was just for the one month. Your friends and family may have been counting down the days to December, but they did give you the time. Also, you hopefully learned something about yourself and your writing.

And maybe, just maybe, you want to keep going. Maybe there are few things that can slide for more than just thirty days. Maybe your friends and family will be excited by your success and understand if you’re a little less available than you were back in October.

Maybe you can actually finish that first draft. Writing that first word is pretty hard, but perhaps the second hardest word to write is the last one. NaNoWriMo takes care of only one of them, but it might give you the momentum to reach the other.

5. Because bragging feels GOOOOOD.

Have you ever sat around with some friends and talked about the novels you want to write someday but simply haven’t haven’t found the time? Remember how depressing those conversations can be? All of you sitting around, slitting your wrists, and letting all the hope bleed out…

Well, to hell with that.

The next time someone says to you, “I’ve got a novel I want to write someday,” you don’t have to sit there and listen to them whine about not finding the time or the inspiration or the right opening sentence.

Instead, you can simply say, “Well, I look forward to reading it when you get it done. In the meantime, here’s a copy of mine.

Oh yeah, I went there, and the T-shirt looks fabulous!


Again, do read Jo’s column. Your success or failure in NaNoWriMo will depend a lot on your reasons for trying it. Do it for the wrong reasons, and even if you get to the 50,000 word mark, you’ll fail. But if you do it for the right reasons, you could succeed with only 34,562.

Are any of you thinking of trying it this year? What do you hope to get out of it?

NaNoWriMo 2011 Wrap-up

Yep, 50,000 words. Been there. Done that. Here’s the equivalent of the t-shirt:

NaNoWriMo 2011 Winner Icon

I was pretty confident going in this year. I had already succeeded at NaNoWriMo three times before, turning two of those efforts into completed novels. So, to make it more interesting, I decided that this year my goal was not merely the 50,000 words, but rather to never fall behind the curve. As an unstated stretch goal, I wanted to see if I could actually finish the story in November, which would probably require closer to 75-85,000 words.

Let’s start with the word count. I started off strong, beating 2000 words every day for the first week. This turned the word count of the beast into something closer to a bear – still worrisome at around 1450 words per day, but losing its demonic qualities. Another week averaging 2500 words per day brought it down to 850, the word count of the buffalo – still respectable, but not all that aggressive. However, continuing at that pace rapidly turned it into the word count of the badger, laughable as it rapidly plunged towards zero. And on November 20th, it officially became the word count of MY BITCH!* As in, “Bend over when you get me that soap, bitch!” So, this year I did 50,000 words in 20 days.

But alas, I did not reach my stretch goal of finishing the manuscript in November. I feel a little bad writing my post-mortem while there are still hours left in the NaNoWriMo frenzy, but the writing is on the wall rather than in my manuscript. The pace of the first twenty days put me on the right track, but I was unable to sustain it into Thanksgiving. What killed it was the arrival of family and all the schedule disruption they bring with them. I’m probably going to finish up the month fifteen to twenty thousand words short of the ultimate end of the manuscript. Still, the last relative is flying out shortly, so I intend to go “back to the word mines” and resume that 2500 word per day pace. So, I should wrap up shortly, just not in November.

As I was going at it, a friend told me, “You know, you’re really past NaNoWriMo.” She’s probably right, but it was nice to do it one more time. I have a lot of work ahead of me finishing off edits to the previous two novels and seeing what to do about their publication, and then there’s the editing on this one. But even then, I hope to be starting my next manuscript before next November, so while I might still make an effort to do a full first draft in 30 days, I doubt I’ll ever be doing NaNoWriMo again except by a coincidence of the calendar.

I’ll let you all know when this one wraps up, and I’ll say a bit about it then.

(*For those of the feminine persuasion, understand that “bitch” refers to the poor sap who had the ill fortune to be my cell mate in prison, not to a lovely yet maligned lady.)

Nah Know Rhyme Oh!

We’re gutting pumpkins and mixing up fresh brain, so that can mean only one thing: It’s almost time for NaNoWriMo.

Ok, maybe Halloween is in there somewhere too, but if you’re in the writing field, you can’t help but know that November brings us National Novel Writing Month.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, NaNoWriMo is somewhere between a writing contest and a mutual support group for folks trying to write that novel they’ve always wanted to write. The idea is to write 50,000 words of a novel in the 30 days of November.

I have done NaNoWriMo four times and reached the 50,000 word goal three of those times. The one time I didn’t make wasn’t even close. I abandoned it by the fifth day as a story I just wasn’t emotionally ready to write yet. Of the three times I “won”, only two of those turned into completed stories. One of them is in the final copy-edit pass, and the other is currently going through red-lines. (Although technically the red lines are purple this time since my red pen died on page 22.) All of this to say, I have some experience at this, so my advice is 3% more valid than the next guy’s.

So, here is my list of…

Ten Things You Need to Know about NaNoWriMo

1. It’s not easy, but it gets easier. The necessary word count per day is 1666 (a.k.a. the word count OF THE BEAST!), and that’s nothing to sneeze at. I have heard a number of professional “working” writers who talk about doing 1000 words a day or sometimes as little as “a page” a day which is probably closer to 300-500 words. On the other hand, they manage it day after day after day, not just for 30 days in the fall. Still, practice helps, and after three wins, the word count grind has gotten easier. If this is your first time, well, see number 2.

2. It’s all about putting your butt in the chair and writing. Writing is not about finding your muse (though she helps) or opening yourself to the inspiration that will surely descend from the heavens (it might not) or even writing when you feel like it (because inevitably you won’t). Writing is work, and that means grinding it out even when you’re not in the mood. NaNoWriMo is mostly just an exercise in forcing yourself to sit at the desk and write, write, WRITE! You didn’t really need to watch Dr. Who this month, did you?

3. 50,000 words is not a novel. Novel length varies from genre to genre, but I think the shortest (mystery and romance) are at least 60-65,000. Science fiction and fantasy tend to start around 80,000 and can go as far as 150,000 for some authors – how long was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince anyway? If you do make it to 50,000 words by the end of November, don’t be surprised if your story has not reached its end. Just keep writing. You’ll get there. On the other hand, if you reach 50,000 words and your story hasn’t really started yet, just stop. It’s probably not worth the editing effort. Start again next year and try to get to the point.

4. November is a crappy month to hold this contest in. About the only thing it has going for it is that in much of the country, the weather is finally getting to the point that you want to stay in. Apart from that, it also has the biggest national travel holiday right during NaNo-crunch-time: Thanksgiving. Plus, you will likely get sick. Or your kids will get sick. Or your spouse will get sick and wonder why you’re off at the keyboard instead of making her soup. Some variation of those has happened to me every year. My only advice is don’t be surprised when these things happen. Plan on it.

5. Your best hope is to get ahead and stay ahead. The best way to manage the word count of the beast is to beat it every single day. If you beat it by 30 words on the first day, then your required daily word count drops by one word. If you beat it by 300, it goes down by 10. If you beat by so many thousands of words that it crawls off into the closet and cries, well, you get the idea. Get ahead of the curve, and the curve stops being so steep.

6. When you ignore that advice and fall behind… well, it’s the same advice. See how big the beast has grown and start beating it again. Has it climbed to 2000 words? 4000? 50,000? I’m sorry, but if you get to November 30 and haven’t started, it’s time to start saying, “Oh, that was THIS month?” Personally, I have let the beast get as big as a 4500 word daily count, and I’ve still managed to beat it into submission simply be beating it down a little each day.

7. Your work will not be perfect. In fact, it may very well be crap. However, it strongly advise against editing it as you go. Do NOT go back and revise yesterday’s writing. Do NOT go back and fix that problem in chapter three. Do NOT even go back to change the fact that her mother has actually been dead for the last eight chapters. Today you have to focus on today’s writing. If there was something wrong in the previous day’s or week’s writing, then just make a note and move on. I have literally killed someone’s mother fifteen years retroactively with a simple note, “You know, let’s just say the mother died years ago. I’ll get more mileage out of the dead mother than the live one.”

8. On December 1st, you will have a 50,000 word pile of stinking crap. You vomited that draft out with missing words, bad grammar, characters who change gender three times, and tons of little notes like “vomit? I thought it was crap… pick a metaphor and stick with it.” Even when you get to the end of the story at 60-100,000 words, the pile of crap/vomit is merely bigger. That’s OK. That’s what rewriting is for. Do NOT think that you have a publishable novel in your hands. Do NOT send it out to agents proclaiming it to be the next Barry Motter, or something. Do NOT upload it to Amazon as the latest 99-cent Kindle book. Do NOT even show it to anyone. Simply bask in the glory of having excised that cancerous mass of story from your brain. [Note: really, stick to one metaphor!]

9. At some point (like in March), you’ve got to go back and edit it. Well, either that or just toss in the trunk and call it a learning experience, but even then, it’s worth going through it with a red (or in my case purple) pen. You’ll see all the mistakes you made, both big and small, but you’ll also see a few little gems. Maybe it’s that descriptive passage that really captured the stillness of the lake the morning after Sarah’s disappearance, or maybe it’s the forceful tirade of the vengeful lieutenant, or maybe it’s just a really good use of the word “brutal”. Trust me, if you care enough about your story to crank out 50,000 words of it, there will be a few little gems scattered through the crap, or vomit, or whatever. Save those. Fix up the rest. Feel free to rewrite large swaths from scratch, but do remember how good those few little gems were. Your November won’t seem like such a waste after all.

10. Fuck. I mean it, literally. And if sex isn’t a realistic option for you this November, at least do something fun and meaningful with the people you love. Battling the word count beast every day can be very depressing at times. You know your writing isn’t as good as the stuff you read. You can’t see those gems yet. It all seems kind of pointless, and that word count beast is getting bigger. Go get some hugs. Be with people. You have to give up a lot of stuff to put your butt in the chair and write, but don’t give up the people. The TV can go. The kitchen floor can stay dirty.  Even the job can do with a little less overtime. But don’t miss out on bedtime snuggles with the wife, or Eskimo kisses with your daughter, or even a bit of fetch with the dog. Remind yourself of life before you go back to the dark office and start writing about it.

No one says you have to try it, but if you do, I wish you the best of luck. And a bottle of super-glue to hold your butt to the chair.