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Starting the New Year Off On the Write Foot

What can I say? The end of 2012 was not good for my novel writing. It was good for all sorts of other things, including a short story submitted to a big competition and good non-fiction writing, but not for my novel.

I spent December making all these things for my nieces, which cut into my writing time substantially.

I spent December making all these things for my nieces, which cut into my writing time substantially.

I want to finish The Red Oak (there, I said it – it has a working title) in time to start something new for NaNoWriMo 2013. Given that I need a couple of months of planning and pre-writing to go into NaNoWriMo ready to generate a complete first draft of an MG  or YA book, that means wrapping up the next draft of The Red Oak by the end of February. I have a lot of things I want to add to the next draft, complete sections, scenes, characters, etc. Things I need to write from scratch. Big changes, not small changes.

I want to get back to writing 1,000-1,500 words a day of completely new material.

It would be easy to give myself today, the New Year’s Day holiday, off. My husband has the day off work. My kids are home. I am sick. But, I need to reestablish habits that I let go of during the fall. And that means no excuses.

And so, to prove to myself that I am serious about this goal, I wrote. 1,000 words.

I believe that the choice of the New Year as a starting point is arbitrary. Different cultures have marked time in different cycles and counted the beginning of each year around the sun from different points. January 1 is only meaningful because we made it so. But, given that we live in a world that turns the year on this day, I see no reason not piggyback personal rituals on it. I don’t believe in traditional New Year’s resolutions, but I do believe that a culturally signified date can be a marker to pin a personal shift to, as long as you hold it lightly and hold yourself with compassion if you should falter – because we all falter.

Have you done something today because it is a practice you want to develop in 2013?


Beyond Word Counts: How Do You Measure Progress on Your Novel?

It is November. The annual explosion of bad first drafts, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo, is rushing towards its end.

NaNoWriMo is a great tool for folks who need to get past the hurdle of getting a large number of words on paper.

But, what if you want to get past the first draft phase? When you undertake the process of revision, tracking progress is harder.

A novel is a major undertaking. For a novice writer making time to write around a day job and a family, it can take years. A writer without an agent or a contract must  claim small victories to sustain enthusiasm and commitment through-out the process.

What progress can a novelist celebrate during the process?

  • Daily time at work
  • A successful scene
  • Creation of a timeline/an outline/a map or other support material
  • A thematic element repeated throughout the book to create a stream of unity
  • A comprehensive plot that holds together
  • A complete manuscript sent to beta readers
  • Revisions suggested by beta readers incorporated
  • Each time a revision is sent out for feedback and comments are responded to
  • First time pitching the novel
  • Each time pitching the novel
  • Each time the manuscript is sent to an editor or agent
  • Each rejection letter
  • Getting an agent
  • Getting a publishing contract

Some of these milestones are not in the writer’s control, but many of them are. Each incremental step forward should be acknowledged, and preferably celebrated. The small steps are what lead to the finish.

Am I missing any milestones that you celebrate? Let me know in the comments.

When Summer Is the Hardest Time to Write

For several summers in a row, I have had difficulty putting words together. July and August have been writing dead zones. Each year, I have inadvertently taken a complete writing hiatus in July and come back slowly in August – writing blog posts, but not making progress on my novel.

When the weather cools, the days shorten, and the kids go back to school, I get more writing done.

But I don’t like the break. There is always a little voice in the back of my head telling me I should be writing more. And the further I get into the summer, the louder that voice gets.

Next year, I think I will actively take a break from blogging in July – line up a few posts in advance and relax about the blog. I might even take a vacation from trying to produce new work as well. I could treat it as a mini-sabbatical, a prolonged period of feeding my muse rather than asking her to produce.

In the meantime, I am trying to turn August into a productive writing month. I started well with a post over at An Intense Life about getting ready for new schools for all my kids in September. And, I have devised a little project for myself.

I am a Camp NaNoWriMo Rebel. If you haven’t heard, the people who bring you NaNoWriMo in November started a pared-down version that happens in June and August last summer. I thought about participating last year, but I didn’t want to start a new project and my work-in-progress was in a stage of revision that didn’t fit with the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month. So, I skipped it.

This summer, however, I have a lot of first draft writing I want to do. In my class this winter, I did a lot of work sketching out more plot elements and discovering weaknesses in my characterization. I pruned heavily after that class, leaving gaping holes that need filling with new text.

And, NaNo is a great motivator for me to write a lot of new text. So, I am a NaNo Rebel, a NaNo participant who is not following the rules in some crucial way. Some NaNo Rebels write something other than a novel, some work on a work in progress, some work on several pieces; all break the rules but shoot for the 50,000 word count.

I believe in using writing challenges to serve your project. If the challenge doesn’t quite fit, modify it. So I am using the word count challenge as a challenge to generate material to fill the holes in my manuscript. At the end of July, I wrote a list of 31 things to write that will enrich my novel and I will work through those prompts as August continues.

So far, I have followed these prompts:

  • A detailed physical description of the antagonist and the prison from which he escapes (character development)
  • The story of the initial capture of the antagonist (backstory)
  • A phone call between the protagonist and her mother after the first scene of the novel (character development)
  • The first manifestation of the protagonist’s magical powers (backstory)
  • Diary entries in which the protagonist writes about the five kids at school who most impact her life (backstory and character development)

I am not sure how these bits of writing will fit into the next draft of the novel, but it is clear they are going to enrich it. The phone call between the protagonist and her mother is going to go right where the prompt says it should – but the way it turned out means that I will need to add another scene later about how the protagonist and her grandmother respond to the call.

It’s exciting. The novel is moving. My muse is shouting at me; I’m having trouble keeping up.

This is the kick in the pants I needed to get me back to the computer on these beautiful summer days.

Learning to Fail Better

“Learning to Fail Better” is a chapter title in Alice LaPlante’s book The Making of A Story. The chapter is about revision, but I have been thinking of the title in the context of my overall journey as a writer.

Like many fiction writers, I started my journey writing short stories during my elementary school years. I still have some of those stories. They are charming. They show real promise, a sense of detail and some imaginative twists, but are fundamentally derivative works, inspired by the stories my teachers read aloud in class.

In late elementary school, I tried my hand at a longer piece and got stuck trying to develop a plot. I couldn’t figure out how to build a narrative and I abandoned the project in despair. That failure was pivotal in the path I have taken on my return to writing fiction as an adult.

I was the perfect participant for NaNoWriMo, that annual mad dash of bad novel-writing. I had wanted to write a novel since elementary school, but had let my fear of writing a bad one stop me from writing at all.

The first year, I gave myself permision to write a horrible novel. I wrote a 50,000+ word narrative centered on a single character’s journey. There were some interesting characters, but the plot was horrible. Realizing this, I spent the next year studying plot. The following November, I dove into NaNoWriMo with an outline of half a plot and an idea of where to go from there. But, the idea wasn’t enough and I stalled.

But, I wasn’t done. I kept thinking and studying and writing some short stories.

The following year, I started NaNoWriMo with a full narrative arc planned and a Liquid Story Binder file with a description of what would happen in each chapter. By writing each chapter in that outline, I ended NaNoWriMo with a complete first draft of a middle-grade novel.

It was a messy first draft, but it was my first complete long-form narrative.

I was still failing to write a publishable novel, but I was failing better.

No book is ever perfect, but maybe, if I keep going, one day, I may have failed at a publishable level. And that is the goal.

What does the idea of learning to fail better mean to you?

Using NaNoWriMo For Your Own Purposes

So you are thinking about NaNoWriMo.

You'll see a lot of your keyboard if you choose to embark on the roller-coaster they call NaNoWriMo.

You will spend hours with your keyboard if you choose to embark on the roller-coaster they call NaNoWriMo.


No, seriously. Why do you want to take part in this mad burst of writing frenzy?

Before you start, think about what you want to achieve.

If your goal is to prove that you can write 50,000 words in a month, you don’t need advice beyond what you can get from the NaNoWriMo website, but if you are interested in using the challenge to improve as a writer, it is worth setting more specific personal goals.

What could those goals be?

  • Write fast. Increasing your writing speed can help silence your Internal Editor, help you tap into your unconscious more strongly, or simply increase your output. If perfectionism is a problem for you, writing too fast for your editor to keep up is a great technique to develop.
  • Write a complete plot. This is easiest if you plan in October. A full-length novel is closer to 100,000 words than 50,000 words, so this goal could increase your word count substantially. I have a friend who sets this goal every year, doesn’t outline in advance, overwrites, and usually reaches 180,000 words to finish November with a complete story. I can’t make time to do that, but I can finish the first draft of a middle grade novel in 50,000 words.
  • Focus on a weakness in your writing. Maybe you could benefit from some deep exploration of setting, or you would like to focus on dialogue or plot or character development. Setting daily mini-foci could turn NaNoWriMo into a personalized writing course.
  • World-building. Speculative fiction requires deep world-building. You could do this in narrative form.

This year, I will be using NaNoWriMo to build the backstory of the world I am planning for my next novel. The novel requires a parallel fantasy universe that has been torn apart before the protagonist gets there. I’m planning to use NaNoWriMo to write the prequel. How did the world get so messed up that my hero needs to fix it? Maybe a novel in its own right, but certainly work I need to do for my next novel.

What are you going to do during NaNoWriMo to get more than simply 50,000 words out of the process?

A Note on NaNoWriMo

Just a quick note to let you know how things will change around here for the next month or so.

I started this blog last year because I wanted to blog about my NaNoWriMo process. Since then, this blog has morphed into bigger reflections on writing and creativity.

Now that we are in November and my brain is preparing for this year’s NaNoWriMo, I want to maintain the Friday posts on more general topics. I also want to write about NaNoWriMo.

And so, I will do both: regular Friday posts and more random NaNoWriMo reflections.

I will be leading my kids through participation in the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program for the first time this year, so I expect to have a new perspective on the endeavour.


5 Resources for NaNoWriMo

So you want to write a novel?  And you think NaNoWriMo might help you do it.

It might. But only if you do it right.

A few years back, I was in your shoes. My brother had just run his first marathon and I wanted to show him that I, too, could complete a mammoth challenge. I hadn’t written much fiction in decades, but had spent much of those years struggling to find my way into and around the plot of a novel.  NaNoWriMo fit the bill.

I signed up on October 22nd, started writing on November 1st, and claimed my winner’s certificate on November 28th, having learned how much I didn’t know about writing a novel.

Here, for your benefit, are 5 things I wish I had read before I started:

And, if you are looking for a reason not to participate in NaNoWriMo, you could always read Better yet, DON’T write that novel.

Why I Intend to Blog About NaNoWriMo

This will be my third year participating in NaNoWriMo. If you are not familiar with NaNoWriMo, here is the quick summary.  To “win” NaNoWriMo, you must write at least 50,000 words of a new novel within the month of November.  Preparation is acceptable.  Starting to write the actual text is against the rules of the challenge.

I  won my first time out and failed dismally the second time.  This year, I am trying to get back on a winning streak.  Public accountability has halepd me in the past, so I am planning several things to keep my status public, including blogging on this site.  Hopefully, this will keep me motivated to push on.

My goal is not only to win, but also to complete a first draft.  My project is a middle grade novel, so 50,000 words is long.  However, I tend to overwrite.  Therefore, I figure that a 50,000 word first draft should give me a good place to edit down to a marketable length.

How are you going to keep yourself motivated to keep your fingers moving through NaNoWriMo this year?

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