NaNoWriMo and Me

Today is November 1, which means it is the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. The goal is to write 50,000 words during the month of November. That breaks down to 1,667 words per day, despite weekends, holidays, or, in my case, an impending baby. NaNoWriMo is tough, but it is not an impossible challenge (I’ve written about this before–click on the keyword below).

But it’s not for everyone. And this year, it is not for me.

NaNoWriMo 2016

My Non-NaNoWriMo November

But here is what I will be doing during November (in addition to working my job, prepping the baby’s room, going to doctor’s appointments, and helping out my wife):

  • I will write. My only goal is to write some amount of fiction every day. Instead of failing if I “only” write 1,500 words, I fail only if I write zero words.
  • I will continue to work on my novel. I’m not completely ditching the work I’ve done on it, but I am going through a substantial rebuilding to improve my characterization.
  • I will read fiction. I’ve read over 60 books this year so far, which is high for me (I usually end the year in the 50s). But I have been reading a lot of non-fiction lately. I want to get back into reading more fiction. And, more importantly, I want to break it down, identify the pieces, and understand how they work together. Reading as education, not just inspiration and entertainment.
  • I will go easier on myself. Instead of focusing on how my writing is not where I want it to be, I will focus on past successes and look for improvement in my current work. Instead of whining about time I have let slip by without writing, I will focus on today and tomorrow and the words I am putting down now.

As you can see, my NaNoWriMo is not only about developing good writing habits, but also developing good mental/psychological habits. I’ve never been a fast writer. It’s always been a bit of a struggle for me. And when I get down on myself, that struggle becomes more difficult, and I start writing less. So this November, if I want to write more, I will also try to be more forgiving, more patient, and more encouraging toward myself. Now that isn’t to say that when it comes time to edit that I won’t kick my own ass. Instead, this November is about making sure that ass kicking comes at an appropriate time and place.

Now I can’t measure my progress in this endeavor the same way I would for NaNoWriMo. But I can gauge how I feel about myself and my writing, and see how many days in a row I have written something. Yes, I wish it was more concrete, more measurable, but I’ll take what I can get. Maybe I should add another point–to write more here about my process, good and bad. Maybe by reflecting a bit more, I can help improve my processes. It may not be 50,000 words, but in the end, if I have written something and feel better about doing it, I’ll call that a win.

Gingerbread Characters

I have a confession: I’ve made very little progress on my novel. Why? Crappy characters. I’ve spent a lot of time world building (the curse of many genre writers), and I’ve crafted a decent plot. Sadly, my characters are weak. And without strong characters, “decent” is about as good as that plot can get. And I don’t want to write just a decent story.

I’ve often heard this problem described as a character as a puppet, dancing to the author’s whims. Because the character doesn’t have true desires or motivations, the character simply does what is convenient to move the plot along. The way I look at it, a story’s plot is about a character with goals and motivations running into obstacles. The character responds, forms new goals, and runs into new obstacles. Do this enough times while raising the stakes, and plot results. But if a character’s only goal and motivation is to conform with an author’s outline, the character’s actions won’t ring true, and the story will be unsatisfying.

This is bad. But to me (and maybe this is the internal editor critiquing a rough draft), my characters are not puppets. Mine are worse. Mine are gingerbread people.

Liliana Fuchs Gingerbread Cookies Flickr

When considering the puppets metaphor above, I always picture marionettes. They are articulated objects capable of movement and subtlety. Gingerbread is not. It’s stiff, brittle. They are all punched from the same mold and despite a bit of icing, are pretty much all the same underneath. Delicious, but the same. Far from real.

This hit me when I looked over a scene and realized my protagonist’s voice was constantly shifting. Every line of dialogue was a guess, and none quite hit the mark. Basically, I don’t know who my characters are. Sure, I had created backstories, a physical description, and I had a vague sense of who they are, but I didn’t really know.

I wasn’t seeing the world through their eyes. I wasn’t processing the world through their minds, with their perspectives, their baggage. I knew what they should want (according to my outline), but I didn’t have a great sense as to why. And the kicker is I’m too much of a plotter to find my voice as I write the story. I want to know who they are so that the story will move forward in a true direction, even if that deviates from my outline. I’ll take truth in art any day in my quest to rise above decent.

Conclusions about Characters

So what can I do to improve my characters?

  • Try on voices. Sketch out scenes not in the book to see how well I really know my characters. Keep putting them in odd situations until I know them inside and out.
  • Know that my characters might want to push beyond my outline, and be prepared to adapt if it leads to a better story. I know I’m not a pantser, but there is only so much plotting I can do.
  • Accept this as a setback on the novel, but not on my overall writing ability. This is a skill that I would like to get better at. Accordingly, I’m going to have to identify my weaknesses and work to improve them. One step at a time, even if I feel like I am going one step forward, two steps back on this novel.

(Image courtesy of Liliana Fuchs’s Flickr, under a Creative Commons, Attribution, NonCommercial, NoDerivatives license.)

Pregnancies and Productivity

This weekend, my sister-in-law gave birth to her second child. Therefore, my wife and I watched her first child, hosted our in-laws, and kept busy with other familial duties. While it wasn’t the relaxing Labor Day weekend I would have wanted, I enjoyed a very happy and exciting weekend. But as the weekend wound down, I came to some conclusions about my soon-to-be-expanding family and my writing productivity.

You see, my wife and I are preparing for the birth of our first child in November. So while I was more spectator and helper than participant this weekend, I couldn’t help but think of the future of my family–and how much needed to be done between now and then. I need to take care of my wife, attend birthing and first aid classes, finish prepping my daughter’s room, read more baby books….

At the same time, I’m also working on the rough draft of my novel. I plan to complete the rough draft before my child is born. While I don’t need to work at quite Nanowrimo levels (i.e., 1,667 words per day), that pace isn’t far off. I chose this goal for two reasons. First, my life is going to seriously change that day. So why not complete one thing as another thing begins? Second, the goal is achievable but not easy. I want to push myself and be proud of my accomplishment when it’s over.

The only problem is that when attempting such a goal, I have to walk a fine line. It’s easy to fall short on days when I have a lot to do, like work full-time, help out family, babysit my niece, and finish a big freelance project. Now to be sure, I’m thankful that I have that I am surrounded by family and that I have enough work to provide for my family. But on days like that, my productivity tanks, and I can’t afford too many days where I get zero words written, even if I have the most wonderful excuse, like the birth of my new nephew.

And even worse, I often turn a bad day into a bad week or month. After I wrote zero words on Sunday, I was considering letting Monday slip by as well. I felt tired, and I wanted to be a good host, so it was easy to come up with a long list of excuses. However, I am proud to say that I persevered and wrote just over 750 words last night. But this weekend has got me thinking about the next three months.

Conclusions about maintaining productivity

  • There is no easy/quiet time now, and there certainly won’t be after my daughter is born. There will always be something other than writing to do. The only writing time I will ever have is the time I make for it. Therefore, I must sacrifice if I want to maintain my productivity. But while I’m willing to sacrifice a bit of sleep, I won’t sacrifice family.
  • It is easy to say “I can’t write today.” But the truth is more like, “I don’t want to write today.”
  • Crappy days are going to happen. No plan is perfect. Acknowledge them and move on. Come back and write the next day. Same goes for working out, eating right, and sleeping.
  • On the flip side, take advantage of the good days. If you have the time and the energy, keep writing past your daily word count. Bank the bonus words.

Many of these conclusions are obvious. And I’m sure they reveal my noob status. I’ve seen them before, and I’m sure I’ll see them again. Heck, I’ll likely have to learn them again. It’s one thing to read it and another thing to experience it, though. But if it helps me overcome my natural laziness, if it helps me build a bit more discipline, and if it gets me one step closer to writing this novel, that’s a big win for me.

One Sentence at a Time

So in my day job, I spend my time doing lots of writing and editing. When I write, it’s really not a big deal for me to produce a rough draft and then work to improve it. I know this rough draft is really just outline 2.0. So I don’t get that worked up about getting sentence after sentence down on paper (or screen). Writing a rough draft is an easy, almost casual thing. Maybe it is because I have to generate a lot of content, so there is no time to think about it? Or maybe it is because I know the I will have to get the approval of several people along the way, so I know not to be precious? I really wish I knew.

Because when I get home and sit down to write, I have so much more difficulty writing a rough draft. When it’s just me and my novel, that internal editor jumps into high gear. Production drops dramatically, and I end up well below my daily word count or revising yesterday’s work instead. Basically, I’ve been living out just about every rough draft habit lately. Until the other night. I think I may have found a solution (and frankly, even if it’s just a temporary fix, I’ll take it if it means I can crank out some words more regularly).

One Sentence at a Time

That’s it. That’s my new mantra. I don’t need to write a novel, a chapter, or a scene. There’s no need to focus on cranking out a couple thousand words tonight. I just need to write one sentence. One clear, true sentence. And then another, and another, and another.

And just like that, I was able to produce. The idea of writing over 100,000 words blending plot, character arcs, a three-act structure, theme, voice, and everything else fell away. So long as I knew what the larger scene was meant to accomplish, I could focus on a very small moment in my character’s life, make it true, link it to the sentences that came before, and then move forward.

Bird by Bird Lamott

Now, this isn’t an original idea. Anne Lamott describes a similar technique in her wonderful book, Bird by Bird.

Now when I sit down to write, the work is manageable. So long as I know what the larger scene is meant to accomplish, I can go small. I only have to focus on a very small moment in my character’s life, make it true, and link it to the sentences surrounding it. The daily word count goals take care of themselves.

I won’t say the fear or the internal editor were gone, but they had been reduced to a simmer. My new immediate goal is a single sentence. It’s so much easier to get started. And because I can meet my goal with each sentence I write, it’s easier to keep going.

It may not be the most groundbreaking or earth-shattering idea. But if it helps me write more and stay in the zone longer, then I’ll take it. So long as I keep coming back to write one sentence at a time, the rest should take care of itself.

Committing

So what is it I’m committing to? Basically writing. I’ve spent a long time recently only jotting down a note, a detail, or a story idea. Or I’ve tweaked an outline or a character description. That’s at best. More typically, I’ve usually ended my days with zero words written. And when I realize the size of that long, wordless streak, I’d get angry and frustrated with myself. But that usually just meant more time not spent writing, instead stewing in my funk. I’d keep my notebooks in my backpack, and I’d keep my laptop shut (or only opened to social media).

Rhodia Notebook

You see, when it comes to many things, I tend to ride a wave of motivation. I get excited by a new project, I jump in with both feet, and then things fizzle out after a time. But that’s how motivation works, doesn’t it? If the habit’s not there, if the discipline’s not there, motivation is simply not enough to see a long-term project–like writing, like career development–through.

I originally wanted to call this post “Recommitting” instead of “Committing,” but it wouldn’t have been as accurate. Because, with a few exceptions, the commitment wasn’t there to begin with.So that’s what this is really about. Committing to habit, to discipline, to butt-in-chair time getting the work done. So that when motivation falters–and it will–the writing will still be there.

But why am I committing now?

Well, in a couple months, my wife and I are going to have our first child. That’s a huge and exciting change I can’t wait for. But it also means that my free time is going to take a major hit. So if I don’t develop the habit of making the time to write by then, odds are, I won’t ever. That’s the first reason. The big reason.

Another reason is simply that I’ve been working on a story for too long. I’ve spent so much time outlining, world building, and defining characters, but not actually writing. It’s time to move on. To get this story written and get it out of my head. I don’t know if it’ll be any good (I hope it will), but that’s part of it too: demonstrating to myself that I can push through the internal editor and actually write.

And perhaps the lamest reasons are simply jealousy and fear. I found myself becoming increasingly jealous of writers publishing, or even updating word counts. And the more I felt this way, the more I felt further and further left behind. Like I could never catch up. Or I was afraid. Afraid to write. Afraid to turn my outline into a story. Afraid that my writing would suck. Afraid that no one would like my story. But when I realize how long I’ve only had an outline and some notes, I feel further behind. And well, there’s only one way to get out of that spiral: produce.

So what will I do now?

There’s really only one way to make it happen, and that’s simply to do it. Ignore motivation and focus on discipline. Quit whining and committing to work. To put in the time and effort, to make writing an important part of my life, and to focus on getting a story written. Completely. Then another one. And another, and another, and another. The only way to get better is to write crap and then write slightly less crappily.

My wife and I expect our first daughter to arrive around Thanksgiving. I want to have at least a rough draft done by then. My big goal is to kill two birds with one stone: focus on developing a writing habit and get a rough draft of a novel written.

You’re going to see some changes around here. I’ve already started by making some behind the scenes changes to this site, and more are on their way. But I can hear you now–“Eric, that’s not writing.” And you’re right. But I hope that in addition to photos and posts about things interesting to me that I can also use this as a way to stay accountable. And by devoting my energy to one outlet, I hope I can cut down on my social media time. If nothing else, that’ll help me avoid politics for a while.

So I’m looking forward to this. The long, lonely process of getting better, little bit by little bit. Eventually I’ll get there. I hope you’ll stick with me. Give me a thumbs up if I stick to this and kick my ass when I stumble.