nanowrimo stuff

NaNoWriMo 2016

I didn’t think I was going to do NanoWriMo this year. I just started a new job teaching ESL to new Canadians, and I find that writing and teaching draw from the same well of creativity.

And then I was thinking last night about Halloween and how the doorbell ringing gets to me, and how much worse it would be if I worked in a grocery store and the beep of the check-out till set off the same reflex. Now I have 1,500 words about an ex-con working as a bag boy at a grocery store, and I think it might be a restart of a werewolf story that stalled out on me earlier this year.

Okay, so we’re doing this. (Bonus points to anyhow who caught the Hamilton reference. I like Burr. He’s Shakespearean in his tragedy.)

This is, I think, year eleven of Nano for me. Last year and the year before, I had assorted writing-related things to say. (But when don’t I?) Here are some handy links…

Good luck, everyone! Happy writing!

The importance of door #3 when writing (and critiquing other people’s stuff)

Every important breakthrough I’ve ever made writing didn’t come from reading my stuff or published stuff, but from critiquing the unpublished writings of others. I think critiquing other people’s work is as important as reading published work when you’re still at the almost but not quite stage where you start getting handwritten notes about the almost-not-quite level of rejection.

I had blinders on with my stuff. We all do. So it’s really hard to see what doesn’t work from critiquing our own stuff. We know what we meant, and we can’t see it when what we see isn’t actually on the page. Other people’s work, whether they’re rank beginners, at the same level you are, or far beyond your ability, however, is black and white. It either worked (for you) or it didn’t. If it doesn’t work for you, there’s the very small chance that it’s over your head, but if they explain it and it doesn’t instantly make sense and make you want to slap yourself for not seeing it, then chances are it wasn’t done correctly and you can see it. Published work has all those foibles smoothed out.

I was reading a friend’s work who was quite beyond my own abilities. It was an absolutely brilliant epistolary set in Africa at the time of colonization that didn’t set the local people as being cliched cut-out characters. But either they were all vampires, in which case the whole ending had been as telegraphed as half the messages home or it was all in her mind and she was slowly going in sane, which was also obvious from the other character’s assumptions. Whether it was A or B, though, I found myself not caring because both could possibly be true, and if they were all vampires, it was stupid because it was obvious and if they weren’t, it was stupid because she was playing with the trope that all women are hysterical. Either way, it was a no-win situation for the reader.

It turned out they were all vampires. In the critique, I pointed out that either way, the ending was obvious and if she’d picked either door, I would have felt disappointed. And like I thunderbolt, I realized the story should have ended with a door #3.

And not just she was going insane *and* they were vampires. I thought of that, too. On Wednesday, I crossed over the 45k mark of the book. Either the vampire in the tub with the axe in his face was being paid off by Pallas or Athena. Pallas was a female vampire whose plans haven’ been discovered yet, Athena (despite the name) was a male whose plans were blatantly obvious, and for two days I was absolutely stuck, not knowing who had sent the assassin vampire and either way, it turned it obvious as to which of the two was trying to kill him.

Door #3 appeared and it became obvious that it wasn’t either of them. I was able to show that my main character, who wasn’t a vampire, was just as cunning as the vampire could be in thinking outside the box, and the story continued. After two days of writing almost nothing, I burned through the next 3k and I have twelve hundred more words until I’m done the nano.

Whenever there is a point in your book where either solution of a forked problem is going to be too obvious, try seeing if there’s a third solution possible that both appears out of nowhere and yet has come from something seeded out of the story as it is. Sometimes it could be one of those things that your subconscious just seems to add for no reason, and sometimes you actually have to go back and add that plot point into the story. Either way, by the time anyone other than yourself reads the finished book, they’re never going to know that Door #3 hadn’t been your genius plan from the start.

Nanopanic #1: Boredom is like physical pain to your novel. Whatever you do, don’t ignore it.

What is pain? Pain is your body telling you something is wrong. It’s either acute (Dude, you’re on fire) or chronic (dude, your body part is messed up) but either way, there is something wrong and it’s telling you to do something about it. It’s a lot easier to deal with acute pain (put the fire that is burning you out) than chronic (take these pills and hope for a cure in 5-10 years).

Boredom is writing’s acute and chronic pain. If it’s acute, the scene you’re working on right now is boring you to tears, but the rest of the book’s okay. Just cut back the boring bits until you get back to the part that you enjoyed writing and start over again. Don’t pay any attention to how many words you have to kill. 400 hurts, 40,000 is like hacking off an arm, but if you are bored with it and you’re emotionally invested in your characters, what possible hope do your readers have of getting past the boring bits?

It’s it’s chronic boredom and you’ve never felt exciting writing what you’re writing, you need to call a do-over. Sloppy writing can be cleaned up in successive rewrites. Making boring writing exciting takes more work than starting over does.

Your story’s exciting bits are the baby, and the boring bits are the bathwater. If at all possible, don’t throw them both away. But if all you have is bathwater, what are you really losing?

No Advice is Less Crushing than a Form Rejection

And while I’m desperately trying to entertain myself for the next 24 hours and 54 minutes, can we just discuss for a minute why all of a sudden it’s such a bad thing to tell writers just starting out that writing is hard work? I swear I’ve been told six times in the last four months that I’m “crushing beginner writers’ spirits” by being honest at how hard it is to get published.

What would they rather have happen? Be told that writing’s just a walk in the park, so the only reason why they’re getting form rejections the size of a post stamp is because they, personally suck. Everyone else is rolling around on their publishing contracts, but they aren’t because…why exactly? I’ve known a lot of editors, and most of them would be happy to give out advice if they they had more time and they weren’t afraid their hard work wasn’t going to get their hand bitten off by writers who don’t yet understand how close a no, but is to a yes. So instead the only feedback writers get is a photocopied or copy and pasted response.

Writing is continuing to write in the face of rejection. If you are not intrinsically rewarded by your own work you are never going get as much praise of others as you need. We’re such fragile creatures with such delicate, is massive egos who think that what we have to say is going to be worth other people’s time and money. Your first work may not be, your third work will be closer. But if your ninth book doesn’t make it, you might just have to keep going deep into double digits.

If writing was the easiest way to make a twenty, everyone would be doing it. Panning for gold is just dipping your plate into some running water and yet fortunes were lost at such “easy” money. If newbie writers are fortunate, they’re “just” going to be wasting all their spare time. Bilking baby writers is a billion dollar industry. When I was in my late teens, I was so sure I’d be living as a writer by the time I was 25.

Dear Baby Writer Self: stop hitting the brick wall with your face so hard and admit what you were doing wasn’t working. And then after you’ve figured out what you’ve been doing wrong and completely rework your writing style, be prepared to do it again. You had to learn how to adult before you could learn to write but whatever you do, don’t give up.

Nanowrimo stuff: Deals you make with your readers

I’m writing this to people who are writing so that other people will want to read their stuff. This isn’t advice to the purist out there who thinks catering to people’s basic need for a good story is too base for their efforts. I’m talking about commercial fiction and how to get someone wants to read a book that is worth their time and money. You don’t have to tell me the only rule out there that matters is there are no rules. If you believe that, you should read my Confessions of there are no rules writer post. I wrote in that valley for a decade. If what you are doing is working for you and your success speaks for itself, I’m honestly happy for you. Your fellow writers aren’t your competition, they’re just fellow travelers on the same path. I go on in great lengths in the blog post and I’m not going to rehash it here.

Eventually I realized that readers, whether it be agents, publishers or the general public are not opening your book and hoping you are just terrible at it. They want to be swept up in your story and you want them to be swept up in your story. Your job as a writer is not to con people into putting their money down and buying a pig in a poke. I remember my first world con where a silverback author joked that as long as the person bought the book, even if it was terrible, it was a win for him. That was in 2003 and I didn’t know why that was wrong, but it felt wrong. You are not going to make a career out of writing if you’re selling snake oil and hoping people are dumb enough to buy it. You want to work at the Lexus dealership, not a used car lot without a lemon policy  You want to establish a business relationship with the people who buy your stuff that what you are selling is going to be worth not just their time and money now, but their time and money in the future. That’s how careers are born.

There are no hard and fast rule to get your reader to care but there are guidelines. From line one, sentence one you have to realize that there are stacks of books behind yours, whether your published or not, that may be just as worthy if not more more than what you’ve written. That first scene has to accomplish five tasks off the top of my head, but that’s a whole new post, too.

Nanowrimo stuff: Plotting vs pantsing part one

Plotting vs pantsing*, which is best?

There’s a long answer and a short answer for this. If one works for you, it’s clearly better than the other. But what does “work” mean? If you do have a preferred method and a long string of books and stories out, keep going! Clearly, you’re awesome. If you have a preferred method and random acceptances within a larger body of rejected work, maybe give the other a try.

I’ve tried sitting down and plotting out my novel, even in series where I knew the characters and the world and the overall problem. I’ve never followed a synopsis past the first bend. Bright Side of Midnight required a synopsis before I got the contract for it, and I wish I’d kept a copy of it because the only part of the book I kept from it were the names.

Personally, in my opinion and as I see it (is that enough disclaimers?) I don’t think the average author starting off can sit down and write out the entire plot of a hundred thousand word novel and not follow it off a cliff. Beginning a book is easy, but muddling through the middle and the end is where books fall apart, and they can fall apart whether the book is meticulously planned out or pantsed the hell out of.

So what goes wrong? Simply put, not nearly enough things. If you’re Jonathan Kellerman and you’re writing a book a year for a million plus bucks, you can have your book be about two guys who goes places and talk to people and get the next clue for the next place you got to be and still make the bestseller list. How? I have no idea. I do know that I used to buy the guy’s work in hardcover as a starving student back before the million dollar contract and now I don’t even get his books out of the library. I remember the first time I read him italicising the important thing that the person said in chapter three that made everything fall together and I felt personally cheated that I had paid attention and remembered that plot point, but that the author automatically assumed I wouldn’t be. So that was it with Mr. Kellerman and I. We started out great. I remember hopping a bus to get the next four books in the series to get me through the weekend on a Friday night at 8:27 pm back when malls closed at nine with my next door neighbour across the hall in residence, to disinterest in just over a decade.

If you’re not a bestselling author, though, you’re probably not going to get away with the going somewhere and talking to people plot, and yet I see it over and over again in unpublished work. It doesn’t matter if I’m reading what genre. It’s absolutely telling the reader what happened in a showy kind of way, and readers are on to you. Whether you plan or pants, don’t do that.

We all can quote “show don’t tell” to each other until the cows come home, but that means you can’t show the reader being told something important. Every point your main character has to learn should be shown to the reader. I think everyone gets one tell, whether they talk to the old man or woman, go to the library or google something, the main character can look up one important detail, but everything else is just too simple. Nothing is worse than having the main character remember something that they have always known as the climax of the book. Nothing makes me want to throw a book against the wall than having the main source of tension being a brain fart that they haven’t remembered something up to the critical point.

When you go back and read your novel, be extra careful to see that you haven’t done the discuss, action, debrief, discuss plot. That’s when characters discuss what they are going to do in chapter X, do it in chapter X+1, debrief each other as to what they did in chapter X+2, discuss what they are going to do next in chapter X+3, do it in chapter X+4, discuss what they did in chapter X+5… and so on and so forth. It’s really easy to do, especially if you have really chatty or snarky characters, but if you keep track of what your characters actually DO each chapter Not what they talk, argue or explain, what they physically *do* in each chapter. If you get a lot of discussion without much happening, you have a problem. It’s not impossible to have an exciting book where characters do nothing but talk, it’s just a lot more difficult to do well enough to interest the reader.

I’m not saying that each chapter has to have the world at stake, but in filthy commercial fiction, the reader is reading for the dopamine rush that they are going to get from your work that means they’ve put down the internet, their game, television, movies, or doing something outside with other people. They’ve committed not just their after tax dollars, most of them are also giving you their after-work hours. You have to give them something back for that time, and it’s your characters sitting around talking, you really, really, really have to be good. Donald Maass says in Writing the Breakout Novel that the only thing that can happen in an argument is that one character can change their mind. There may be a couple times in a book where that is a significant plot point, but it certainly can’t carry the darn thing. Of course there are a lot of books that are about people talking. I know that. I’m not writing to the author who can make people standing around talking in a room exciting. I’m talking to the 99% of writers that can’t, and especially to the 33% of writers out there who think they can. You can’t. Because if you can, you have, and if you have, you’re not reading this.

So whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, plan on things actually happening on the page that are exciting. I know that seems so stupid it doesn’t deserve to be written down, but you would be shocked at the number of manuscripts I have read where the exciting bits either happen off screen or, worse, before the book began. In a trilogy, you get maybe one time where you can leave it to the readers imagination at just how awesome/gory/gross/amazing something is. The rest of the time, having the exciting things happen on the screen is why they pay you the big bucks. Unless you’re Diana Wynne Jones. In which case you can write entire series where the most exciting things happen after the book is over, but the way you write is so awesome, no one even notices. The Dalemark series will always be awesome.

So whether you plot before you write or plot while you’re writing, it doesn’t change the fact that books should have things that happen on the page. A lot of people talk about the three act plot arc, and that’s fine, but writing second acts is a really hard thing to do. I like to think of it as movements. You have the beginning of the beginning, the end of the beginning, the beginning of the end, and the end of the end. By the end of the beginning, you have all your pieces on the board. Like a closing argument, anything that is added on at this point is a god-in-the-box when it comes to plot. If the beginning is all about making the world seem huge, moving from the end of the beginning to the beginning of the end is when you start making the world small again. In the second half, you’re just tying up loose ends. By the end of the end, the vast majority of your story should be told but for the few loose ends you’ve left for potential sequels. Each book, however, has to have an end of the end that feels worth the beginning of the beginning, like a mathematical equation.

Can you keep that all in mind while you pants your way from the beginning to the end? It can be done. We’ll talk about how in Part Two.

*Pantsing, aka flying by the seat of your pants. Not planning. Not necessarily a bad thing.

Nanowrimo stuff: Dealing with writer’s block

Writer’s block happens, but it doesn’t really happen. There are writers out there who do not want to write, but they are not suffering from this mythical “block” that keeps writers from penning their masterpieces.

I’ve been blocked before. Sometimes it lasts for days, sometimes for weeks and sometimes for years. These are three very different kinds of issues that have to be dealt with in three very different kinds of ways. For the nanowrimo edition, I’m going to be talking about the day long and the week long bouts. The months to years long bouts is a completely different kettle of fish.

People are individuals and there are thousands of reasons why people stop writing. I want to talk about just a couple. When you’re working on a nanowrimo, nothing is worse than getting stuck. Here are a few things that can help.

In my opinion, there are two main reasons why you are not writing when you have time to write but just can’t. If you’re a working professional with a family and a frantic social life, that’s one thing, but if you have the whole day to do nothing but write and you can’t stop searching youtube for Korean recipes to cook, that’s something you can do about it.

The way I see it, there are three main reasons why you are not writing today. One, you’re bored with what you’re writing. Two, you have nothing to say. Three, you know what you want to write, but you’re too scared to write it. The first two are kind of the same problem with similar solutions. The third one is both harder and easier at the same time.

If you are bored, ask yourself why. Victoria Nelson in her brilliant book On Writer’s Block reminds you that you probably started writing because you wanted to tell interesting stories that said and did cool stuff. Then something happens (*cough* writers groups) and you can get so caught up in wanting to write in the right way that you stop focusing on what you want to say and put all your attention on how you want to say it.

There are two kinds of boredom. Either you’re bored right now and you don’t know what to do or you’ve been bored for a while now. The first one is easy. If you’re bored with what you’re writing right now, just make the worst possible thing happen and force your characters to give up their brilliant plans and scramble. Sink boats, kill important people, have the magic woo fail or, what I like to do, throw frost giants at your characters. You will not be bored any more.

But what about your carefully crafted synopsis? What about it? It’s failed you at this point because you are bored. Make up a Plan B or F or Q or switch to a hexidecimal system system if you need to.

Have you been bored for a while and just slugging on, bored to tears but not sure what to do? This one is going to hurt, especially in a nano. Cut back to the point you were last excited about what you were writing and see where you zagged instead of zigged. Last year, I got into day 3 of my nano, about 7500 words and I got a kidney infection. Not fun, but when I was in the ER for five hours I reread Cy Gets a Sex Demon, the sort of prequel to the rebooted world I was creating in The Care and Feeding of Sex Demons. The voice in those three days worth of work was completely wrong for who Cy is. Cy narrates his stories as though he’s on a review board, trying to explain why he shouldn’t get fired/disintegrated/have his personality erased *this* time. The story I was telling was a standard urban fantasy.

*snip*

You can keep the words in another file and have them count to your total if you need to, but I didn’t. I started fresh on Day 4 and finished the book on day 12. I sold the book on day 18 and had rewritten it to a draft that I could share by day 30. (You can buy The Care and Feeding of Sex Demons at Loose Id’s website or on Amazon. It took three solid rewrites to get it publishable. It’s not a book you can skim, and you’re thrown right into the world, but I still love it.)

Which leads me to the third kind of can’t write, even though I want to, and that is fear. Writing is kind of like pearl diving. The deeper you go down and longer you stay down underwater, the better chances you have of finding a pearl, but also, you might drown or get eaten by a shark.

Okay, so it’s not a perfect metaphor. But the pearl-like writing that is out there isn’t going to be found in the easy to get shallows. Too many people have dug up those pearls because they’re safe and easy to get to. The writing/pearls that people want are out in the depths where dark shadows are lurking. You need to look into the darkness to find the writing that is going to cause the emotional response you need from a reader. Scooping up real emotion from the depths and smearing it on the page in a way that resonates. Any kind of writing, humor, dark fantasy, horror, science fiction, fluff or not, all need depth beyond the easy to reach shallows.

Having a deadline can be one of the best ways of silencing your inner critic that keeps you from reaching into the deeper water. It can be crippling, of course, but if deadlines leave you silenced, nanowrimo may not be your best choice. Or it might be the best thing you can do, but you have to be brave. If you flinch and assure the reader that there’s nothing to worry about, they’re not going to be as emotionally invested in the outcome.