What I learned in 2013: The one about writing

This January, I am looking at what I learned last year, so I can do better this year.  The first post was about Christmas, but now the festive season is well and truly over.  Epiphany (the feast of) has come and gone, the Christmas decorations have been put away (with the exception of the one that got missed, which will now sit on the windowsill until Michaelmas*) and it’s time to think seriously about what 2013 has taught me about writing and what that means for 2014.

*I don’t know when that is either. But it’s a long time from Christmas and it sounds good!

First, partly because it’s the most recent lesson, and because it encompasses some other things I’ve learned about me and writing this year, I have learned that…

…NaNoWriMo is not for me (don’t all faint at once).

For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month.  It’s a joint effort where people around the world commit to writing a 50,000 word novel in November.  People do it as a way to encourage them to write.  The idea is to give yourself a challenging word count every day for a limited time as a spur to persist, push through and get down some words.

It sounds like a good idea and for several years now, I’ve given it a go.  In none of them, have I got anywhere near writing 50,000 words.  More to the point, I think I would have written more in November if I hadn’t attempted it.  And here’s why:

  • Arbitrary goals set by someone else (or even set by myself) with a ‘win’ or ‘lose’ status attached to them get my back up.  There are a few reasons for this.  One is that I think I’m naturally ornery.  I don’t like being told what to do.  Even when it’s good for me.  Maybe especially when it’s good for me.  But it also stems from my long and disastrous relationship with weight-loss dieting.  I have learned the hard way that diets don’t work.  They set you up by making you obsessed with food, then telling you not to eat.  They divorce you from your natural relationship with hunger, by dictating what, and sometimes when, you will eat, with no reference to individuality or circumstances.  They make you crazy.  (There is a much bigger post – indeed, thesis – in this, but I’m restraining myself because that’s not what THIS one is about.)
    And I worked out this year that NaNoWriMo feels like a ‘diet’ to me.  An arbitrary set of rules, that may or may not mean anything useful, that you ‘win’ if you follow and ‘lose’ if you don’t.  This makes me cross.  It Continue reading

Where I’ve been and where I’m going (NaNoWriMo may be involved)

Heavens to Murgatroyd, it’s happened again.  Shameless, hopeless, blog neglect.  You would be forgiven for thinking I was dead.

Well, I’m not.  But I have been  in a funk.

The Cambridge dictionary defines ‘being in a funk’ as ‘being very unhappy and without hope.’

Yep.  Little bit.

You see, I got some bad news about my book.  Not the ones you see on the side of this page.  They’re out in the world (digitally anyway) and people are being mostly kind about them (although I could do with some more sales, so if you feel like a light-hearted romantic romp, do buy one!).

No, the one I’m talking about is the one I thought was the next big thing.  Which WAS the next big thing, for me.  A longer, more involved story, dealing with themes that are important to me, that I researched to death and worked very hard on for a very long time.  I finished it.  Finally.  I neglected the blog and quite a lot of other things to do it, but it was finally DONE and I was happy with it.  I thought my big resolution scene was strong.  All of that.  My beta readers loved it.

But my agent, not so much.

Now, I could have ignored her opinion and of course, I was tempted.  But her comments were industry related and knowledge of the industry is why I have her, so that would have been foolish.  Tempting, but dumb, and I try not to be dumb.  So I was forced to take the comments seriously.

Hence, funk.

I am not going to go into the details of the crying and throwing things.  They didn’t last that long.  (It is possible that I am finally growing up.) But the fear that maybe I should chuck the whole thing and become a plumber lasted a little longer.

However, I am pleased to say that, thanks to my friends in the Romance Writers of Australia, my friends in real life, my wonderful husband and child and my own bloody-mindedness, I think I am out the other side of the funk.  Now, I have an idea, I think I know what I did wrong and I am all fired up to write something new which will put my agent’s objections to rest and, oddly enough, make it easier to rework the existing story.

I am also beginning to believe that anything worth doing will break you and that only wanting it really, really badly will get you through the pain.  I kind of knew that before, but with each step further along the path, the breaking gets worse.  However, I am not giving up yet.

So, I have cast off (mostly) the funk and I am throwing myself into the insanity that is NaNoWriMo – at least in a manner of speaking.  For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is a writerly piece of lunacy where writers attempt to write 50,000 words in the month of November.  The idea is to get a novel written in a month.  Or a draft of one, or half of one.

Now, I have never been good at word counts as a measure.  I write in chunks – a legacy of my copywriting background – so although I may write thousands of words in thrashing out that scene, chapter or whatever, I only count the ‘finished’ words.  So word counting tends to give me hives and is not, for me, terribly productive.  Also, for this new project, I want to have a stab at doing a much more detailed plan – which means that first cab off the rank is not word count, but index cards and brainstorming.

There is also the fact that November is a completely crazy month for me in my non-writing life.

But the discipline of committing to a much larger than usual output is, I think, useful.  I can certainly use a boost to my productivity and since I am starting something new and need a kick to get out of my funk, I am going to commit to productivity measures this month.

So, here’s what I’m planning:  During November, I will commit to working a solid three hours on my novel five days a week (given the aforementioned craziness of November, 7 days is unrealistic).  That’s three hours of actual, worked time.  I will stop the clock for tea making or any other kind of break and during my three hours there will be no internet whatsoever.  Nor will there be research or other time-sucks.  Just story work.  I will work as fast as I can and once my plan is done, I will commit to producing a minimum of five pages in my allotted time.

And I will (deep breath here) report on my progress, every day that I do my three hours.  Gulp.  I will try to make those posts useful, for the writers among you looking for NaNo inspiration (or procrastination) but there may also be some inarticulate wailing, should the day go badly.  There may also be pictures of flowers and puppies, for purposes of sanity. It remains to be seen.

For those doing NaNo, best of luck – if you get a moment to breathe, wish me the same!

PS: If you are doing NaNo and are scared witless, you might want to check out Alexandra Sokoloff’s fabulous blog for writers, and the indefatigable Chuck Wendig at Terribleminds. Just sayin’… 😉

NaNo’s history – so what’s next?

As you know, this year I participated (unofficially) in National Novel Writing Month (known to its friends as NaNoWriMo.

The stated aim is to write 50,000 words in the month of November.  But I’ll be honest with you.  I never expected to write 50,000 words.

If I had been writing a new work, I might have managed that, or something close, but I wasn’t.  I am close to the end of my big work in progress (WIP) and I had stalled somewhat, as I faced the brutal reality of pulling together a tense plot which is much more complicated than anything I’ve written before.

This is supposed to represent me being all gritty and determine to write - but really it's just an excuse to fangirl over The Hobbit!

This is supposed to represent me being all gritty and determined to write – but really it’s just an excuse to fangirl over The Hobbit!

For me, NaNo was about overcoming The Fear (yes, always capitalised, as that is how it looms in my head and heart) of failure – and using a deadline, or word count target to push through it.

So, the good news is that it worked.  I got through the part that was stalling me, am out the other side and am on the downhill run.

The even BETTER news is that I have learned something really important about how I work and how to set word count goals that are challenging but manageable.

I have previously struggled with word count goals, as the way I work means that I can seldom achieve the giddy numbers that many people do.  Sure, there are days, when the story is flowing, that I can get down several thousand goodish words which I can edit later without too much trouble into something worth reading.  But these days I tend to plan a bit more in advance, so I know more about what I’m trying to do in a scene, which means I choose my words more carefully and consequently it takes longer.  I might write many thousands of words during a session, but I end it with a much smaller number of edited words and those are the only ones I count.  Since they’re the only ones that contribute to the book’s total, that seems sensible, to me.

And naturally, the more complicated the plot and the point in the plot, the trickier the scene is to write and the more slowly I get to those magic ‘finished’ words.

However, what this hot-house period of NaNo has taught me is that, even on the worst days, writing from scratch (which no previous words to edit) and in the trickiest of scenes, I can create 1,000 finished words.

In previous times, when in the grip of production panic and comparing myself to other people (never a good idea; comparisons really are stinky) I would have flapped around saying ‘it’s not enough!’  Must do more!

But that was stupid.  This is the same thinking that led me, when editing a magazine, to decide what needed to be done on each day, without any reference to what was possible, then, when it didn’t happen, just add today’s list to tomorrow’s list.  Trust me, that way madness and sickness lie.  I succumbed to both.

And it isn’t even necessary.  If I can turn out 1,000 ‘finished’ words a day, working five days a week, I will have 100,000 words in 20 weeks – or six months, allowing for holidays and the unexpected.  That’s a whole novel.  And that is a speed I can live with.

So this is my new goal: a minimum of 1,000 good words a day.

I know this is a good goal, as it makes me feel energised and inspired, rather than overwhelmed and panicky.  I also know it’s good because I have been doing it since the 1st of December and it is working!  On the hardest day, I managed 1200 good words from scratch.  On another day, I wrote 895 edited words, and 1,000 of a rough draft of the next scene, which the following day turned into 2,500 edited words – giving me roughly 3,395 (or a chapter, basically) over the two days.  Which shows the other benefit of a good goal – because I’m not afraid of this goal, I just sit down and do it and as a result, I’m building up momentum again, something I thought I’d lost on this story!

So, although I got nowhere near the official word count, I am very happy with the results of my unofficial NaNo.  My friend Alison Stuart also found it an inspiring learning experience, even though she didn’t make the numbers either.  (You can read about what she learnt here.)

How did you go?  Did you try? Did you succeed?  What has it taught you that you can use into the future?

NaNo, Planning, Persistence and the curious incident of the dog and the blog post*

Okay, I’ma goin’ to tell you what I’ve been up to (sorry, channelling Kanye there – and that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write) but first, I have to ask, do you think that somewhere, sometime there was an actual dog-eating-homework incident?

Do you think that at some innocent time in history, a good and conscientious child actually did their report on the Greater Northern Brown-Snouted Crocodile, complete with diagrams and graphs and neatly ruled borders, only to have it mauled beyond recognition by a puppy with self-control issues?**

I like to think there was.  Because I have had my post eaten.  Admittedly, not by a puppy and my borders probably weren’t as tidy, but I had a writing post for Monday and I wrote it and it was nearly finished and almost completely made sense, when the internet ATE IT.  (Which should teach me not to compose on the blog server and probably will – until I forget and backslide and it happens again.)

There was an upside to all this: I learned that I can swear with a fluency and vehemence that frankly, impressed me.  But I will not demonstrate that for you here, since I like to keep myself naice in print.  Also, now that I have calmed down, I would blush and blushing does not become me.  I’ll redo that writing post next Monday and you can tell me whether it was worth the effort!

In the meantime, though, I would like, if you would bear with me, to update you on my NaNoWriMo progress and lessons learned in the attempt.  You will remember, if you are a regular, that I took on NaNo (unofficially) mostly to overcome The Fear.

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What I Learned from Offline October

Those of you who follow this blog (may blessing rain upon you for making a writer happy) might remember that, at the start of October, I decided to try to go light on the internet during that month.

Specifically, the idea was to limit online time to an hour per day, so as to have time to engage in offline pursuits that ‘fill the well’ of creativity, partly to inform NaNoWriMo in November.

As far as the stated aim of an hour a day went, I would have to say it was a colossal failure.  (I appreciate you keeping the laughs down to a polite tittering.  Your manners are valued.)

But, as an exercise in working out where the time goes and making  a plan for the future, it has been, I think, very successful.

Here’s what I discovered:

There are three main ways that I lose time to the internet.  The first is when I am avoiding jobs that I think are going to be difficult, scary or boring – or classic procrastination, in other words.  The second is in genuine work, which needs to be done, either for business, personal or volunteer reasons.  The third is in due to the fundamentally interconnected, diffuse and non-focussed nature of the way I interact with it.

So, how can I deal with these issues?

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Gettin’ my NaNoWriMo on – or how word count can fight fear

I am assuming that everyone knows what NaNoWriMo is, but just in case you don’t, it’s a writing community challenge, in which people sign up to write fifty thousand words during November.  The idea is that you can get a novel – or a draft of one, or the bones of one, anyway – written in a month.

A lot of people love it and some have gone on to produce published, even award-winning novels from it.  But until now, I have avoided it.

This is partly because November is often a busy month for me and partly because I have never liked word count as a measure of progress.  Contrary to a lot of writing advice, I edit as I go, which means that when it comes to comparing numbers of words written in a day, I can’t keep up with people who like to write a ‘dirty draft’ then fix it up later.

But… while I’m cool with how I write, lately I’ve been finding that I just haven’t been getting enough done.

Now, I could put this down to a number of things.  I have been busy lately and this November is not going to be any less busy than usual.  It would be easy to cut myself slack and say it’s just life.

But I think there’s more to it than that.  I think I have been succumbing to The Fear. This fear has always been with me when it comes to writing.  It’s the fear that I won’t be good enough.  That I won’t be able to do justice to the ideas in my head and that I’ll let down my characters and my readers.

You’d think, now that I’ve had a book published, that the fear would lessen.  But in fact I think it’s got worse.  It’s not conscious – it certainly isn’t rational – but lately I’ve noticed that my productivity has gone to hell and I think this might be the cause.

So, I’ve decided that a concerted push at just getting the words down might be just Continue reading