Tuesday, October 30, 2012

NaNoWriMo: A Primer

Today is October 30th. In two days, the madness that is NaNoWriMo begins.

What's with the crazy capitalization weirdness?

NaNoWriMo = National (Na) Novel (No) Writing (Wri) Month (Mo).

Still have no idea what I'm talking about? Here's the 411:

- in thirty days, you must write 50,000 new words
- that's 1,667 words each day
- people all over the world participate
- not a word can be written before November 1st at 12:01am your time
- to "win" you must finish the 50,000th+ word and submit your story for verification by November 30th at 11:59pm your time

There are a thousand nuances to do with NaNoWriMo, and the website explains it all better than I ever will, so feel free to browse there.

Why bother?


Many of your writer friends will be posting on their blogs and Twitter and Facebook. You will find word count meters, rants about writers' block, and the occasional meltdown where they questions their career choice. The energy level surrounding NaNoWriMo cannot be matched if you're the type of writer who works better with a deadline.

Cool Tracking Tools

NaNoWriMo has plenty of shiny counters, graphs, and such to keep you motivated. I'm a numbers girl, so I am soooo motivated by all of the pretty charts and counters. Your NaNoWriMo buddies will be posting their charts too, so you'll have plenty of motivation, jealousy, superiority, and all of those other helpful emotions.

Theme Songs

People post songs, skits, etc on YouTube to chronicle their own NaNoWriMo journeys. My personal favourite is by iTalkToSnakes/Oh, hey Kristina!. She has two versions:

The original

The updated version


Most major cities (or geographical areas) have regional groups. I belong to two, one for Toronto and one for the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge area because I spend time writing in both places.

These regional groups have meetings, parties, write-in's, did I mention parties? At these get-togethers, all of us crazy writers race each other, challenge each other, complain, party, or whatever. The leaders of these regional groups, called ML's (Municipal Liaisons) will bring swag to the meetings.

Yep, swag. Stickers are my personal favourites because I like to decorate my laptop with them.

The Novel at the End

I almost forgot! By the end of the NaNoWriMo craziness, you will have written a novel. Or part of a novel, at least.

Having personally "won" NaNoWriMo several times (that means I hit 50,000 words before the end of November), I can attest to feelings of:




Then, you look at the pile of dishes, the dirty laundry, and all of the other things you neglected during November and the feeling goes away. So make sure you have the celebratory cake before you look too carefully at your surroundings.

Have I convinced you to join in the frenzy? Are you itching to get at the keyboard?

I sure hope so. Because the more, the merrier.

If you would like to be one of my writing buddies, search for canadiansuzanne on the NaNoWriMo site.

Good luck to all of you who plan to give it a whirl. Oh, and if my weekly blog posts are a little late this month, just remember, I'm very busy. Yes, this is my apology...see the Do It Now section. :)

Do It Now:
Jot down a few ideas for plot and character so that you can delve in to the first few pages on Thursday morning.

Apologize to all of your family and friends now. Trust me, you do need to do this before the beginning of November.

Go to the NaNoWriMo site and set up your account now, so you won't be wasting time come Thursday.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Seriously, That's What You're Going With?

In my July post, She Ran Her Fingers Through Her Long, Blonde Hair, I made some suggestions on how to describe a character's traits. In my April post, Point of View Part 2 - Examples, I provided some examples on how to maintain a character's perspective and personality through the choice of Point of View (POV).

Both posts discussed different aspects of a character--their physical traits and their perspective. Most important, as a writer, you must consistently maintain all aspects of your character.

Yep. All aspects.

If your character has red hair and green eyes on page one, then they had better have red hair and green eyes on page 100 and page 500. (Unless your character must suddenly dye their hair as part of a get-away scheme.

Character traits can fulfill multiple purposes in your novel.

Individual qualities help the reader to distinguish character A from B from C (Bob hates snakes, Joe loves donuts, Dave is claustrophobic).

The dialogue will blossom into full-colour if each character has a unique way of speaking. (Bob cracks jokes, especially when he's nervous, Joe over-uses food metaphors, and Dave likes to use big words to prove how smart he is.)

For example:

"Oh, look, my favourite snake," said Bob. "I don't know why the asps didn't drop out of the ceiling sooner!"

"Anyone got a rat?" said Joe. "Because we could wave a rat in front of it, distract it, you know? Or a donut? For all we know snakes love donuts."

"Seriously?" said Bob. "Donuts and Rats? Is that what you're going with?"

"Don't move!" said Dave. "Although only 4% of bites from
Vipera aspis are fatal, the victim can experience extreme pain."

Imagine, having to delete each dialogue tag. Would you still be able to tell which character was speaking? If you can't (not even a little) then you should probably put more thought into the individual speech patterns for your characters.

Another writer technique is to jack up the tension and give your characters more to fight for by using their weaknesses to torture them.

For example, since Dave is claustrophobic, torture him by forcing him to crawl through an air vent, or hide in a tiny closet, or crawl under a collapsed building to save his true love. Make sure the reader remembers that Dave is claustrophobic, because then the trapped-in-a-tiny-space scene will be infused with all-the-more tension.

The more heroic, stubborn, enigmatic, romantic, or determined your character behaves, the more your reader will root for them. Think Harry Potter and all of the ways that he overcomes adversity to face obstacles like Voldemort.

If your character is stubborn with her friends, stubborn with her parents, and stubborn at work, then she had better be stubborn when her BFF arrives in the ER and needs an advocate. During that crisis, she had better show some cracks due to pressure, but she also has to act in a consistent manner.

Because if your character loses consistency, then you will lose your reader.

"It's the structure that saves us," is one of those mantras I live by. Keep track of all of your characters' weaknesses and strengths, loves and hates. Use a notebook, a spreadsheet, or one of those writing software programs to track the details.

Feel free to use these traits just as often to put your character in dire situations as you do to provide your character with the tools to save the day. And your reader will be flipping pages waiting to hear what happens next.

The reader will care about your characters. Ultimately, that's a writer's main goal.

Before plot.

Before setting and atmosphere.

Before marketing demographics and sentence structure.

Make the reader care. Because when you're consistent with all of the pieces that make up a character, the reader will feel as though they know your character, and would invite them for coffee if they could.

Do it now
If you haven't already, jot down a list of all of your character's most important traits.

Now write a scene where your main character is forced to either:
a) confront their worst fear,
b) lose the person they couldn't possibly live without, OR
c) lose a piece of themselves that matters most. (surgeon loses his hand, musician loses their hearing, etc)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Collaboration: Salvation or Torture?

Collaboration (as defined by the Encarta Dictionary that comes with MS Word) is "the act of working together with one or more people in order to achieve something."

Some writers enjoy collaborating. They will seek out other authors who write with similar styles and the two (or more) will work together on anything as short as a poem and as long as a series of novels.

It's not a requirement that the two writers have similar styles. After all, no two voices are exactly alike. But when the two styles differ by too much of a chasm, then the passages written by one writer will be painfully obviously different from the passages written by the partner.

The good side: Collaboration as Salvation

Time Constraints

Remember last week, when I talked about how hard it is to say no? Well sometimes we don't want to say no to a great opportunity, and then we end up with too many projects and not enough time to complete them all.

Collaboration to the rescue! Your partner could be finishing the rough draft on project X while you're doing the edits on project Y. With this assistance you are more likely to meet the two deadlines.

Energy Constraints

I'm not a spring chicken. And I've had a pretty rough year with respect to health issues, from pneumonia in June, to some significant arthritis pain right now that's making it painful to sit at the keyboard. (Plus some test results I'm awaiting that are adding massive stress to my plate.)

If the two of you have been churning through a project, then each of you can pick up the other's slack when health is an issue. The only real problem occurs if you're both knocked on your back at the same time. (But that's pretty rare in my experience.)

The Second Opinion

Last weekend, I enlisted the assistance of my partner to navigate a few copy edit roadblocks. Without his help, I honestly believe that I would be no closer whatsoever to submitting the edits to the publisher.

The two of us literally spent hours grinding through the three toughest stories. On a couple of items, I believe we argued for over an hour about one word. I'm not exaggerating. ONE. WORD.

He kept me on track. He forced me to push through. He made suggestions to sections that I was too close to, no longer able to see the forest for the trees. And even though the going was tough, at the end, we both felt energized by the experience.

The bad side: Collaboration as Torture

You Don't Play Well with Others

Remember back in grade school, when part of your report card explained how well you interacted with your classmates? Well, if you were the sort of kid who always received a "needs improvement" rating, then perhaps collaborating isn't right for you.

If the thought of someone else messing with your baby, writing passages you hate, editing out parts you loved, and generally making you feel as though they're ruining everything, then RUN, don't walk, away from collaboration.

Compromising Can be Difficult

Writing is full of decision making. And in many instances, you might have to compromise over what you originally thought you wouldn't budge over. These compromises can turn a healthy working relationship into a teeming stink pile of resentment.

I remember Sean Williams speaking on collaborations. He said one of the most important decisions is choosing the person who has the final say. Because in some instances, you may never come to a consensus, so someone will have to make the final chose over an issue.

The final say extends to incorporate the final edit. Before you begin the collaboration (don't wait until the last minute), you must clearly decide (preferably in writing) which one of you will have the authority to do the final edit of the manuscript. Otherwise, your "final read" might turn into a hundred "final reads" and no one wants that!

Essentially, you must pre-decide who will be forced to compromise over a tough call.

You Haven't Yet Found the Right Writer

Collaborating on a project as huge as a novel is almost as difficult a commitment as moving in with your boyfriend/girlfriend. Sure, things have been churning along nicely, but then all of a sudden, he's leaving his dirty socks on your favourite chair or she's leaving the cap off the toothpaste, and to your utter frustration, you get home after a tough day at work and they've eaten the last slice of leftover pizza!

"OUT!" you shout. "I can't take one more minute of your blah blah blah!"

If you're considering collaborating on a large project, do a test run on something shorter, just to see how well the two of you can work through the rough patches. You might learn a valuable lesson that could save you hours of anguish. Better to put the quick effort in first, than to ruin a friendship later.

Like most things in live, collaborations have advantages and disadvantages. Be sure that you know yourself, and you have a good idea about the other person, before you commit to a collaboration project.

Do it now
Look over your hard drive in search of a story that stalled you. One with promise, but that you never had the heart, desire, or any idea how to finish.

Consider whether you would like to email this work-in-progress to a fellow writer who might enjoy the challenge of bringing the story to life.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Saying No, Even When You Don't Want To

Writers need to write.

The urgency bubbles somewhere deep inside and when we get inspired, the craving is like a freight train pounding through town with broken brakes ready to flip over on the next sharp turn. Those moments of inspiration (especially for projects that appeal to us like candy) keep us busy, keep us occupied, and keep our heads in the game.

Then another opportunity comes along. Maybe you've been invited to submit to an anthology, perhaps even for the first time.

Oh boy, you think, what a fantastic opportunity. I so have to write a story for that one.

Simultaneously, a big-time publisher like Harper Voyager opens a short window for unagented submissions until October 14th and your novel's pretty ready and you simply must throw your hat in the ring.

Over on your friend's blog, you discover that the deadline for Ontario Arts Council grant proposals is Oct 15th and having the money to take some time off work to really write would be so incredibly amazing that you drool at the idea of that action.

But what about those copy edits that your editor has been tapping their foot waiting for? And this week, your writing group is expecting a submission.


How in the heck am I going to manage all of these deadlines?

Go big or go home

Choose the project that will generate the biggest benefit. How you measure benefit is up to you, whether it's prestige, money, or some other yardstick that is crucial to your writing goals. But aiming for the top is always a good idea, especially if one of your goals is to keep pushing your writing career to the next level.

Start with what's ready

Most of us have several projects in the hopper. Short story A has been close to submission quality for a while now. Novel B just received a rejection, and it's pretty much ready to submit again. Idea C has been percolating in your brain and you've been looking for an excuse to pound out that narrative.

If one of these projects is ready (or close) to submit, you could truly benefit from subbing it while this opportunity is knocking you in the nose.

Burn the candle at both ends

Times like these don't happen every day. Think of the pressure as the looming exam tomorrow. Most of us have stayed up until the wee hours cramming for a big test. (Although, I personally have always chosen a good night's sleep over those last minute prep sessions because I do NOT think clearly when I'm exhausted).

Only you know your limits. Work within them. Do not take this blog post as an excuse to push your body beyond what it can handle. Safety first!

Say No

I don't like to say no. Most people don't. But sometimes you have to open your eyes to the reality that you simply cannot do everything all the time.

Especially if you want to do the task properly, completely, at a top-notch professional level.

Which takes me to my week, and the choices I had to make when faced with all of these pressures.

I re-read the Harper Voyager guidelines and learned that the novel I've been shopping lately, the one that was recently rejected, is about 5,000 words shy of their minimum word limit.

Not wanting to miss this short window of opportunity, I considered my other complete novel, written a couple of years ago. Well I opened it, and it did meet the work count requirements, but it needed so much editing work, there was absolutely no way I could finish it by October 14th.

So I SAID NO to the Harper Voyager opportunity. Sad face.

And this week, when I wrote the first half of this blog post on Tuesday, I also SAID NO to finishing and posting it. Double sad face.

Suffice it to say, sometimes you have to say NO!

Saying NO sucks. But sometimes it's the right thing to do.

The alternative is to drive yourself crazy. And no one wants that.

I only have two hands and one brain, and there are only so many hours in a day.

Do it now
Take at look at your current to-do list. Can you say No to any of them?

If you can't eliminate the item, can you put it aside for a longer time frame?

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Mowing the Lawn

I could've just as easily titled this post shovelling the driveway or raking the leaves because today I'm going to talk about repetitive drudgery.

And believe it or not, I won't be talking about copy edits, because I covered them last week.

The thinking process in writing is as equally important as the writing process--hands on the keyboard, butt in chair, and all of that.

I find that doing repetitive tasks is the key to unlocking the ponderer in my brain. That's the little troll who lives in my skull, who weaves magic phrases and whispers nasty delights that become fodder for my fiction. I won't call him my muse because that term sounds too whimsical for the ponderer.

My troll is a contemptuous (insert expletive here) who knows how to push my buttons. But I need him, so I allow him free reign.

He's also a bit of a prima donna, so he must be handled with kid gloves.

Hence the lawn mowing.

Whenever I perform a repetitive task, my brain is allowed the liberty to bask in the zen of the repetition. It's one of the few times I'm not so overwhelmed by other thoughts that I can singularly focus on not focussing and the pondering begins.

When I'm aware of the thought process, I first remember where I last left my characters and listen to:
- what they might say to themselves or others
- who they might turn to
- what they might do next
- which feelings might willingly (or unwillingly) erupt

The really cool moments happen when I'm not even aware of my thought process. After I've shovelled the driveway (and had a shower and some hot chocolate) I will sit down at my computer and bam! Suddenly I am absolutely sure of what to write next.

The troll did all the hard work. All I have to do is write his ideas down.

Sometimes the troll and I work together. These moments of cooperation are more likely to happen when I'm performing a task that is slightly less monotonous, but often something I do every day like showering, doing the dishes, or driving my car.

So the next time you stare out the window and realize just how desperately long your grass is, and that the neighbours are going to squeal on you to the municipality soon, don't despair. Don't procrastinate. Rush out there and mow your lawn!

Your neighbours will thank you. Your spouse will thank you (or release you from the dog house). And best of all, the next time you write, you'll be more productive.

Don't have a lawn to mow, or leaves to rake, or a driveway to shovel?

Do the dishes, clean your bathroom, vacuum the carpet, brush the cat (or tape bacon to it, because I heard that worked for John Scalzi).

Give your ponderer the chance to be brilliant. You can thank him later.

Do it now
Read the last few pages of your current work-in-progress, then mow the lawn. (Or do the dishes, or whatever.)

After your repetitive task, sit down and write. Even if it's only for five minutes. You might be surprisingly productive.