Category Archives: NaNoWriMo

#NaNoPrep Season: Being Creative When Life Sucks

For many professional arting types, such as writers, this has been a rough year. A lot of us have been exhausted by all the things going on for the past 12-15 months. This isn’t even solely about politics. Natural disasters and terrorism are horrible for creativity. The economy isn’t exactly fantastic if you’re not already rich. I’ve been watching politicians press to take away my health care, either wholly or partially, over and over, and again. As a value-added bonus, my father passed away last November.

This stuff is exhausting. Things which are exhausting are problematic for creative expression.

Here, have a refreshing pic of Supercat, my personal writing helper.

If you like writing, you’ve probably seen quotes about why writing is more important than ever lately. Which is great, but doesn’t help if you’re struggling to put ideas together or if you feel like your work is frivolous in a time that seems to demand seriousness.

This is how I’ve still managed to produce work over the past year:

  1. Stop spending so much time on social media. At least half the crap you find there isn’t even real anyway. Check in, catch up with your friends, and check out. Don’t argue with anyone unless it’s silly or frivolous and you need some silly or frivolous. No one has their mind changed by arguments on FB or Twitter.
  2. Get into a routine. Creativity is a lot like a muscle. Flex it every day at the same time, and your brain starts to expect that. Treat it like an exercise regimen. Go easy on yourself at first, and slowly add more weight (by which I mean time and demands).
  3. When something happens that you don’t understand and/or can’t process, like a terrorist opening fire on a crowd of people having fun, set aside your WIP for the day and write a loose story about how you feel. Write a story where you save all those people through some improbable means. Or tell a story about an imaginary victim who finds true love, or meets their maker, or whatever else pops into your head. Get that crap out so it stops festering inside. No one else ever has to read it, you just have to bleed it.
  4. Don’t watch the news for more than one hour on any given day. Keep up with current events, especially local ones, but pass on all the editorializing and opinionating.
  5. Exercise. Like, actual physical exercise that gets you off your butt for at least an hour a day. Writing is a sedentary job. Break it up a bit. For every hour you spend writing, get up for five minutes and do something that needs doing around your dwelling. Between chapters, take a walk or lift some weights, or whatever works for you.
  6. If you don’t have one already, find a social writing group that you can meet with in person on some regular schedule. This is not the same thing as a critique group. Critique groups are great and important, but you need a few folks you can just chill with and talk to who understand the plight of being a writer. NaNo write-ins are a great time to find folks for this purpose.
  7. Take a day off every week or so. Unplug. Go for a hike in the woods without your phone. Get away from your writing, from the news, from Uncle Bob’s opinions, from everything. If you can’t take a whole day, take as much of one as you can. At the least, treat yourself to something you consider decadent–an activity or foodstuff is a great thing to spend some time savoring.
  8. Make time to experience new things once in a while. Go someplace you’ve never been. Watch a webinar about a subject you’re not familiar with. Try the cheapest possible version of a handicraft you’ve never tried. Play a new game. Taste a new flavor. Take a different way home. Something.

If none of that helps, I strongly suggest seeking professional medical assistance. You may have depression or some other medical or psychological issue standing in your way. Mental health issues are exceedingly common among creative types. Modern medicine and/or psychology can fix a lot of those kinds of problems, or at least make them less debilitating.

As a side note, clever readers will notice I didn’t address the frivolity issue. That’s because it’s not a real issue. Everything doesn’t have to delve into serious, timely topics. Everything doesn’t have to address problems in our current culture. Relationships matter, buttkicking for goodness matters, the struggles of gods and mortals alike matter. Whatever you write, so long as it’s from your soul, it matters.

Next week: Panicking with style.

#NaNoPrep Season: Basics of Writing an Outline

You may think you don’t need an outline, but odds are good that your first draft will turn out better with one. More time spent before the writing on figuring out how to work the plot means less time spent during the writing on that very subject.

What is an outline?

At its most basic, an outline for a novel is a list of notes about the plot in chronological order. Outlines can be vague or detailed, terse or verbose. The right way to outline is the way that provides you with what you need to write the story. Which is to say that there is no right way to outline, there’s only the way that works for you.

Like this, except with plot points.

Of course, that’s not helpful if you’re not sure what to put in an outline to start with.

How Does One Do This Outlining Thing?

To start your first real outline, you’ll have to know some things about your story. You’ll need your genre, basic setting, character ideas, and what story you want to tell. Let’s go back to my ridiculous example of Harry Potter meets Pacific Rim from last week.

The genre could either be fantasy or science fiction. I’m going to go with fantasy, then further refine to modern fantasy. It’ll still have sci-fi elements, but this lets me have teenage wizards and witches, which is kind of the point of Harry Potter. I’ll include giant mecha and kaiju because that’s also required. So, my teenage wizards are piloting giant mecha to fight kaiju created by an evil wizard who wants to control the world. Because that’s what evil wizards do. It’ll take place in near-future Earth where magic exists for some reason I don’t need to identify right now.

Now that I know the basic premise, I can begin an outline. The more information you have, the easier it is to make up a robust outline, but you can start with just this much.

Spoiler alert: I’m not going to work up a full outline for a novel-length story and post it publicly. If you want to write Harry Potter meets Pacific Rim, you’re welcome for the idea, but figure out the story yourself.

We know the plot will center around our teenage wizards working to defeat the evil wizard. We need to decide if they defeat him for good in this story (thus making this book a standalone), or if they only defeat him temporarily (for a series). I’m going to say this will be a trilogy. So the evil wizard gets defeated, but only temporarily.

Now we know the end. How does the story start? Since this is a Harry Potter knockoff, it’ll start with kids in a school. I don’t want to do 7 years and cross age category from middle grade to YA, so we’ll do YA. Our teenage wizards are 14 years old and attending wizard high school so they can learn to pilot giant mecha and fight kaiju. A lot of kids start high school at 14, so let’s begin with our heroes on their first day of magic high school.

Tip: Don’t follow the plot of any existing story with precision unless that existing story is public domain. Ripping off other authors is bad. Getting caught doing it is worse.

I now have two important pieces of my outline: the beginning and the end. Neither has much detail, but knowing where to start and where to end is an excellent way to begin an outline.

From here, you need to make an important decision. About how long do you want this book to be? A 50k word novel is less complex and has fewer plotlines than a 100k word novel. A 75k novel is in between. For my purposes, I’m going to go with 75k as my ideal target wordcount.

Notice how I use “ideal target wordcount” and don’t make it a concrete thing. Don’t be surprised if you pick a target number and shoot way under or way over. Part of the learning process is discovering how many words it takes to tell the story in your head.

Next, you need to decide what kind of story you want to tell. I could take this outline in several directions. It could be relationship-driven, focusing on the connections between the characters and how magic impacts their lives. I could go action-heavy, throwing them into the mecha and onto the front lines for some reason. I could make it a mystery, with the kids working to discover why the evil wizard is using kaiju. There are other options, but these three appeal to me the most. Since my target wordcount is 75k, I’m going to pick action for a major focus, mystery for a secondary focus, and relationships to bubble underneath.

For a 50k work, I’d use only two. For a 100k work, I’d take all three, plus see if I can come up with another one to bubble with the relationships.

This is the part where you start doing the real work.

Figure out the evil wizard’s goals. Why is he evil? (Because you need an antagonist is not a good reason.) What does he think “control the world” means? How does he intend to accomplish that?

Take your major focus and figure out the simplest path to defeating the evil wizard if everything goes right for the heroes. My major focus is action, so my wizards are going to learn to use their magic and mecha well enough to fight the evil wizard’s kaiju and smash his headquarters. The simplest path is for them to jump in, learn everything they need to know on the fly, and wade through the kaiju to reach him.

Which is not a compelling story.

Figure out your evil wizard’s simplest path to victory if everything goes right for him. My evil wizard wants to control the world. He’s using kaiju to lure out all those who would resist him and crush them so he can take control of the weak, who’ll then be his slaves. His simplest path is for the kaiju to wade through his enemies and smash lots of stuff, including that school with those damned kids.

Also not a compelling story.

Those two boring stories, when pursued concurrently, have a lot of potential. The heroes and villain have a direct conflict in their goal. You can now see that the villain has a reason to target the school, which is why the kids are going to be involved in the fighting.

At this point, you fill in the path from the Starting Point to the Ending Point with ideas and notes. Whatever you think of, write it down.

Once you have some basic ideas for that, repeat for your secondary focus, weaving them together. Then slide in your bubbling option wherever it feels right. As you go, get specific enough that you can write a scene from your notes without being so specific that you feel like you already wrote the scene.

Here’s the trick.

Outlines end as a list of notes in chronological order. They rarely start that way.

For example, I think this book should have a scene involving the heroes getting into trouble for breaking some school rules. I have no idea where that fits in my plot, but I’m making a note, and I’ll pull it out when I reach a point where I need one or more of my heroes taken out of commission, or to be in a place where they can do a thing they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Think of Harry finding Filch’s squib letter or the three kids running across the troll.

One option is to write your scene ideas on index cards and move them around until they make sense. If that isn’t your style, figure out what works for your brain and do that instead.

One Last Point…For Now.

There are lots of ways to get into your first outline. If you’d rather have a book, there are plenty of excellent ones to try. I recommend 21 Days To A Novel and No Plot? No Problem! as good, all-purpose guides by people who know what they’re talking about.

And it’s worth saying that every time you set out to write a book, your process will probably shift, at least a little. The important part is to start, not to start perfect.

#NaNoPrep Season: Learning Your Pre-writing Style #NaNoWriMo

There are many writers who claim to pants their stories. That is, fly by the seat of their pants, aka no plan, no outline, no nothing before starting to write. The other option is planning, which consists of drawing up a complete outline, character bios, detailed setting documents, and so on.

Pantser vs. Plotter

I wish to submit two controversial opinions:

  1. Pantsing and plotting are not two options, but rather two ends of a spectrum.
  2. As with many linear scales, most of us fit most comfortably somewhere between the two extremes.

The popularized term for folks who do “both” is Plantser. My argument is that we are all plantsers. Or, at least, the majority of us are.

Planster

The hitch: until you start writing, you have no real idea where you fit on that spectrum. You may think you’re on the Pantser end, then you get stuck on Day 4 with no idea what to do. Or you could Plannerize everything down to the details, then discover you only want to write a few of those scenes because the rest is already fulfilled in your head. Or your plans fly out the window because on Day 3, you thought of something brilliant.

My advice to any writer who isn’t sure where you fall on the spectrum is to aim for the middle. This list is not in order, because no one uses exactly the same process:

  1. Draft an outline focused on the major plot points. Leave out details and keep to the basic facts.
  2. Figure out the broad strokes of your main characters.
  3. Do some pre-writing of 1-3 short scenes that would take place before the novel starts to settle into the characters’ voices and mannerisms.
  4. Figure out what your setting needs to accommodate your plot and characters.
  5. If you have any mystery elements at all, come up with the clues.
  6. Come up with your ideal “It’s this meets this!” line. Example: “It’s Harry Potter meets Pacific Rim!” (I have no idea what that would look like, but I’d read the hell out of it.)
  7. Do your research, whether it’s about a place, a person label, a culture, clothing, technology, or whatever. Bookmark web pages with useful information about whatever topics you need.

For the average writer, this list should cover your prepping needs. You may discover you need more detail. Maybe you’re better with less.

Tip: Don’t be afraid to toss your outline if your brain takes you in a direction than your outline. Be flexible. But when you decide to veer off course, take a little time and figure out why. Is the new idea really better? Does the new journey suit the character/theme/conflict you want to portray?

If you feel good about the new direction, do a fresh set of plot points with it in mind and carry on.

#NaNoPrep Season Is Upon Us: Ideas & Context

As a Municipal Liaison for my NaNoWriMo region, I try to get things going at the start of September with prompts, advice, and helpful story-building whatnot. We’re currently going through Michael Stackpole’s 21 Days to a Novel as a group. Good stuff, but it doesn’t follow how I work.

What do you need to write a novel in a month? What do you really need before you start?

  1. Time. Writing is an activity that requires uninterrupted time in blocks of at least 15 minutes. You can certainly pause for 1 minute to jot down a sentence, but you won’t meet the daily goal by doing so, and your project will lack coherence.
  2. A writing medium. Anything that lets you record words generated by your brain into a reviewable format is fine. I write on a laptop. Some folks dictate. Others go old school and use a pad of paper. Someday, we’ll use datajacks with an ASIST interface. It’ll still be writing.
  3. Ideas. For most writers, this is the easy part.
  4. Technical stuff. Plot, characters, setting, etc. This is where the novel actually comes from. Some folks need all the technical things to start, others only need a few.

#1 & 2 are pretty straightforward. Either you can make time or you can’t. Either you have something to write with or you don’t. It’s #3 & 4 that trip people up.

What is an Idea?

We all know what ideas are–seeds for greater things. But how do you make your ideas coherent and usable? It’s all fine and dandy to see a a gif of a cat knocking books off a shelf and thinking that’d make a great story somehow. Converting it into a story idea is the tricky part.

Because no one really cares about a cat knocking books off a shelf. Most folks find it amusing, but there’s no actual story. It’s a cat acting like a cat. Whoopie-ding-fizz. No story there.

To make this a story, you have to do something important: place it in a context.

Context is how stories happen. Why is the cat up there? Whose bookshelf is that? What happened 5 seconds before this gif? How about 5 seconds after? Expand to 30 seconds. 3 minutes. Is this Earth as we know it? Does magic exist in this gif’s world? Is the cat sentient? Was it chasing something? Escaping something?

So many ways to take that story once you start considering the context.

More to come as we prep our way to November!

#NaNoWinner2016 Finally

On the 23rd, I finally finished my ninth NaNo this year. That’s the longest it’s ever taken me, and more than twice as long as my previous longest (10 days). But I still finished.

And here’s why it took so long. I’ve already discussed the beginning of the month. Now, the end.

On November 17th, at about 2am, my father passed away in our home from complications of prostate cancer. He spent about four weeks in hospice care. As you might imagine, this impacted my ability to write. I needed two days to recover from just the loss of sleep that night.

2016 NaNoWriMo Wordcount Stats. Conveniently with a minimal number of numbers.

Thank goodness I don’t make productivity bar graphs all the time.

To finish NaNo, I had to set aside Spirit Knights 4 in favor of some short stories I plan to submit to various places. For some reason, a series of books about death are hard to work on right now. Go figure. My wordcount also sputtered after I crossed the magical 50k line, as it often does.

If you’re still reaching for the finish line, keep on truckin’. You have two more days. If you’re nowhere near finishing, keep on truckin’. You have the rest of your life. If you’re already finished, keep on truckin’. When one story ends, another begins.

For my Spirit Knights fans, I still anticipate releasing book 4 in time for Norwescon (mid-April). As far as I’m concerned, four months is plenty of time to write and release a book, and it’s half done already. And while you’re waiting, audiobooks for this series are a thing! Girls Can’t Be Knights released earlier this month, Backyard Dragons releases in early December, and Ethereal Entanglements is on schedule for an early January release. With luck, book 4 will release simultaneously with its audiobook.

For my The Greatest Sin fans, we’re expecting to get book 5 out by June. We’re also working on audiobooks for the first four, and hope to begin releasing those in 2017. We’ll probably catch up to release both print and audio at the same time with book 6. If you’ve read and loved them, please take a minute to leave a review.

For my Maze Beset fans, stay tuned for short story news! And if you want a fresh short story from me, regardless of the ‘verse it resides in, I’ve been published in a few anthologies this year: Into the Woods, Merely This and Nothing MoreUnnatural Dragons, and Artifact.

Weirdest #NaNoWriMo Ever #amwriting

For the first time since I started doing NaNo in 2008, it’s the middle of the month and I’m not up to 50k yet. Everyone tends to expect me to reliably churn out 50k in a week or less, because that’s what I always do. Except this year.

It started well. I slapped down 5k a day, which is less than my usual NaNo, but a healthy amount. Then came Jet City Comic Show on the first weekend. I hadn’t expected to write much during the show, and I didn’t. I did expect to be able to pick it back up and churn at my usual pace on Monday.

The end of Daylight Savings Time messed me up this year. I guess I’m getting old or something. Then the election invaded my brain no matter how hard I tried to shut it out. I’m still roiling on the inside about my dad. I’m now worried for my LGBT friends and family, my son has taken the election results quite poorly for a variety of reasons, and I’m concerned about the future for my daughter, who is autistic, needs extra supports, and will be transitioning out of school soon.

Reading about attacks on various marginalized/minority groups has been disheartening to say the least. Watching people try to incite riots has been distracting. I stood at the bus stop with my son and faced a dozen middle-schoolers who are terrified about the election results and had to tell them the world is not ending when I’m not so sure it’s true.

Perhaps this should be obvious at this point, but I did not support Trump. I don’t like vague ideas over concrete plans. I don’t like putting people down over raising them up. I don’t want to make America great again. My idea of the future doesn’t involve bringing back the past. Every mistake we make is a lesson to be learned, not a blueprint to be followed.

That said, if you supported Trump, you’re not my enemy. I’m a citizen and a patriot. I don’t hate people for disagreeing with me. I don’t hate people for having different ideas or beliefs. Hate is the path to the Dark Side, and however much I may joke about having cookies, I am, in truth, a member of Starfleet*. In the Federation, we strive to understand and accept everyone. Bring hate to my ship, though, and I will kick your ass out the airlock.

And now, I’m plunking away, just trying to finish Ghost Is the New Normal by the end of the month. I’m not in a bigger hurry because that won’t help anything. I’m taking time to do the things that make me happy. This week, instead of being all NaNo all the time like I normally am in November, I’ll go see Doctor Strange, watch the TV shows I like, get some extra exercise, and make a pumpkin cheesecake for my mom. I’m going to figure out where I’m donating for this holiday season too.

For all my fellow NaNoers, keep on keeping on. If you’re stuck, write about how this past week or so has made you feel. If it’s writing, it counts.

*Ha! Nerd yoink!

One Day More #NaNoWriMo

It’s Halloween. Around my house, this is also known as The Day Before NaNo. Tomorrow, I’ll grind out words. Today, I have to do all the things that come before grinding out the words.

My handy pre-NaNo checklist:

  • Cut all finger- and toenails. Consider painting them, then realize I only have glitter nail polish, which is super-distracting while typing.
  • Rewrite the outline that I just now realized is dumb.
  • Prep the document.
  • Tell my kids I’ll see them in a month.
  • Sign off Facebook. Alas, not forever.
  • Stare out the window for fifteen minutes so I remember what it looks like outside.
  • Tie off all other pending projects, either by completing or just finishing the current chapter, so I can focus on the three I’ll be working on for NaNo.
  • Wish I could take down the Halloween decorations today instead of taking up precious NaNo time to do that tomorrow.
  • Make sure I have a clear path between my beanbag and all of the following (may or may not intersect): my bed, the kitchen, and the bathroom. Front door is optional.
  • Remind my kids not to bother me unless the need is dire.
  • Have a conversation about the meaning of “dire.”
  • Feel smug that I’ve already voted. Mail-in balloting FTW.
  • Catch up on TV shows so I can’t procrastinate by watching them during the first week.
  • Finish the video game I’m in the middle of. Or at least get to a reasonable stopping point where I might have a chance to remember what to do when I load it up again in December.
  • Refresh my memory about basic stuff from Spirit Knights 1-3 so I don’t do anything really stupid while writing #4.
  • Stack on my desk a copy of every book I might write a sequel or related short story for. Add Plotto, my Writer Emergency Pack, and a small quantity of emergency snacks.
  • Realize I can’t stack anything on my desk until I clean it, so do that first, then pick up the stack I already made and relocate it to my desk.
  • Sneer in disgust at my Chicago Manual of Style, then stick it on a shelf where I can’t see it from my beanbag.
  • Wash my beanbag. It needs that once a year, right?
  • Prep one last make-ahead meal. Tip: cut your cheesecake into quarters and freeze each single-serving piece.
  • Panic.
  • Pretend to sleep.