Tag Archives: NaNo

#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.

The Home Stretch #NaNoWriMo

I’ve been busy. While I wasn’t paying much attention, November slid past in a whirlwind of words. As I write this, I’ve blown past my 100k goal and am heading at full steam ahead for 150k. Interestingly, as the weeks have passed, my publishing priorities have changed drastically.

Backyard Dragons will be ready in March. Chowndie…will not. It may have to wait a while. I’ve come up with the basic scenario for the as-yet unnamed book to follow Backyard Dragons and think I might be able to get it done in time for the summer. There’s a nonfiction book in the near future. An anthology was delayed until the New Year. I’ve simmering four different anthology submissions. I’ve outlined a new five book series, unrelated to anything else. Some of my backlist will be getting new covers. Snap up those early editions while you can.

And then there’s the book my son wants me to write so he can do a book report for it. He’s ten years old and would like a book that features lightsabers, dragons, pirates, and airships. We had a long chat about intellectual property, trademarks, and similar subjects, which means there won’t be lightsabers after all. They’ll be magic laser swords instead. I’m not sure I can write a serious draft of this before he needs to start reading it, but I’m going to try. Because I’m crazy like that.

My NaNo region is full of people surprising me by managing to win for the first time this year after several previous failed attempts. Go team! We’re losing the West Coast Capital Challenge by a wide margin, but with these individual successes, I hardly care.

To those folks with very small word counts and only these last few days to stew in the impossibility of your task, keep trying. Write a little as often as you can. As soon as it becomes a habit, it becomes easier to squeeze in. Beyond that, if your region is involved in any word wars, you’re part of a team and every word matters.

To those folks with the finish line in sight but too far to seem reasonable, you’ve got this. You’ve so totally got this. Don’t falter and don’t despair because you’ve hit a wall. Grab a sledgehammer smash that thing down. Go off on a tangent. Slap in unnecessary backstory. Above all, keep going.

If you, like me, have already crossed the finish line, congrats! Now comes the fun part. Step 1: Finish the story. Step 2: Set it aside. Step 3: Pick it back up in a month or two and re-read it. Fix it.

Whatever else you do, keep meeting with the people you’ve found through write-ins. Those folks are writers, just like you, and no one understands a writer like another writer.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year #NaNoWriMo

Ah, November. So full of stuff. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday (I’m American). This is when it truly gets cold and wet and the days are so short you really notice it. I love snuggling down under a fuzzy blanket with a cup of hot tea or cocoa. There’s also this crazy charity beard thing a lot of men do, called Movember. Even without that, lots of men grow one anyway for warmth (or out of laziness, I’m sure). Veteran’s Day, or as I think of it, A Random Day My Kids Have No School. The start of the Xmas shopping frenzy. In many places, hunting season begins. I guess it’ll mark the end of the baseball season this year. Daylight Savings Time ends.

There was something else. Hm. What was it? Oh yes, of course.

If you’ve never heard of it, National Novel Writing Month (for the record, there are participants all over the world, but it started as a US thing) is an event managed by a nonprofit charitable organization called the Office of Letters and Light. Their mission is to provide tools for combating illiteracy. Their other mission is to provide tools for people to get off their butts and write that novel you always said you’d write. Even if it’s just for yourself.

This year will be my 6th time doing (and winning) NaNo. I credit NaNo with my becoming an Author instead of just a writer, because I never would have developed the confidence to do it without discovering I actually could. (That makes sense, I swear.) The entire point is to push yourself to write at least 50,000 words for a single story in one month. 30 days. You do it by writing at least 1667 words per day. Sounds easy, turns out to be difficult because of the ‘single story’ part.

The point has nothing to do with the quality of those 50k+ words. There’s this mistaken belief in the minds of many would-be Authors that books must be born from your mind in a near-perfect state. Absolute nonsense. Hogwash. Horse puckey. Pifflesticks. The first draft of a novel always, always needs some kind of significant changes. Sometimes, it’s a few important tweaks here and there. Other times, oh my gosh, that whole chapter needs to go. Worse, that whole plotline is crap. Let’s not get into how many rewrites Dragons In Chains needed. yet, Dragons In Pieces only needed the ending redone (Ten times, but who was counting? Not me. Naw.) and a few scenes added. And so on.

What is the point? Barfing words. Sure, quality matters more than quantity, but only in the finished product. In the initial stages, you gotta get something down on the page and keep getting stuff down on the page until your brain dribbles out your ears and nose, and you have to wipe the goo off your keyboard. Either you succeed and have a first draft, or you fail and gain some insight into what Authors do.

There’s something about knowing hundreds of thousands of other people are doing this at the same time that makes NaNo special and magical. For me, this time is about meeting new people working on the same journey I am, making friends and finding new authors to explore when I’m done, screwing down in discipline, and focusing on a story. I can write a book any time of the year, but doing it during NaNo is different. It’s a shared experience, even though every book is different.

Of my books, Dragons In Pieces and Damsel In Distress were both written originally for NaNo. I have thoughts about mining the other winners, sometimes. One of them is so horrible, I’m not sure there’s anything to salvage beyond the basic concept. The others are okay, and maybe I will get to them at some point. One in particular would fit well into my plans for the Ilauris setting novels.

This year, the plan is to get The Greatest Sin #3 written next month. We’re still working on the plot, though, so my backup plan is an urban fantasy with a theme of city spirits vs nature spirits, otherwise known as man vs nature. I’m also looking at the possibility of something really wild and out there for me: a book with no fantasy or sci fi elements. And I still have Chowndie to get back to.

Bring on winter. I’m ready to buckle down and pump out the words. Rawr!