Across the line

Word count: 258        Reading time: 1-2 mins 

I typed the last word into my NaNoWriMo document a week ago. Once I was in the habit of writing 2,000 words a day, it surprised me (yet again) how easy that exercise was. In fact it was very much like physical exercise: much easier when done on a regular basis. Also like physical exercise, one day’s finish line was the next day’s starting block.  

Around the middle of November I saw a tweet from a literary agent cautioning writers against querying her with their new novels in December. I laughed at the idea that the final period in my manuscript might signal anything like a finished work. During NaNoWriMo, I follow Tara Moss’s rule: Don’t write it right, just write it—and then make it right later.

In November I wrote. Later I’ll right. The NaNo effort has been buried in my electronic crypt. Now I’m revising something different, which is a fresh start  - and much more fun in its own way. Rose Tremain explains: The process of rewriting is enjoyable, because you’re not in that existential panic when you don’t have a novel at all.

Last week’s dash across the finish line left me perfectly poised for this week’s race. Practice makes the whole thing easier.

Did you finish a first draft recently, what Anne Lamott calls a SFD? Do you need the distance of time before you can start the process of ruthless self-editing? Or are you able to type ‘the end’ one week and revise the next?

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Keep on shovelling

Word count: 442               Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing to do is shovel shit from a sitting position.Stephen King.

This year, like the other years I’ve done NaNoWriMo, the feeling that King described has haunted me on a regular basis. There are times when my story seems mired in cliché and dead ends and I’m tempted to throw it in and work on something else. Then I remind myself of Neil Gaiman’s thoughts on writing: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It's that easy, and that hard. So I get back to work and a little glimmer of light shines through the darkness. For a while it’s easy again: the characters come alive on the screen, I can smell the mountain air, and see the next plot twist clearly. Margaret Atwood is right. A word after a word after a word is power. It’s the power of finishing the first draft, digging up the gems along the way, and the power of pushing through to completion.

The end of my novel is in sight. It’s just around the next corner. As I clear the last hurdle, I’ll keep Robin McKinley’s advice in mind: One of the biggest, and possibly the biggest, obstacle to becoming a writer... is learning to live with the fact that the wonderful story in your head is infinitely better, truer, more moving, more fascinating, more perceptive, than anything you're going to manage to get down on paper. (And if you ever think otherwise, then you've turned into an arrogant self-satisfied prat, and should look for another job or another avocation or another weekend activity.) So you have to learn to live with the fact that you're never going to write well enough. Of course that's what keeps you trying – trying as hard as you can – which is a good thing.” Even after I type ‘The End’ for the first time, I’ll keep working on this novel. I’ll keep trying to improve it, to make sure that the right words follow each other in the best possible order.

What keeps you shovelling when you’d rather do anything than attempt to write? Do you have inspirational quotes taped to the top of your computer screen? Do you bribe yourself with a treat to get through the next 1,000 words? Once you break through a barrier and your characters are really talking to each other, do you work through the night to capture them before they vanish with the rising sun?

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Image by: mspraveen

Time out

 Word count: 242  Reading time: 1 min.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Jack Torrance, that creepy character in The Shining, was onto something with this thinking. He wasn’t the only one who thought that way. Sir John Lubbock said, “Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.”

Today I topped 34,500 words in my NaNoWriMo novel and I felt just a little depleted. So I did the obvious: I took a break. The sun was shining, bald eagles were congregating by Harrison River (this weekend is Eagle Fest), and the open road beckoned. While I may not have added to my word count during the long drive and brisk walks around different parks, I came home with a notebook full of scribbled thoughts. Tomorrow morning I will open the novel, refreshed and playful. If there was a better way to spend this fine autumn day, I can’t think what it might have been.

What have you done to revitalize your writing recently? Do you take a break? Go to a play or maybe just watch a good movie?

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Noon: Rest From Work by Vincent Van Gogh

Oh the places you'll go

Word count: 391                          Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Week One of NaNoWriMo has come and gone. To me this month is always like a wild journey. I think I know where I’m headed when I write my one sentence outline: This is a book about ________ who wants ________ but ___________ gets in the way. But I usually end up somewhere quite different than I first visualize.

This November 1st, I filled in those blanks and launched myself into the work. To help me navigate the course, I armed myself with some ground rules:

  • Do it. Just sit down and write. Or, in the words of Louis L’Amour: The first essential is just to write. You have to turn the faucet on before the water starts to flow.
  • Don’t let perfectionism kill the story. Remind yourself of Natalie’s Goldberg’s golden rule: give yourself permission to write crap.
  • Stay organized. Within reason. This is not the month to tidy the tax file, repaint the living room, or arrange the bookshelves alphabetically according to genre. But it is the month to clear off your desk so that only things that help with the novel catch your eye. Push everything else into a drawer.
  • Remember to laugh. To help you do this, Debbit Ridpath Ohi and Errol Elumir have created a NaNoWriMo cartoon-a-day website.
  • Go to local events. Last week the City of North Vancouver Library hosted five YA writers. These wonderful women gave generously of their time and I was well rewarded for carving out three hours for their workshops. I came back to the keyboard with a better direction and clearer sense of purpose. Thank you, Eileen Cook, Denise Jaden, Catherine Knutsson, Mindi Scott, and Joelle Anthony.
  • Don’t forget the music. My novel is moving to a dystopian kind of place so I’ve had Godspeed You! Black Emperor playing Mladic in the background. It’s music of impending dread, like something dark looming on the horizon. Perfect.
  • Take care of yourself. Do all those boring things like eat well, get enough sleep, and squeeze in a walk around block if you can. It helps to be fit when you’re wrestling demons.

Have you done NaNoWriMo before? What is helping you with it this year? Is the story unfolding according to your plan? Or will your destination be some place you couldn't quite see when you set out?

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Photo by: Bibigon

Magic Time

Word count: 478                  Reading time: 2 minutes

5:00 PM on Halloween afternoon I looked at the two pumpkins sitting on the kitchen counter. Should we bother to carve them? The weather was foul, not Hurricane-Sandy foul, but heavy-rain-warning-in-the-Pacific-rainforest foul. And rain it did. The downpour drowned the stereo and pounded loudly enough to suspend conversation. No trick or treaters were going to come out in this mess.

But still. Miss this holiday and it would be gone forever. So we rolled up our sleeves. When we were done, we set the two jack-o-lanterns on the front steps. Twenty minutes later our first and only callers of the night arrived: three young girls in garbage can costumes with big plastic lids for hats. I admired their tenacity and determination to celebrate one of the most fun holidays of the year. I also knew that two shining lanterns had drawn the kids to our house.

The next morning, November 1, marked the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and I thought of many reasons not to participate this year:

  • I only have a story idea. It’s not fleshed out. There is no timeline or well-defined story arc. It’s just a fragment.
  • NaNo is hard. It takes a lot of effort and sacrifice even to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It means saying no to many things. Christmas fairs start in November. And I love Christmas fairs.
  • All I’ll have at the end of will be a SFD, the start of a work, not a finished product.
  • I can’t do it. It’s just not possible.

All of this, of course, is ridiculous. I’ve done NaNo for the past two years. It is a productive, intense experience. So many reasons to participate:

  • All stories start with a single idea; they have to be told to find out where they are going. NaNo is the chance to capture what Anne Lamott calls the ‘down draft’, the getting down of the story. The ‘up draft’ – when the story is fixed up – comes later.
  • Anything worth having is usually hard work and normally involves sacrifice.
  • At the end of the process I’ll have another SFD, the important starting point for another novel.
  • I can do it. I’ve done it twice before. In fact, my 2010 NaNo novel is currently under contract to Great Plains Publications. There are lots of published NaNo books.

Like Halloween, NaNoWriMo only comes once a year. A thirty day commitment isn’t forever. And if I miss it this year, I’ll have to wait twelve months to participate again. If I roll up my sleeves and finish a glowing jack-o-lantern for the front porch, who knows what fun characters might show up at the door.

How do you keep moving forward even when your psyche throws up the stop signs? How do you keep the prize of finished work in clear view?

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Photo by: Alan Bolitho, LM