NaNoWriMo: Do blog posts count?

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NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month. Equal parts marathon and sprint, an artificial construct designed to help authors of all levels write a book.

Or most of a book.

Or something.

The basic idea is that by committing to write 50,000 words in a month, all those people out there who think they would write a book, if only….. won’t have an excuse to put it off. They’ll have to take an idea and throw down an average of 1700 words a day for 30 days, and in the end  they’ll have a solid start on that novel of their dreams.

But I’m probably preaching to the choir on this one. Let’s have a show of hands. Who’s doing NaNo this month?

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Awesome! Because even those of us who have already figured out how to get words on the page can use a little boost sometimes. Some authors figure “every month is NaNo for me”, but I know quite a few who are using this challenge to jump-start a flagging project, meet a tricky deadline, or otherwise get back on schedule.

This’ll be my first try at the November challenge. I’ve done the spring and summer “Camp NaNo” events, mainly because it’s fun to join a cabin – a group of people who cheer each other on – and it’s nice to get a boost to the word count. In past years, I’ve always had big editing projects going on in November, so didn’t have the bandwidth for the real deal.

Now, though, I’ve got the space in my schedule, I’ve got a premise, and I’ve even got a bit of an outline. I’ve also spent a month researching the time period and place (1920 Paris) – though as the start date got closer, I became increasingly worried that all I’d done was learn how much I don’t know.

Wait. That’s my inner critic talking.

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Shutting down that voice might actually might be the biggest benefit to NaNo, imho. By forcing myself to write 1700 words a day for 30 days, I won’t have time for second-guessing. The words will be on the page, safe in the knowledge I can edit them later. I’m curious to see what I come up with under those circumstances.

I also want to be able to say I did it.

I’m kinda laughing at myself, because when I initially considered what to put in this post, I thought I could discuss some of the resources I’m using. But… you know… word count. Gotta run.

If you’re participating in NaNo, happy words! And if you’re not, WHY NOT?! Everybody’s doing it…

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Included because it’s one of the coolest stories from last night’s World Series win. I’m a romance writer, so for me, this is what victory looks like. 🙂

 

 

 

 

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The Merits of Changing Things Up

I’ve found that one of the most crucial aspects of becoming and being a successful creative (successful in the sense that you actually create) is routine. That may seem incredibly counter-intuitive to some people, including myself when I first started out. “But Lyra,” you’re probably saying to yourself. “Didn’t P G Wodehouse famously say routine is the death of heroism? Didn’t you just look up a whole plethora of quotes by famous people to find that everyone agrees that routine is basically where creativity goes to die?” Yes, he did, and yes, I did. But bear with me for a second.

giphy1Every writer and artist I know has a routine. These vary from setting a timer for 30 minutes before going to their day jobs to rolling out of bed and working straight through to bedtime. The routine is almost like the scaffolding of a house being built–it holds things in place so the building doesn’t collapse before it’s even started. And everyone’s is different. Write for two hours in the morning, then fingerpaint for the rest of the day? Awesome. Dance naked under the moonlight at midnight then scribble until dawn? You do you. Find a routine that works best for you, and your creative process. But find a routine.

But. (C’mon, you knew there would be a but.)

Routine can definitely get the better of you. My husband and I recently moved, and in order to combat the insane upheaval of lifestyle that inevitably causes, I’ve been clinging to other routines like nobody’s business. I try to write at designated times. I practice my instrument. I read books in my genre as work and I read frothy lighthearted books outside of it for pleasure. After dinner I watch a few episodes from a rotating selection of TV shows, or maybe a silly romcom.

giphyBut for some reason I’ve been blocked. It doesn’t help that most of my writing work recently has been copyedits, which is frankly a pretty banal slog. But for whatever reason, I’ve hit a wall. A few foundering short stories, a half-baked outline for a really ambitious space opera, and…that’s it. But the other night as I queued up yet another episode of Reign (don’t you judge me) I got a text from my sister. She was rewatching an old Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie we used to love when we were kids, and was loving the costumes and snappy dialogue.

Now I used to watch a ton of old movies, either rented from the library or later–when my parents got cable–on TCM. But for the past few years, the combination of black and white film, square aspect, and casual sexism has made the genre feel a little inaccessible and undesirable to me. But I took a chance, jumped on Amazon, and rented it digitally. And a delightful hour and a half later–my head now full of gamine showgirls, mistaken identities, and a love-hate flirtation for the ages–I had a new idea for a book. Something wildly different from what I usually write, but something I’m excited about nonetheless. Nanowrimo–here I come!

giphy2So I’m just here to say this: don’t nail yourself to your desk. Read a book you think you’ll hate, watch a movie someone told you was boring, taste a dish you loathed when you were a kid. Because you never know where that shiny new idea might be hiding.

On the Importance of Ritual

The other day a reader asked me if I ever wrote in long hand, much like Neil Gaiman is known to do. I do not–never. I hate the idea of writing something by hand knowing I’ll just have to type it again later, creating twice the work for me. But, I conceded, I do hand write my outlines, always. I tried to type one once because I always end up adding asides and run out of space on my papers, and I thought it would be nice to be able to just add in a line when I needed to but there was no magic in a typed outline.

So, always type a story, always hand write the outline.

Funny, right?

But it got me thinking about the rituals of writing. Any art, really, but writing is my magic, so that’s what I’m focusing on now.

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Any professional artist will tell you that you can’t wait for the Muses to speak to you, otherwise you’ll (almost) never get any work done. You have to make your Muses speak on days you just don’t feel like it. On days where you only have an hour, or less, to get the words done. You have to force the magic to make the art.

And there are ways to do this. There are ingredients to every spell and if you manage to figure them out, you can create the magic potion to get the art done even under the worst situations. A few years ago, I was stuck at jury duty for the full 8 hours. I got so much writing done that day, it must’ve been a record, all because I have my ritual to make the magic.

First, I outline. Now, if you’re a pantser, this part doesn’t apply to you. But for me, I allow myself at least a week to complete an outline before I ever start a new manuscript. You’ll have to figure out how detailed or loose your outline needs to be, that in of itself is its own magic spell. If too loose you leave yourself sitting at the keys, trying to figure out how to get from point D to point M. Too detailed you might feel like you’ve already written the story and lose your excitement to actually write it.

Secondly, if this is the start of a brand new book, not part of a series, I allow myself a day to start to curate a soundtrack for the book/main character. I know, this seems like one of those “I’m an artiste! I need my special music to write!” kinda things, but it’s not. For many, both reading and writing a book plays out like a movie in our heads and what is a movie without a soundtrack? You need the creepy notes that warn you the monster is coming. You need the pounding base to choreograph a fight and get your heart moving. You need the sweet strings of a romantic moment. But, I think, most importantly, it gives you the feel of the book or main character. This, for me, is what helps me get into the right headspace for a book, no matter where I am or what mood I am in. And with each book in a series, I add more and more songs to the list until it’s hours and hours long.

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I also have a few universal playlists to help me with certain types of scenes. If I’m in the middle of fights or battles, I have strong lyric-less soundtracks from movies or video games to help me. If I’m trying to get into the head of a strong, angry female, I have a playlist of what I call “angry power” songs, only sung by strong female vocals.

You could be trapped in the middle seat of coach, on a full flight, but you put your headphones on and turn on the soundtrack of your book, and bam! Watch the words flow. I won NaNo last year in that exact situation because I had my music.

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This also helps if you’re working on more than one project at a time. For example, I’m working on a witch book in my Matilda Kavanagh series and I’m working on a piece of flash fiction that is a spin off from my post-apocalyptic Ash & Ruin series. Neither MC is the same and both worlds are totally different. So, they have their own soundtracks to help me switch my brain depending on which one I want to write in.

Third, I always have something to drink. Usually it’s coffee, but sometimes just water. It’s a small thing, but it’s important. It adds to the level of comfort as you stare into that bright screen and create indents on your wrists as you pound away.

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There are other things, like I try to write in the mornings, but if I miss that window, I don’t skip on writing unless it’s One Of Those Days. It’s always easy to make excuses to get out of writing, but unless you’re under a contractual deadline, you’re just letting yourself down by putting it off or treating it like a chore. I mean, some days, it does feel like a chore but when it’s done, damn that’s a good feeling.

Figuring out your rituals to help you get shit done is important. It’s not being a fussy artiste, it’s creating magic. Allow yourself the special combo of ingredients that will allow you to create art no matter what the situation. Make no excuses for doing what you need to get it done and give yourself no excuses to avoid it.
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Speaking of… I have some words that need writing before dinner.

You Can Take a Break; You’re Still a Writer

The last two posts have been about being stuck while working on a writing project. I’ve seen a lot of this lately; so many creatives are struggling to work in the climate we’re all facing.

When I was young, a teenager, I reveled in my dark, black moods to create my best work. I even did better writing term papers when I was unhappy. And some people stay that way their whole lives — they need that dark place to tap into their creative muse to get words or other art done.

But as I’ve grown older, as I’ve turned this into a job, I’ve found it much harder to work when I’m in a dark place or when life is being difficult. I don’t want to create magic and monsters and adventure. I want to curl up and be alone with my dogs and husband and shut out the world. Even if I’m working on something dark or difficult and it brings me down while I’m working, so much so, that when I leave my office I have to physically shake it off, I don’t need to first be in that place to write those words.

I participated in Camp NaNo in April. I set myself a goal of 40k words. In the beginning, it went like any NaNo usually does. I had my outline and was ready to get started and felt good about my daily word counts. But, as the month went on, and things in my life weren’t perfect and outside things started to drain away my energy, I found each word that much harder to type. When I finally hit my 40k word goal, I was relieved. I had one day to spare, but I did it. Obviously, that’s not the whole book. But with everything else going on outside of writing, my hubs and I agreed we needed a week to decompress. So I promised myself if I hit my NaNo goal, I was going to take a week off from writing to get my head right again.

That was last week. This week, these are the first words I’ve written. We planned our “take a break” week from everything but the bare minimum at just the right moment. We run a business together and we had an emergency happen last week that, had I been writing, would have taken any energy away from my daily goals. We’ve weathered the emergency and I think the ship is righted and we’re going to be okay, but I am so glad I gave myself permission to take a break from my book.

This book is from my favorite series and if I had continued to write while dealing with so much, I think it would have suffered and when the editing came around, it would have been a snarl of a headache to fix.

I used to say you had to write every day when you’re working on a project. Yeah, take the weekend off, or a day here or there if you like working on the weekend, but don’t abandon the project because you’ll lose momentum and the narration and it’ll be so much harder to pick back up. But I needed that break. It’s okay to take a break. The book will be there when you get back and if you’re serious about writing, you’ll go back to it.

I’m 40k words in, the beginning is always a huge hurdle and I’m almost half-way done, so there’s no reason for me to be scared that I can’t pick it back up.

We have to give ourselves permission to take a break when we need it. Burn outs and break downs are real and horrible and if you can see one coming before it hits, you should do whatever you have to to avoid it. We all need self-care and sometimes that means dealing with life while your imaginary friends take a seat and wait for you to come back.

Well. This isn’t quite where I thought this post was going to go, but there you have it. I’m nearly 20 books into the business, so I think I can safely say that each book is different, each book will ask different things of you and you just have to trust your gut with each one. Some will come hard and fast and you’ll never take a break because you’re just trying to keep up with the words yourself, and others will take their time and give you the space you need, you just have to let yourself take it.

It’s okay. You’re still a writer. Every book has its own process.

On Being Stuck

The subtitle of this post should be: thoughts on how to regain forward motion.

Here’s the thing. In the last year, I’ve finished two books with my co-writer Irene Preston and a novella set in that same world. Before I edited this paragraph, the line read “I’ve only finished…” but I took the “only” out, because a novel and two novellas are definite accomplishments. In fact, you’re probably thinking I should be happy with three completed projects, and I am.

It’s just that I could have done more.

 

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In between the finished novel/novellas, I sliced and diced an old project, trying to make it work better, and began two other stories, only to stall out every time.

That’s a lot of crap, lemme check Facebook to see if I can shake something loose.

Those stories I fizzled out on? One is almost 200 pages long, and the other is just over 100 pages. (That’s double spaced, 12-font TNR, ~ 300 words a page.) The old project I fiddled with is even longer. My point is, I’ve invested a fair amount of time, creativity, and emotion into each of these and I don’t want to see all that energy go to waste.

Any time you’re doing something creative, false starts are part of the game. I’ll get an idea, slap it down on the page, and see what comes of it. I’ve got several of those; two or three thousand words sketching out a main character along with some bullet points regarding the plot, the kind of thing I can throw together in an afternoon, then set aside to see if anything roots.

But you figure if – at best – I write 5000 words a week, it probably took me 3 months to get to 200 pages. That’s too much for me to toss aside, and while I’m one of those writers who loves the process of editing, I can’t fix what isn’t on the page.

So now you know a couple of my dirty secrets. I give up too easily and then whine about it.

Oh, and to complicate matters, I’m doing Camp NaNo this month, the abbreviated spring version of NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. I committed to writing 20,000 words in the month of April. I’m at 17,600 words with three days left, which means I need to get one of these projects moving again.

 

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Basically I made this post in the hopes I’d find a way out of this pickle.  I did a google search for “how to get unstuck fiction writing”, and in the interest of helping others in the same situation, I want to share some of what I learned.

The author of an article on The Center for Fiction website said her blocks usually come from not knowing the characters well enough. She recommended doing some free writing from the main character’s point of view, asking them why they’re so pissed off. (That’s not as crazy as it might sound. Jump HERE for the full post.)

An article on the website thinkitcreative.com also recommended focusing on the characters to move the plot forward. The author here suggested working on the backstory to get insights into what could happen next. One of their ideas involved going to an online dating site to get a list of questions for the characters to answer, which kind of cracks me up, but just might work. (Jump HERE for the complete post.)

I also liked an article on the Writers Digest website, because it recommended brainstorming “what could happen next”, then choosing the option the reader is least likely to expect. The article’s second bullet point was even more succinct:

Kill someone.

Heh. Yeah. That’d definitely shake things up.

Finally, they suggested meditation, to let your mind go quiet and see what ideas wander in.  “Stillness is the native language of creativity, yet it’s astonishing how we try to avoid silence.” (Jump HERE for the full article.)

So yeah, maybe I’m not really stuck. Maybe I’m just giving my ideas more time to blossom.

Or maybe I should spend less time on Facebook, and more time exploring. I’m going to go walk the dogs and see what I can come up with. If you’ve got ideas for how to move through a block, share them in the comments. Would love to learn from you!

 

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The Scariest Time of Year… #NaNoWriMo

Halloween is just two days away, which, for me, is pretty awesome instead of scary. What is far scarier for most writers is three days away…

NaNoWriMo!!!

I don’t think I need to explain this to most of our readers, but just in case, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It’s awesome and terrifying and overwhelming and satisfying all at once. This is the month that many writers wait all year for – that push to get 50,000 words done in just 30 short days.

Most people realize, unless you’re writing a Middle Grade book, 50k does not make a novel, but it is a damn good start. Hell, it’s one half to two thirds of a book. So it’s a pretty incredible feeling when you “win” NaNo. I, myself, have won NaNo 3 times. The first book in my Matilda Kavanagh Novels was my first NaNo win and I’ve gone on to write five sequels to that book alone.

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Nano really is magical. You build writing friendships and habits that you can take with you to build your writing career. But I know it can be really scary and overwhelming. So I though I would share a couple of my tricks to winning.

Outline your story. Obviously there are split camps when it comes to outlines and pantsing. Some people lose the momentum to tell a story once they’ve written an outline, but I really think it’s good to have a loose road map so you know where you’re going when you sit down to write. A lot of writing time can be lost when you’re sitting there trying to think, “what next?” Even if you just take 30-60 mins in the morning to outline the next chapter so you know what you’re going to write that day, it’ll help you get that 1,667 words for the day.

Join the NaNo community on Twitter. If you don’t know anyone IRL who writes or wants to do NaNo with you and this is your first time, doing it on your own can be difficult. Word counts seem impossible and it’s lonely. On Twitter look for #nano and #nanowrimo and you’ll find people doing this too and you can try to write with them, or meet up for write-ins, where a group of you convene at a coffee shop or library and write for a few hours.

Use sprints. Writing sprints are where you set a clock for a specific amount of time and you try to write as much as you can in that small amount of time. For me, I don’t like to do anything less than 20 mins, but at the same time I don’t like 60 mins either because that’s just too long. But 15-30 mins is easy to ignore the internet and your phone and just try to beat your last sprint. And sprint with friends or other NaNo’ers. It will tap into your competitive spirit and you’ll have people to cheer you on and cheer on yourself as you and your friends write more and more with each sprint.

Take breaks between sprints. If you’ve done three 20 mins sprints, you’ve been writing for an hour. Be sure to take 5-10 mins between those sprints to look away from your manuscript, but after a group of sprints, walk away from your computer. Stretch, go for a walk, eat something. Just move around. If you can get 500-600 words a sprint, you can hit your daily goal in just three sprints. And, chances are, by the end of the month, you’ll be typing faster and faster and might win NaNo with a few days to spare.

Stop when you want to keep going. If you’ve hit your daily goal but know what happens next, walk away. That’ll give you a great springboard for tomorrow.

If you’re on a roll and you naturally get more words than you need, go with it. I know this contradicts my last point, but that’s writing for you. Every day is different. But a surplus of words gives you a cushion in case something happens and you miss a day or you can’t make it to the minimum word count.

So that’s it! Good luck! Make sure you keep it fun because, while writing is hard work, you should be enjoying it!

Looking back at my Words in 2014

If you’ve been following along with my writing updates this year, you know I was pretty slammed with projects even though I promised myself I wouldn’t over do it like I did last year.

Last year I posted about how many words/projects I set as goals to finish through the year. You can check it here. But tl;dr is this:

January: 80,123
February: 75,011
March: 35,170
April: 27,351
May: 30,005
June: 46,289
July: 4,054
August: 27,077
September: 0
October: 30,002
November: 50,000 – won NaNoWriMo WOOT!
December: 8,250

Total words for 2013: 413,332

Novels: 4; Novellas: 4.

That was a ridiculous year. At the end I felt drained and tapped out. So I told myself I wouldn’t do that to myself in 2014. This year I would take my time with projects and write at my pace and allow myself to take time out if I needed it. But, keep in mind, I am a full-time writer. So here is 2014 at a glance (I rounded down this time):

January: 30,050
February: 30,050
March: 40,240
April: 10,000
May: 0 (editing)
June: 17,775
July: 57,250
August: 14,300
September: 55,700
October: 15,000
November: 50,050 – won NaNoWriMo WOOT!
December: 35,000

Total words for 2014: 355,415

Novels: 4; Novellas: 0.

I don’t even know how I did that. I didn’t even set word or book goals for myself. I told myself this year would be slower, easier on me. But I still managed to keep writing the same number of novels. The first was written from Jan-March (Time of Ruin). April was the first 10k of a novella that I shelved because I wasn’t digging it – see! Giving myself a break! June through August was the second novel (Yuletide). The third novel was written from August-September, which is where I started to lose steam, so I took the first half of October off to recharge and outline the fourth book I wrote this year from the end of October to mid-December. But telling myself to take time off only meant that I had about a 60k word difference from 2013-2014.

But I suppose that’s what forming a habit breeds. I write full-time. When I take too much time off, I start to feel guilty about not writing and when a particularly difficult book is looming, like the last book I wrote this year, I start to get nightmares. Very vivid nightmares. The monsters need to get out and if it’s not on the page then they’ll take my sleep.

But I finished writing the last book on December 8th. Somehow I wrote 30k words in less than a week (5k was adding to the third book after I took a break). On the last day I wrote over 12k words and walked away from my desk a little glassy-eyed and manic. Then I refused to do anything for 7 days. I watched holiday specials and Christmas movies. I wrapped presents and listened to carols. I went to parties and spent time with friends and family. I lit a fire on the Solstice. I didn’t have anything to write or edit. I didn’t even really read that much that week. Then, knowing that my deadline for my third book was looming and the book was 5-10k too short, I felt good enough to add those missing 5k words in 2 days and make my deadline days ahead of time. And you know what? I haven’t done anything since. This is the most I’ve written since sending that project off to my editor.

I’m going to start beta reading a book this week. And next Monday I’ll start going over the rough draft of that fourth book I wrote. But taking these three weeks off has been amazing. I had no idea how much work I’d done because, though it seems all back-to-back, I take weekends off and plan outlines. So, the other night, we were driving home from seeing The Hobbit, and a song came on the radio and a new character burst into my mind like Athena from Zeus’s head – fully formed and ready for her story to be written.

She is still a glimmer, not much more than an idea right now, but because I’ve taken time off, finished one trilogy, I know I am ready to start again in the new year. I’ll give myself the same break I gave myself in 2014 because it obviously worked well. I was almost as productive as 2013 without finishing the year feeling burnt out. Maybe it was a good thing I didn’t get any goals for myself. Maybe I won’t set any for 2015 either and just see what happens.

So take your time. Let your projects form organically, but don’t dismiss the need for discipline and goals. You’d be amazed at what you can accomplish too.