Five Things I've Learned from November Writing Challenges (so far)

For those who are not aware, I am participating in both National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)* and National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo) this November. If this sounds like madness to you, that’s because it is, my lovelies, it is.

I’m finding the dual challenge fun, at least in these early days of the month. Here are a few things I’ve learned so far.

1. Exceed the Daily Minimum.

I kind of knew this one from the previous years I’ve done Nano and it feels like it should be obvious, but I feel like it’s something I always end up learning all over again. If you just meet the minimum requirements of the challenge, then you can get in trouble if life gets in the way latter down the road.

I try to at least get a few hundred words over the 1667 minimum required for Nano, that way I’m not stressed if I don’t feel like writing one day.

For the blogging challenge, this sometimes means I’m writing two blog posts a day, one for the day I’m on and one in preparation for the day after. It’s the same amount of words, but helps me have all my bases covered. In some cases this has resulted in two posts in the same day, because something new and relevant has come up. So, at the end of the month, I may have more than the minimum 30 blog posts (way cool).

2. Write First. Life Second.

Simple, and something I’ve known for a long time. Get the work done that needs getting done first and use the time left over for cleaning your room, chores, errands, watching TV, reading, friends, family, etc.I think this works best for the craziness of these writing challenges, since it only has to be sustained for this short period of time. During the rest of the year family and friends are the priority; cleaning, errands and chores end up on fairly even keel with my writing activities; and play (i.e. TV and movies and such) should be lowest, but isn’t always.

For day to day life, I won’t be able to keep this manic energy up, but I can set aside specific days where I come home from work and make writing my priority.

This work first attitude is also helping to build a habit of getting stuff done, which I’m hoping will carry over after the November challenges are completed.

3. Get Out and Do Things.

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Haymitch says, “Just stay alive.”

Once the day’s goals have been met and exceeded, get out, get away from the chair, go do something. It’s kind of like a reward for the hard work done that day, but it’s also a way of maintaining mental order.

Last weekend was perfect. I got up early (but not too early), had some tea and toast while doing my Nano Novelling, and then went out and took walks with my baby niece and sisters, went to the farmers market, played with the baby, watched some movies. I

I have also been keeping up with my exercises, which helps keep me physically capable of sitting there and writing without feeling like I’m going to fall apart at the seams. And it also helps clear my head and exorcises stress.

These kinds of challenges require a lot of endurance, especially if you are combining them with full time jobs or education activities (and btw, parenting counts as a full time job, for realz). With the combination of work, life, family, friends, and the challenge, I’ve experienced serious Burn Out before, where I realize I’ve taken on too much with the result that I start to get physically sick or I get to the point where I don’t even want to look at a computer. Maintaining a sense of balance by stepping away from the challenge, taking a break, is a good way of surviving the month.

4. Don’t Be Afraid of Going for the Gut.

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, I discovered over the course of this week that I’d been taking the easy way out in regards to my novel, playing it safe for both me and my characters. But it’s so much exciting for both readers and the writer to go for the gut and take risks. It can be scary, but it has the potential for better writing.

Taking part in NaBloPoMo has had me reading more blog posts this month than I normally would, and I’ve been struck by the honesty and courage of my favorite posts. I haven’t managed this much in my blog, as I tend to avoid writing posts that could be the least bit controversial or argumentative. I’m trying to put more personality into my posts and would like to get into more creative nonfiction, adding stories from my life in (hopefully) interesting and creative ways. It’s something for me to work on.

5. Work Breeds Inspiration.

I rediscover this every time I find myself enmeshed in a big project or doing a lot of writing or a combination of writing and other creative things. The more I write, the more I feel inspired to write, the more easily new ideas and words come, the more quickly I can get those words on the page.

To me, writing kind of like having a big round stone in the middle of a field. You know you want to roll the stone over to the other side of the field. As you stare at the stone sitting there, the idea of moving is looks daunting. The stone is too heavy. It’s too much work. Then, you start pushing the stone and it’s hard, but slowly it starts moving. As it starts moving, it starts to pick up momentum and that momentum makes it easier. If you stop, the momentum stops; you have to start the hard part over again. But if you keep the stone rolling until you reach the end of the project, then the momentum makes the work so much easier.

Nano-ing and other such challenges are huge massive heaps of potential and momentum. They start a pace, which the writer can either keep going or not.

For me that momentum is invaluable. It gets me going and keeps me going, and the sheer act of writing is what keeps my inspired.

Since we’re on the subject, my lovelies. Are you doing any personal challenges this month? What have you learned in the process?

PS. This post was inspired by BlogHer’s NaBloPoMo prompt for Day 8.

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Good Reading

Turning Right Instead of Left

Some writers avoid talking about what they’re working on with anyone, and my understanding is that this is because they feel they loose the excitement of discovering and writing the story when they tell it.

I personally find the opposite is true. While I’m writing, especially in the first draft stage, talking out the story can be incredibly helpful, helping me to plan out where I’m going. Of course, whomever I’m talking to often has many ideas of where they think I should take the story (most of them not right), but even hearing the wrong ideas can help me weed out the right ones.

During lunch yesterday, I was talking the story with a coworker and telling them what I had planned. One if my characters is attacked, and my coworker leapt to an assumption about the identity of the “villain”.

I explained that I had originally planned to write it that way, but had changed to another option. “But I’ve been thinking of changing it back,” I said. “Because I feel like I’ve been pulling my punches do it this way. That I’ve been playing it safe.”

“You are,” she said. “Just hearing the first version was compelling.”

“Yeah,” I said, and thought to myself, well, fuuuuuuuuuuu—.

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Because damn it, she was right.

Of course, now all the planning I’ve done has to be tossed out the window and I have no ideas of how to finish this novel. I’m also going to have to make changes in the beginning sections to make these changes work. And the first scenes I ever wrote for this thing before I knew it was going to be a novel, the ones that kicked it all off, will just about have to be trashed entirely. (“Kill your darlings,” the wisdom goes.)

But I’m grateful to have figured this out now. Actually, I’m right at the pivot point in writing the current draft where this change would have to occur. Instead of turning left, I just have to turn right in the plotting. This will save me tones of time during revisions.

Of course taking this plot turn is scary, and that’s how I know it’s probably right. I’m not sure I’m good enough to pull it off, not sure I can make readers believe, not sure I’ll be able to do that much damage to my main character. I don’t really want to twist the knife (metaphorically speaking) once I’ve jammed it into her belly, but I’m gonna have to.

Right now, I’m trying not to flail.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening mentally working out how to make the change work, and allowed myself a break from writing. I think I’ve got some of it worked out, but have no idea how to end it. I guess I’ll discover that when I get there.

When you’re writing do you talk the story out? Or do you keep it to yourself until the draft is finished?

Alternatively, have you ever caught yourself pulling your punches while writing a story? Or do you always go for the guts?

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Good Reading

Marilyn Brant posted Following Our Passions: A Dance of Love, Fear, and Change,” which gives some fascinating insight into her career as an author and talks about why as writers we keep writing.

The Daily Post has a great blog up called, Should You Let the Cats Out of the Bag? Blogging About Family and Friends, which deals with privacy and the internet, how much you should share and not share, especially in regards to the lives of friends and family. It has some great questions to ask yourself before posting and some tips on how to handle the sharing of private information in a respectful way.

All the Snow Melts Away

This is an excerpt from Under the Midday Moon, the novel I’m working on for Nano. This bit of the novel was inspired by the prompt “Moved by Music” provided by the The Daily Post. Since it is a first draft, it is likely to contain errors, typos, and other such idiosyncrasies, so read at your own risk. (~_^)

* * * *

Outside tiny tufts of snow flakes drifted, most in a downward direction, but some alighted in drafts of wind, spiraling sideways or even beck up to the grey sky they fell from.

When I was a little girl, my dad and I used to run outside every time fresh snow fell. Not the half rain slush that came down sometimes, but real snow, the light white flakes that floated in and out of the porch light in flurries and drifts. We ran out in whatever we were wearing, pajamas or Sunday dress or, once, wrapped in a towel fresh out of the bath, and stopped only long enough to pull galoshes onto our feet. We would stand out under the cold sky, whether night or day, and let the snow catch in our hair and kiss our eyelashes. We laughed and danced and we stuck out our tongues in the hopes of tasting fresh snow, the cold nothing flavor of winter that was just so perfect.

But those days eventually melted away like snow in Spring as dad’s Black Days took more and more of a toll. He seemed to be more and more tired every year and for more and more days of the month. Sometimes after the moons, it would take him up to a week to recover now. He moved slowly through the house on those days, shifting from room to room, like a scrap of paper kicked up again and again, unable to come to rest. When he finally settled in a chair or collapsed onto the couch, he would just sit there, sometimes for an hour or more, just staring off at an empty spot on the wall.

Read the rest of the excerpt

Writing Retreat Announced: Poets on the Coast 2014

The fabulous Susan Rich, whose books of poetry I’ve read and loved, has announced Poets on the Coast: A Writing Retreat for Women, which she is hosting alongside Kelli Russell Agodon. This weekend retreat will be from September 5-6, 2014 in La Conner, Washington.

“This retreat has been designed for women writers of all levels, from beginning poets to well published. Sessions on creativity, generating work, publication, a Master Class workshop, and one-on-one mentoring are included as well as morning yoga.”

I learned about this retreat last year and loved the idea of going. I spent several weeks trying to plot out the time and money it would take for me to go, but the finances just didn’t work for me.

I’m considering it again for 2014, but I know I have at least two trips planned next year, which will eat up much of my traveling funds. I’m still hoping to make it work, but we’ll see.

I think it’s a fabulous retreat, though, and I hope some of my fellow female poets get the opportunity to go — even if I can’t join them this year.

Three Bits of Bad Writing Advice

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I’ve seen several posts that have their list of things they consider bad writing advice, some of which I agree with and others I don’t.* Like most writers, I’ve received various bits of bad advice. Here are a few moments or pieces of advice that stand out most for me.

(PS. I did not intend this to be so dang long. Sorry.)

1. Forget King

Sitting in the college councilor’s office, a small cramps space with a too large desk covered in stacks of marked up pages, I asked about what it would take to major in Creative Writing. My transferring to the UC had complicated the matter, because some of the classes I took at community weren’t applicable at university.

The councilor told me about my options and asked, “Who are your favorite authors.”

I grinned and said, “Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, and Stephen King.”**

She blinked and then wrote something down in her notes. “I wouldn’t mention that last one.”

I continued to smile and nodded, even though my skin went cold and embarrassment began to make me blush. It would be impossible for me to forget Stephen King as an influence on me as a reader and a writer. I spent too many hours in high school, curled up, pages deep in the blood drenched and horrifying worlds he created. Reading his books was like an obsession.

But the councilor’s message was clear: If you’re going to be a writer, you need to be a serious writer and read serious things.***

I remember walking out of that office feeling conflicted. Why shouldn’t I talk about something that meant so much to me?

The conclusion I came to — Screw it. My love of genre (scifi, fantasy, horror) ran deep, and I wasn’t going to let that go just because I was told it wasn’t good enough. I was going to write what I wanted to write.

Whether stories, poems, scripts, whatever, a writer usually writes their best when writing stories that mean something to them instead of trying to write what someone else thinks they should write.

My recommendation: Move toward your passion. Write what moves you to write.

(Ultimately, I did not get a degree in Creative Writing, though this was more due to time constraints than to my reaction to the councilor’s advice.)

2a. Join the Bandwagon

My dad has always been encouraging of my desire to be a writer, for which I’m grateful. However, he also comes at this encouragement from the perspective that I will eventually be a best selling author of the sort to be able to live in a giant mansion and buy my dad a Cessna airplane (he used to be a bush pilot in Alaska). Goddess love him, he wants his little girl to have oodles and oodles of money so she never has to worry every again.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had that went something (sort of) like this:

Me: Yeah, so I’m working on this project that I’m really excited about! *describes story*

My Dad: That’s great! I love that idea! I’m so proud of you!

Me: Thanks!

My Dad: But you know you should do is check out what these famous authors did. You know, Stephen Kind and James Patterson. Just copy what they do, and you’ll be able to make a lot of money.

Me: Um, it doesn’t work that way, dad. *tries to explain publishing* So, you see, only a tiny percentage of writers actually become rich and famous.

My Dad: Well, I don’t know about that. I know! How about you write a vampire novel! I know they’re really popular and you could sell a lot of books!

Me: That’s not going to happen, dad.

My Dad: Why not?

Me: Because, I don’t want to write a vampire novel. I don’t feel moved to write a vampire novel. When I do, I’ll write one, but right now? No. Nope. Not going to happen.

My Dad: But…

From there, the conversation would usually loop for a long while with the result that either I got frustrated or we both started laughing.

Doing what everyone else is doing will not guarantee fame or riches any more than writing what you love. Plus, it tends to lead toward weaker writing in my experience.

Creating stuff is hard work. Especially if there is not guarantee that there is a reward when you’re done making it. So, I figure, write what you’re dying to write, what’s overflowing from yourself, or simply what amuses you.

2b. Selling Out is Bad

On the opposite side of Bad Advice #2 is the concept that “selling out” and it being an evil, evil thing that only bad people do. This is based on the common idea that true artists are starving and/or suffering, and that artists or writers or musicians who make lots of money have sold their souls for profit, sending the quality of their works into the fiery pits of hell.

Most of which is hokum. This idea that artists and writers create work for the love and the love alone has also spawned a great number of people who believe artist and writers don’t need to be paid for their hard work.

And, as I mentioned in #2a, creating stuff is hard work.

It’s not always easy to get paid for that work for a whole lot of reasons, but there is nothing wrong with mild compromises, or taking jobs for the money, or doing what you need to do as a writer to keep going.

Making money is not a bad thing. In fact I like making money. It puts food on the table and lets me do things, like buy books and go to the movies.

(In fact, if Kim Kardashian were to walk up to me and offer to pay me thousands of dollars to ghost writer her memoir, I would do it in a heart beat.**** Because those bucks will help me pay bills and keep writing all the other things I love writing.)

The key, I believe, is to keep a balance from doing work that you love and find inspiring, while also obtaining an income that you and your loved ones can live off. (If you’re going to say that that’s easier said than done, I will agree with you. I’m still trying to get there myself.)

3. Almost Anything Involving the Word “Should”
(or “must” or “have to” or any variation that implies “this way is the only way”)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that once you declare yourself to be a writer, someone will tell you what you should be doing to be to be successful. Or at least, it’s something I’ve seen happen a lot to writers and have had happen to me.

Though, I admit that I have been guilty of offering this kind of advice. Once (or twice) during a Writing Gang meeting, I’ve thrown my hand in the air and said to my fellow comrade in writing, “Why aren’t you submitting your work? You should! You work is good! I insist you submit your work!”

But the thing is, she has no interest in submitting her work for professional publication. When another member of our group asked her when she was going to submit one of her novels, she said, “Never.”

What she’s done is self publish them online (you can find links on her GoodReads profile), and then spends exactly no time marketing them. She has no website, no blog, and does no self promotion. For her it seems, just writing the novels and posting them is what she wants. It makes her happy. Who am I to tell her she should do it any different?

Writing and developing a writing career is a strangely exploratory act. There is no clear map that can lead you from point A (beginning) to point B (success). No clear definition of what success even is.

For me, advice is great and wonderful. I’m happy to take in advice by the bucketfuls. I dig through it, sift it, and eventually through experimentation find something that works. At least for this story or this poem.

The next story or next poem might require a different method, the absorption of different advice.

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Anyway, that’s it. Hopefully I didn’t accidentally slip in some bad advice while talking to you about bad advice. 😉

What advice have you received as a writer that you found to be bad or not work for you?

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Good Reads:  Deborah Lee Luskin gives some excellent advice about the importance of word order in her post, “The English Language On Word Order Depends.” Something I think every one forgets or mixes up and is good to be reminded of.

Call for Submissions: Kaleidoscope is an anthology of contemporary YA science fiction and fantasy with a focus on diverse perspectives. “We hope to fill with a variety of exciting tales, happy and sad, adventurous and meditative. We’re not simply looking for cookie-cutter vampire or urban fantasy stories, but for things that transport us and subvert our expectations.” Payment: 5 cents per word (USD). Deadline: Decemberr 31, 2013. Click for more info.

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*In most cases, the advice isn’t necessarily “bad,” but tends to assume it is right in every case without taking into account that for every piece of advice that works wonderfully for the adviser, there is a writer out there who would offer the exact opposite advice. For example, “write everyday” is perfectly good advice; it works for many people. Except when it doesn’t; then, it becomes bad advice.

**This was my stock answer throughout much of college. Now, my current list looks of favorites would look quite different, and is actually be quite long. Toni Morrison is still a favorite, but Neil Gaiman now sits perched at the precarious top of that list. They are joined by Pablo Neruda, Charles de Lint, Ron Padgett, Jeff Smith, Ray Bradbury, Jane Austen, Mary Roach, and others.

***The believe that “literature” is better than genre is old and much debated. I don’t really want to get into that battle, since it seems pointless to me. Many works of what is considered literature are genius; many are also complete crap. Same goes for genre of all kinds.

****Plus, some dark part of my soul secretly want to find out what deep dark secrets she might have. What?

[This post was inspired The Daily Post’s weekly writing challenge prompt “Dear Abby.”]