My NaNoWriMo Success Story (Due To Not Reaching 50k)

So, a while ago I posted a very upbeat blog about how well my first day of NaNoWriMo was going.  Well, that didn’t last long.  I haven’t made it to 50K and at this point, I’m not going to.  Although I really wanted to win (this is my fourth year participating without ever winning), I’m perfectly okay with not making it to the finish line.  I attempted it, which is more than a lot of other wannabe novelists can say.  Plus, every year I’ve learned something from Nano.

My first year, in 2008, I made it to approximately 45,000 word around 11:30pm the night of the 30th.  I was thiiiiiis close to joining the ranks of completed Nano novelists.  For a newbie who had never written more than 20 pages of one story in her life, I felt pretty damn good about it.  Getting interviewed on Baltimore NPR didn’t feel too bad, either.  Today, that novel is thiiiiiiiis close to getting finished, final publishable draft and all.  So close that after the holidays, I’m going to start stalking agents to get it published.  That year I learned that I can be a writer, I will be a writer.

My second year, I started the sequel to 2008’s novel.  Both were mysteries featuring the same private detective and a lot of angst.  I didn’t get very far with that novel.  Somewhere around 20,000 words, I believe.  I petered out because I didn’t have a sustainable plot line and I wasn’t sure where things were going.  I learned a lot more about my main characters, and I learned that plotting is absolutely essential to any writing, particularly mysteries.  I still have that draft sitting somewhere abandoned on my hard drive, waiting to be resurrected in the near future.  That year, I learned that my destiny as a writer isn’t to be a one-hit wonder, but with hard work and perseverance I can achieve my dream.

My third year, I was a senior in college.  I made the terrible, terrible mistake of using the novel I was writing for NaNoWriMo in my creative writing class.  It was fairly well-received, my professor liked it and so did my classmates.  I had a ball moving away from any set genre or mode of writing and just letting out raw, unadulterated emotions onto the page (it was a story about a pregnant widow).  I got critiqued, a lot.  Which, as we all know, is not conducive to the NaNoWriMo style of writing.  Lesson learned?  First drafts are for the writer’s eyes only.  And sometimes, so are second drafts.

This year, I went back to that same story.  I guess I have trouble letting things go.  I completely scrapped last year’s draft and started over with some new ideas.  I wanted to write a powerful story about love, grief, death, sanity/insanity, and parenthood.  I didn’t want to follow the “rules” of conventional storytelling; instead, I paid homage to my favorite style of writing, postmodernism.  I randomly switched between narrators, added flashbacks where I felt like it, used swear words and uncomfortable topics of discussion.  I learned that even though there’s a lot of elbow grease behind the process of writing, where it comes from is the heart, always.  That was learned most acutely when I started crying at my computer because I could really relate to what my main character was doing/saying.

I love NaNoWriMo.  There’s nothing like an impossible challenge or a group of kindred souls to get me motivated.  But even though I didn’t win, it’s been a great process year after year.  And isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway?

NaNoWriMo: Day 1

So far, so good.

I’ve leapt head-first into NaNoWriMo 2011 and at the moment, I’m back-stroking along.  After about an hour and half of writing, I’ve got just over 500 words.  Not too shabby.  1,100 more and I’ll have met the daily goal, something I haven’t done in a long time.

Granted, I’ve had that first 500 words or so in my head for weeks now, but I choose to keep looking on the bright side and reward myself with some Halloween candy and another hazelnut latte.  The only thing I’m not looking forward at the moment is the inevitable fact that I will most likely become one with my laptop this month.  Between overtime ghostwriting for bills and holiday cash, keeping in touch with out-of-state friends, and Nano, I won’t be surprised if my heartbeat becomes synced with the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard.

It was bound to happen eventually, I guess.

To all my fellow NaNo-ers out there, may your Muse be talkative, the caffeine unending, and the distractions minimal.  Happy NaNoWriMo!

 

NaNoWriMo: We’re Down To The Wire, Part 1

Less than one week until NaNoWriMo 2011 begins.  Am I panicking?

Yes.

This will be my fourth nano in a row.  I haven’t won yet, although I got pretty close in 2008 and 2009 (I completely tanked last year). I’m still undecided on this year’s project.  I’m considering tackling a fantasy story that’s been in my head for about a decade, but I’d also like to scrap last year’s attempt and rewrite it.  Both ideas are appealing in their own way, and both have fairly well-developed plots that can get me to and beyond 50,000 words.

I’m panicking because I like to have my writing ventures planned out ahead of time.  I like to get the Halloween and be frothing at the mouth to start writing.  I like to know where I’ll be writing, what I’ll be writing, when I can get peace and quiet…

And at the moment, I have nothing much besides the “frothing at the mouth” part.  This will be my first nano as a working professional, and I don’t have any of the security I did as a student — no guaranteed quiet time or space, no dining hall for a quick meal I don’t have to prepare, and no network of 1,000 other local students all doing the same thing.

I have to write without my safety net.

Perhaps this is what nano is really all about.  I’ll certainly find out!

Why Are Characters So Important?

There’s an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants where he and Patrick find a magic pencil that allows anything drawn with it to come to life.  After horsing around with mustaches, fake money, and a parodic version of Squidward, SpongeBob comes up with DoodleBob — a poorly-drawn version of himself that speaks only in yells and grunts and ends up trying to take over.

Characters in a story are a bit like that, if they’re done properly.  You mess around a bit and then, before you know it, they’ve developed free will and run off screaming, ruining all of your well-laid plans for their story.

Good characters — the kind that are not only realistic, but are as multidimensional as real people — are the lifeblood of a story.  Characters drive the plot of your story and  they give the reader a reason to, you know, read the story.  Most of us avid readers can rattle off a list of our favorite characters, even if we haven’t read a certain book in years.  Some of my childhood favorites were Samantha Parkington from the American Girl series, Patsy, Margaret, and Hattie from various Dear America diaries; Mary-Anne from The Babysitter’s Club, and, more recently, characters like Ron Weasley, Isobel Fairfax, and Kinsey Millhone.

Characters stick with us long after the story fades away.  As readers, hey become our “friends” in a way.  As writers, they can be our best friends or sworn enemies, or anything in between.

Some characters come to us fully formed, with names and backstory and that weird little quirk that makes them unique.  Sometimes, we are given only a block of personality marble and we have to painstakingly carve out the character inside.  Often, we get to a point in the story where suddenly, we realize something we never knew about the character, but which makes perfect sense.  Characters keep us up at night and are a source of terrible frustration oftentimes.

If you have characters who are dull, flat, inconsistent, uninteresting, or that fail to make themselves useful and worth writing about, your story will fail to launch no matter how brilliant your prose or amazing your plot is.  That’s why creating good characters is so important, and the reason I refuse to pick up Madame Bovary ever again.

Some writers prefer to start with characters, while others come up with a plot and then build a character to suit it.  Either way is fine, so long as the two work together seamlessly.  I tend to work with characters first, building my plot step by step asking, “What would happen if Character X did…?”  Whatever you prefer, characters need to always follow some guidelines:

  • They should always be consistent.  It doesn’t matter if your character is a wimp, a hero, a whiny teenager, a corporate jerk, or a homeless man who sleeps in the back of McDonald’s, just keep him/her consistent throughout the story.  Wimps who suddenly jump in front of speeding trains to rescue kittens are as baffling as the corporate jerks who suddenly throw away their PDAs and hand out cash at a local shelter.  If your character is going to become a radically different person, it should happen after appropriately radical plot events
  • They should be multidimensional.   Characters need to be life-like, which means they need to have a more in-depth personality than, “short temper, loves classical music and red wine.”  The exact amount of character depth needed will be proportional to the story’s plot and it’s length, but you should have a good idea of the inside of your character as well as the outside — what does he love, what does he need, what does he want?  What fears or goals drive your character, what makes him get out of bed in the morning?  How would he react to common situations, such as being asked on a date, getting fired from his job, etc., etc.?
  • They should not fit a mold.  Nothing is worse than a story with a Mary Sue/Gary Stu, or someone so unbelievably predictable you have them figured out after the first three pages.  Stories are unique, people are unique, and characters should be unique, too.

Suggested Reading:

How To Create A Character

Make ‘Em Perfect – Give ‘Em Flaws

The “O” Word: Outlines

With NaNoWriMo coming soon, I am going to start pushing my old agenda again — why and how fiction writers should use outlines.  I’ve probably already lost at least 1/3 of you, but if you’re still reading, thank you for hearing me out.

Anyone who knows me well can tell you I am not an organized person.  It’s not in my nature to keep things where I can easily find them again.  Only the most important things — money stuff, tax records, my passport — are kept in special places.  So, when I say “outline,” I in no way mean one of those Roman numeral-infested abominations we all had to do at least once in high school.  Those make me shudder and they’re a pain in the ass to format in Microsoft Word.

They also do exactly what a good outline should not — they stifle creativity and box the maker’s ideas into a predetermined, inflexible format.  When I say “outline,” I mean “guide,” or maybe “road map.”  An outline should be a tool you can use to find out what your story is about and where it’s going.

Two of the most common misconceptions about outlines is that 1) they have to follow a set format, and 2) they’re set in stone once written out.  I’d like to debunk both those myths here and now.

An outline should take whatever form works for the individual writer or project.  Outlines don’t even have to look like what you think they might.  For example, here are two of my outlines for past projects:

A rambling trail of imagination...
Yes, I kept schoolwork this old. Don't judge me.

The first one is for a story I wrote in high school and the other was for a literature paper in college.  They’re almost complete opposites in structure, but they both worked for their respective projects.  But even on the more formal one, I still went with what I felt was most comfortable and what worked for how my mind jumped from idea to idea.  Neither included just one aspect of the work, either — the top was generated on notes about plot, character, setting, and theme, and the bottom included my thesis idea, supporting facts, and so on.

Neither one was intended to box my writing into a format or keep it from growing or developing as I wrote.  These outlines were written with the express purpose of getting my ideas onto paper and figuring out what the hell I wanted to say.  If and when I got lost while writing, my outline showed me where my ending was.   My outline is the skeleton of my story, where I make notes, ask questions, try on new ideas.  If I get into writing and find the characters take me somewhere else, the outline gets stashed away (since I keep everything o.O).

THAT is why I think outlines can be so helpful to Nano writers.  They can give us a basic plan so we can jump in headfirst, screaming, and not sit there staring at the blank page wondering what to write (or writing “I don’t know what to write” a thousand times).  Outlines, for me at least, also help calm the pre-Nano “I love this story and I want to write it NOW!” jitters.

Hear a few others’ thoughts on outlining:

Nano 2011: To Outline or Not to Outline?

How To Set Up A Plotting Notebook

Writers, Music, and Inspiration

Most of the writers I know tend to write with some sort of music.  Very few don’t.  I know that without my MP3s, it’s incredibly hard for me to concentrate.  The NaNoWriMo writers have even organized a yearly MP3 exchange, which comprises well over a dozen public Box.net accounts.

I never gave much thought as to why the link between music and writing, until recently.  I accepted an in-depth assignment to write an article on the benefits of music therapy to victims of stroke and dementia, and unearthed some very interesting data concerning the effects of musical rhythm on the brain.  It may explain why so many writers are so attached to their playlists.

In 2006, researchers at Stanford University presented some of their research on music therapy (you can read their press release).  Studies using electroencephalographs — wacky sci-fi looking devices that measure electrical impulses in your brain — showed that brainwaves tend to sync with musical rhythms:

Music with a strong beat stimulates the brain and ultimately causes brainwaves to resonate in time with the rhythm, research has shown. Slow beats encourage the slow brainwaves that are associated with hypnotic or meditative states. Faster beats may encourage more alert and concentrated thinking.

They also found that musical stimuli can increase blood flow to the brain.  Anatomy and Physiology 101, blood flow is usually good.  Blood helps heal injured body parts (which is why they tend to swell up), good news for those recovering from damaging strokes or degenerative dementia.  For writers, increased blood flow to the brain helps keep it closer to that springy, limber state we feel when the Muse comes.

I imagine it like this, though in reality it's probably less dramatic.

To me, this is all incredibly fascinating — I love the human brain, with all its intricacies and nuances, and how we study so much about it but can’t completely understand it.  Although the written word will always be first in my heart, of course, the undeniable effect music has on humans amazes me.  The brain truly is a wondrous commodity (my personal best, I believe).

Now, next time I lose my headphones and fall into a panic, I can throw this information back at whoever tells me it’s not a big deal (coughDevincoughcough).  How about you?  What’re your feelings on music and writing?

This blog is brought to you by:

Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked (Cage the Elephant)

Hey, Soul Sister (Train)

The Man In Me (Bob Dylan)

Sweet Emotion (Aerosmith)