Thursday, 27 October 2011

Nanowrimo Prep: Breaking (Almost) All the Rules

There are 8 rules for writing.

There are only 7 plots in the whole wide world.

There are 36 plots.

There is only 1 rule for writing.^

You have to write fast. You have to write slow. You have to plot first. You have burn on pure creativity. You must structure your story. You must begin at the beginning.

After a few years of attending talks and workshops and listening to people who also wrote but did not write like me, I realized everyone follows their rules. They just forget to tell you that everyone has their own set of rules that they have cobbled together from their trusted mentors and peers and sources which are totally different from yours.

Once you look at all these different rule sets a pattern emerges where you see this person's set of rules is that person's wriggle room, and that person's set of rules leaves little spaces for this person's rules to fit between. Together they make a series of contradictions that function smoothly with only a few conjunctions to smooth the way.

You have to write fast and (some days) you have to write slow.

You have to plot first or you have to burn on pure creativity.

You must structure your story but you must begin at the beginning. So what if your structure doesn't begin with the beginning?

Nanowrimo has one rule: Don't look back!

Like speed limits, it's a guideline, and like the rules above, it works best in conjunction with your pre-existing personal writing rules.

Let's talk about speed limits for a minute. There are some speed limits you obey without questions because of the unstated "or else". I always obey the speed limit that says "25 mph on this twisty mountain road...or else you might die" and "30mph in this residential area...or else you might kill someone". That sentence started with "I" for a reason, because you might trust yourself on mountain roads or trust your breaks or distrust driving through gorges...

My writing rules were pretty set before I did Nanowrimo the first time. And they were pretty set right after that first hellish month of approximately 12,000 grueling words that had been over-plotted and under-developed. I planned the life right out of my characters and spent my first word war paralyzed with writer's block.

My writing output before and after Nano was about the same, which is to say, slim to none.

The second time I tried Nanowrimo, I decided to follow the 1 rule and throw everything else out the window. I didn't look back. Some days I wrote in complete silence, some days I created careful playlists to evoke moods and characters. Some days I looked at my outline and some days I said to hell with it and plowed onward. Some weeks I went to the write-ins and sat with fellow writers and some weeks I spent wrapped up in my cocoon of a bedroom as a solitary serious artist.

I like to celebrate Nanowrimo as a time to explore new rituals in being a writer. This upcoming month I have plotted my novel as three separate storylines in very sketchy details. My characters are defined in single phrases and as comparisons to existing celebrities, TV characters in certain episodes or arcs, or even as a time of day.

Rather than plotting every single scene on index cards* I have decided to plot tomorrow's writing at the end of today's writing. I am going to break the only rule of Nanowrimo that exists to save accelerating writers from their own inability to stay off the delete key. I will read my writing of that day once I've finished it in order to write down certain details to aid with plotting - namely where I've left threads and throwaway details that may enhance tomorrow and even next week's writing.

I'm a little worried. This is the one concrete rule I've held for three successful Nanos. It won't break any of my other rules (be true to my characters, don't talk down to the reader, at some point I have to actually like the person through which I am viewing this world, among others), but it may throw off my routine. It may cause doubt. Doubt brings with it the paralyzing uncertainty 2 minutes into a 15 minute word war that can last another precious 7 minutes, losing hundreds of words in the process. I will, in effect, pants my novel.


Wish me luck!

^If you follow this link, only one rule applies to writing. :)

*Done it. Even drunk plotted before. All I have to say about that is, I guess I get philosophical when under the influence of a good white wine. Philosophy, unfortunately, does not do a whole lot for an action packed climax, especially when I've just compared an emotional arc? The path out of hell? The antagonist's long lost daughter and/or mistress? to winter's light. Oh, maudlin, oh, hangover. Nothing says bad idea like the morning after, trying to decipher both my handwriting and genius.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Nano Prep: A Little Panic on Plot and Word Counts

If you Nano on a regular basis, you know the spiel. 50,000 words is Of Mice and Men, a quick action-oriented novella by today's standards, or one of thousands of sci-fi books your parents collected in the 70's and 80's.

Today's word counts have an interesting history based partially on being paid by the word and partially driven by consumer expectation. There's obviously many other factors behind the word count evolution, and all it means is that two out of the last three books I bought can be considered concealed weapons if they could actually fit under my coat.

A little bit of word count

Conventional wisdom and other writing articles give rough estimates of word counts thusly:

<100-100 words = drabble
100-500 words = flash fiction
100-750 words = short short fiction
<25,000 words = short story
25,000 - 40,000 words = novella
40,000-60,000 words = short novel
70,000 words = basically a normal novel
>100,000 words = burglar stunner, also called an epic (or "bargain" in terms of entertainment hours)

So that 50,000 word draft you're about to lovingly pound out in a matter of days filled with caffeine abuse, familial neglect, and passionate bouts of insomnia, is a fantastic entry to the world of long form written art.

What about panic?

The first time I participated in Nanowrimo, I had never written anything longer than a short story or a long essay. I had some idea about how to plot an entire novel because as it turns out, pre-writing and procrastination are pretty darn close. Pre-writing gets you a neat little outline, maybe a massive wall of stickies, and carefully crafted character arcs with every gel pen color you can get your hands on.

What it doesn't do is sit your butt down and get you to write.

Around day four, I learned it was all fine and well to move character B across setting C to have conflict with characters E and I, but (aside from a hard lesson in ridiculously large casts) when the words won't come, all the stickies in the world can't get you across the 50,000 word finish line.

After a precious 3000 word dry spell (approximately 2 days of not writing) I started getting that itchy feeling of staring at a great big F for failure. It's not like Nanowrimo costs you anything, but losing usually karate chops my dignity something fierce, even if we're talking about losing Stupid Ninja seven times in a row. Nanowrimo says, in many sayings stemming from founder Chris Baty and from hundreds of thousands of participants: just write.

Desperate to not lose a contest in which I held no actual personal stake and won no riches beyond a little pixel icon, I broke my story down into mini stories, or what normal writers will probably recognize as "scenes", wherein each day of typing encompassed a beginning, middle, and end, with action and reflection and more than just a little word salad. Hey, it's 50,000 words, and one of the strategies repeat winners recommend include losing your em-dash between paired words and make at least one character a stutterer.

This year I'm going to stretch my ability to focus by breaking my overall plot into chunks. A few thousand words go into the premise [from my story sentence(s)] and a few thousand words go into the opposition and how he's going to stop the protagonist. A couple dozen grand go into the main journey part of the plot and perhaps a few thousand go into the emotional connections between the protagonist and her citizens. Before you know it, I will have ripped out 50,000 words of mayhem and occasional sentences that actually make sense in English.

My strategy will look like this:

40,000 words = main plot (includes premise, protagonist and antagonist, and just a few allies and enemies along the way)
10,000 words = secondary plot takes the main stage to take me through the muddy middle
20,000 words = main emotional past issue arc (also called "How did we get here?")

If you do math moreso than me (not hard), you'll notice that adds up to more than fifty thousand. It's about 70,000, or roughly a marketable length for a real live novel. This will be my fifth year doing Nanowrimo and I thought it was time for a little extra challenge. I'm breaking out in hives even thinking about it because I have been one of those 11:59 pm word count validaters on November 30th, but if we reach for the moon, we land among the stars. Or at least, somewhere beyond where I have gone before, and that's what Nanowrimo is all about.

So to all you plotters out there, are you stickies fanatics or do you prefer twenty packs of multi-colored gel pens?

And to all you pantsers, what kind of inspiration and caffeine are you stocking up on in preparation?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Nano Prep: One Sentence Wonders

That feeling of waiting just another second...
That picture sums up two feelings for me: October 31st, and the feeling that you really can twiddle your life away in a car.

Let's focus on October 31. Midnight. The opening nanoseconds of November 1, heralding the opening writer's block of Nanowrimo. It doesn't have to be that way, tightening your teeth and spreading your lips in a death-like grimace of agony as you realize inspiration is running circles around your ability to actually communicate in a meaningful fashion.

What does that have to do with the fact that I've put way too much mileage on my car? It's a magic number. 100,000 miles on my car is the moment I exhale and really rip loose. It means I no longer have to treat it like new, I no longer have an excuse to ignore my responsibility to change the oil, and kicking the tires means checking the air pressure with a device that gives you an actual number.

November first (or 11/1) gives me a magic number as a writer. It means I don't need to listen to that internal editor, I no longer have an excuse to procrastinate adding to a novel, and checking a word count means not closing the document until I've added more than double (or even triple) digits.

To avoid my traditional writer rictus, I like to start a story notebook before I get to the actual writing part. I'm a plotter; I plot. If you're a p-p-pantser, start with inspiration, but pick out a pretty and handy notebook for the middle. Trust me.

For those of us who are diving into the arena of idea hunting, I would say grab your butterfly nets but we are a deadly kind of lepidoptorist. We are hunting our dream moths with daggers made of pens that, rather than stab these ghostly creatures, will instead draw details on their delicate half-formed wings to weigh them down with words. What I need to do today is pin down the bare skeleton of what I think my novel may or may not be about.

I turn to Jim Butcher in many things, mostly those matters to do with solving common household issues involving vampire courts and the occasional neighborly fae, but in this post I turn to his (abandoned?) writer blog for the one sentence story skeleton.

Now all I need is something to happen, a protagonist, a goal, and an antagonist with his own opposition providing ability. Easy!

Something happening is the perfect beginning. You know that disappointed feeling when you read those books where the protagonist wakes up and there isn't anyone waving a gun in his face? I get that feeling too when I wake up on my more boring mornings. Waking up is the start of my day, but it isn't the start of my story. Some days my story doesn't start when we smell smoke, but only when we realize we're smelling smoke. Yes, I can set the scene by showing you my office and my ability to stare at a single sheet of paper for roughly five minutes before blinking back to reality and signing it, but the story isn't rolling until the fire shows up. For the purposes of Nano which can stand for either "forward momentum" or "don't look back", depending on your school of training (it's okay, I'll get to that later), the more exciting part of the story you jump into, the easier it will be to keep on plowing through that word count.

My story for Nano, I have decided, doesn't start until someone gets out of jail. Lots of cool stories start this way, like Blues Brothers, Lady Vengeance, and at least one of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels.

So someone gets out of jail, and my protagonist - we'll call her a fourteen year old girl for now, because I have a terrible soft spot for young adult fiction - has to pursue a goal.

Pursuing a goal is much easier to do when I know who the antagonist is. Let's say he's an elderly gentleman, gaunt, skin stretched so thin you can see the blood vessels moving in his veins, the kind of man for whom the word gaunt is a compliment. He's rich, too, and eccentric, because eccentric excuses so much. If we still used words like eccentric, we could excuse the whole cast of Jersey Shore. Or, not really, but you know what I mean.

Rich and eccentric people tend to collect things, or people tend to collect things, rich people tend to collect extravagant things, and rich and eccentric people tend to collect weird extravagant things.

He's a book collector. Nothing against book collectors, but if you're lining your library shelves with books made of human flesh, there is a small chance your invitation to my next party will get lost in the mail. He has lent out some of these books to protect them from someone who was trying to break into his library and wishes to recall them. Unfortunately, most of these people aren't willing to give up the books - how about these books, with their strange incantations, can make you a god by a certain full moon - and will instead attempt their own ceremony. The book collector wants these books back. Oh, and the books were tied to bloodlines. To return a book is to kill its former owner. There's the stake!

So what does my 14yo have to do with this? How about her older brother, hard up for cash and needing to leave the city, packs up his siblings and takes the job to retrieve the books? He has to leave the city because someone got out of jail. My something happens is now the big brother taking the job. The WHY of his job-acceptance is someone getting out of jail.

Her goal in all of this? One of the books found its way to her little brother. Now her goal is to ensure her big brother fails in his job in order for her to save her little brother's life...

This is kind of a mess of a story so far, but that's why I'm think about it in October. My sentence is several paragraphs long, but it boils down to this:

When her big brother takes a mysterious job to collect specific old volumes of a cursed book set, (my protagonist) must ensure these books stay with their current owners to save her little brother's life. But will she succeed when (creepy rich collector), mystical beings called Collectors, and her own father stand in her way?

It's still a tangled ball of noodles, but it's getting there.

What's your story skeleton?

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming

I had a five part series on setting all planned out when I suddenly realized that in less than 20 days I will have to write a novel. This will be a 30 day writing extravaganza, snatching vignettes like cigarette breaks, sleeping on dictionaries, living with dialogue that will invade my every waking moment. This would be great - especially for a writer - except that I don't have a novel to write yet.


I'm going to go ahead and show you how I plan my novel and I encourage you to play along. You can join the fun at This site will connect you with nearly 200,000 other crazy writers who have all promised to attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

That's only 1667 words per day!

If you write like me (occasionally forgetting that you've promised to write a novel in November) that's 8,000 words per weekend!

Remember the word attempt?

It's insane and grueling, but best of all, you have a ready made insane posse rooting for you by your side. will also connect you with your home region so you can find groups near you to write in person (called write-ins) once or twice per week, with kick-off parties and Thank Goodness It's Over parties.

At the end, you have a pretty bad novel. It's basically word salad in some places, as your brain moves faster than your fingers and your ability to comprehend your native tongue. The brilliance of bad novels is that they give you so much to work with as we march forward to Nanoedmo (National Novel Editing Month) in March. Ahaha.

Even if you decide not to rescue your novel after November, you will have spent 30 days learning whether you work better alone or in a crowd, in silence or noise, in short sharp bursts or long marathon sessions spaced apart, with planning or with diving in head first.

Join me. It's great fun!

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Chewing Scenery Pt. 2

One of my good friends described our hometown to her new college pals thusly:

"You ever drive down that long stretch of highway with mountains on your left and flat on your right, and you see that tiny little town out in the distance and you think to yourself, Man, I'm glad I don't live there.  
Well, that's my home."
Even with memories of learning to quickly turn my back to oncoming wind so that powerful blasts of sand would sting the backs of my legs instead of my face or placing my hands on the backseat of the car to absorb at least a little heat before subjecting the backs of my knees to plastic melting temperatures, I get a little something in my throat when I pass through my hometown. It's the setting that made me, and it still invokes a complex connection of emotions.

With all the heat and the dirt and the never-ending sun, it still introduced me to the sweet scent of wet dust just after rain begins to fall and the sight of the desert bursting into color as long dormant plants taste the smallest amount of water.

Obviously, the settings that make us affect our feelings, but unless you're writing a memoir, you want your setting to affect your readers' feelings. In order to pull your audience's strings, you'll have to speak through your characters to tell them what to feel.

This telling readers what to feel goes hand-in-hand with show, don't tell. Remember way back when someone first told you to show, don't tell? Remember that confused feeling (or if you are like me, that bullheaded I know better feeling...yeah, still trying to outgrow that one) deep in your chest resulting from the kid's book you were reading at the time? The character is angry. The author writes, Sara is angry. You know, Sara is probably angry. But what kind of spiritual fulfillment am I getting from a story that doesn't take the time to describe the socioeconomic plight of low class space jumper engineers who are angry because they can't find their alien six-eyed cat and their boss just nixed overtime citing budget concerns?

This all has to do with scenery, just bear with me.

If she is angry, really pissed off, everything will compound that anger. The door will stick, the lights will flicker and spark that headache into a full blown migraine, the shoes squeaking on the floor will put her one step away from psychotic break. You remember those days when you're late on a deadline and the mail server goes down? Obviously, it's just to inconvenience you. But it's a part of your setting (for the purposes of this example, you, like me, work in a cube farm and suffer from a dangerous co-dependency on technology stuck somewhere between the late nineties and early oughts, you know, before DSL really took off and when IT guys coined the fix-all, "Have you tried restarting it?"). All those little things that never mattered before become a symbiotic part of your emotional state.

Clive Barker's Coldheart Canyon is one of those odd horror novels that didn't really scare me after I put it down. I could walk away from it; I could sleep easy at night. When I was reading it, however, the ever changing mosaic and the desert wild with the perverted creatures running rampant made my breathe hold in my lungs, just in case I attracted their attention before my eyes could turn away from the page.

Think of the setting. It's a horror novel tied to the past of Hollywood opulence of the 1920's or so and the Hollywood opulence of today. It's tied to the depravity of both eras, and a sense of richness that is best viewed through the sepia toned nostalgia lenses. Once Barker has you thinking about the suits and the gowns and the men and the women, he turns it all around until you get peacock bodied human headed monsters roaming the canyon, looking for humans to rape. So...horror.

Coldheart Canyon could have been a romance - take away the monsters and the horror bit, right? Not quite. How far does the desert stretch in a romance? Will it reach out to the horizon without a soul in sight? Will it sear the flesh from your arms and burn your eyes with mirages? Will the house turn cold and hidden in the dark, with twists and turns meant for trapping you with the bad things hot at your heels?

In a romance, the desert will be cool, just beginning to heat up. Romance in the desert happens in the early morning, I think, or late at night when the sky has bloomed with stars. If you are reading something that requires a sense of "all will be well" by the end, the ground beneath your character's feet might crumble and the weather will turn against him, but something in the scenery will still signal to the reader that comfort is soon at hand.

The house will stand. The moon will rise, the forest will be curiously devoid of bears, except from a safe distance, the bad guy will be safely defeated (or a rake in disguise who can be cured with magic virgin sex, if you are writing a romance circa Harlequin eighties style, but that's a discussion for another time).

How does your setting affect your character? How does your character's mood affect our perception of the setting?

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Chewing Scenery Pt. 1

When I was in eighth grade, I had one of the best history teachers. Unlike my all-time favorite history teacher who had in fact lived through most of the timeline his particular course covered (US History, he remembered when Christmas lights came into vogue), I learned an incredible writing lesson from this guy: setting makes the story.

He didn't use the word setting, of course, this being a history class, but he made the point several times. Why did certain societies flourish when parked on fertile ground? Well, they could grow enough to feed their people and didn't have to rely on trade for certain necessities. Why did some people fall to cannibalism? They lived on an island and after removing access to fertile fishing grounds, they had no one but themselves for sustenance. Who needs a navy if you are entirely landlocked, how do you feed 200,000 bodies in the dead of winter with no easy preservation methods for food storage, isn't it a bad idea to split up in a haunted house?

The story I tell in a ravaged apocalyptic city is quite different from the one I tell in an apocalyptic overgrown forest. In the city you are contending with other survivors, limited canned goods and medicine, feral children and animals, painful memories, and dangerously unstable structures. In the forest you are dealing with wild animals who no longer feel the need to allow their fear of you to stand in the way of a full belly, unfamiliar landscape, roving bandits, sudden drops in the ground and a lack of easy access and preserved food as well as a distinct lack of medical care.

Sometimes I use a certain setting because I am fascinated with the voice of the people who live there. The voice of a character who lives in a small town is quite different from one who lives in a city, is different from one who lives in a house, on the street, in an apartment, in the basement, under the bed. The setting guides the plot by boxing in my possibilities, especially given the cardinal rule of writing (and the only one I am unwilling to break) that I should never stretch the reader's ability to suspend disbelief beyond the breaking point. Between the voice and the plot, the setting builds the structure of my story in immutable ways. If you think of a story as an equation, the setting is not a variable like a character or a goal, but it is the rules of order in which you can perform the functions necessary to solve the equation. Remember, solve the bit in the parentheses, then multiply before addition and subtraction. Those invisible rules are the setting.

The invisible rules of my setting creates this logical plot flow for my character in my current short story: If she lives in the small town during winter, she must contend with isolation and a limited suspect pool, which most likely means someone she knows is the killer. What does that kind of knowledge do to my character? Ah, conflict!

Setting makes it possible.

Once you have the setting that makes your story's voice sing and your plot tie itself with nearly no effort on your part - ahaha, but this is writing. Once you have the setting and have mopped the blood from your forehead, examine the setting.

Stress test.

How much of your setting are you using?

Inception, a little flick you may have heard of (personal Inception watch count as of this post: 36), uses the setting to the point where the people are tension setters (projections who can become violent at a moment's notice) and settings within settings affect the plot and the how-the-hell-will-he-solve-that-puzzle-now rising tension. When Yusuf takes the van off the bridge, Arthur loses gravity and has to create his own drop to wake up his fellow mind-heisters exactly on time. Gray urban landscape filled with gunmen morphs into opulent amber hotel halls evolves into labyrinthine snow covered forest trails surrounding an ominous compound. your setting breaking a sweat yet? Work it, baby!

Monday, 3 October 2011

My Mirror's Eyeballs

Sometimes I realize that I never fully outgrew a fear of the dark, in the way I assume every clanking pipe is the serial killer standing over my bed breathing awkwardly behind his mask. Also in the way I sometimes turn on the light in the wee hours just to make sure something isn't hiding

a.) in the toilet
b.) behind the shower curtain
c.) behind the door

This post is going to give me a whole new set of phobias! I already have issues with mirrors, whether it's bad luck to be caught between two of them, or whether the mirror people are waiting for you to let your guard down so they can steal your body. Now, I can wonder whether the mirror secretly has eyeballs that blink wetly when I'm not looking.

Taking the title less literally, I mean to say that sometimes when I'm stuck on a character's point of view, backstory, or just the way I have presented her in my work so far, I find it helpful to look at her through another character's eyes. What does this mean for my work?

It just means listening to another person doing the talking. All I need is a new voice, a new backstory, a new facet of the cast and an entirely new way of viewing the world I have created. Easy!

For those of you sinners who read fanfiction (to which I have already lost three hours of my life while trying to write something meaningful today) you will understand the inherent power and fascination in taking a momentary throwaway sentence and spinning it into a thousand words of torrid romance, aching lost chance, or horrifying murder. Throughout the wandering bridge of the fanfiction piece in the greater song of the canon work to which it belongs, you see the main characters moving freely, tangentially, or removed entirely from the world which molds itself around them in the original piece.

[A vocabulary note: Bridge - that minor chord part of the song that connects the last verse with the chorus. Canon - the part of the body of work that the original author and (usually) intellectual property owner has created (aka Word of God).]

For those of you blessed few who don't read fanfiction, you can take a single sentence in your work - best if it's a line you didn't expect to write - and expound at length. I have two characters who interact at some point with my main character and I had created them to have a conversation about love. My short story is about love, and cloning, and murder, and terrible tragedy that befalls those bound to the slim mercy of they who refuse to exercise the responsibility that has ensnared them. Anyway, the main character doesn't know what love is, doesn't know how to love, and doesn't realize she isn't in love. She just thinks she is. The two characters she talks to are in love. Madly, deeply, at great length and for the longest time they live for each other. They are truly happiest when thinking of that someone else other than themselves.

Once I realized that, I saw that they would view my character in a certain light. They are old, she is young. They have been happily together for ages, she comes from a home where cold silence is as familiar as screaming violence in only the way two people who are miserably tied together can manage.

Suddenly, my quite earnest police officer who just wants to be loved is a cold, narcissistic, young woman who can't understand why the things she deserves aren't magically appearing before her.

Without that extra set of eyes, I would have a story of someone who never let go of the kind of love that guides your gel pen into circling his initials with glittery hearts and who views another moving on with his life as a personal slight. She would still come off as a brat, but now she is a brat with a reason. Just look at her home life - which I hadn't considered because I saw her world through her eyes. She didn't see how miserable her parents were, only that she wasn't trying hard enough, wasn't good enough, had to do better and was always falling behind.

Thank you, mirror eyeballs, for giving my who a why of her very own.

Who are your mirror eyeballs in your latest work? Anyone I know?

Introduce them.