Camp NaNoWriMo April 2013

Just a quick update here. For the April session of Camp NaNoWriMo, I’m making a second attempt at a novel I started years ago but wasn’t ready to write. It’s science fiction, which I haven’t written in a while, and it feels good to get back into the genre.

As always, some NaNo tips:

1. Have fun! Don’t take things too seriously. Missing your daily or even overall goal isn’t the end of the world, and writing something is better than writing nothing at all.

2. It may not matter what you write, just write. If you’re dead-set on reaching your goal but you have writer’s block, make a copy of your document and just go completely nuts. Write something off the wall that would never make it to your final draft. Chances are as long as you keep writing, the creative gears will keep turning, and you may just come up with a way past your block.

3. Put it away for a while. When I find myself stuck, I usually head for some menial task, like running on the treadmill or doing the dishes. Nine times out ten, a solution to whatever I’m stuck on pops into my head within a half hour.

4. And this one is for writing in general: Write down your ideas! I use the Notes app on my iPod Touch, and I write down everything. Every little thought, however incoherent. My recent novella Six and Seven started out this way. I was lying in bed, about to fall asleep, and one little thought popped into my head: Hell has seven chimneys. It took almost a year before I began fleshing that out into a story, but the result is one of my favorite works. And you never know when some little note or idea or sentence will be just what you need to get yourself moving again.

If you want to keep up with my camp progress, here’s my profile: http://www.campnanowrimo.org/campers/crackedthesky

Feel free to add yours in the comments. You might get a few views, and we might even be able to get a cabin going.

Tips for Camp NaNoWriMo

Looking at my WordPress dashboard, it’s clear to me that a good deal of the traffic coming to my blog in the last few weeks is from people looking for NaNoWriMo tips. I mostly post updates about my own work, with a few exceptions where I talked about general tips, so I decided to try to post something more along the lines of what those readers are looking for.

When it comes to NaNoWriMo (and writing in general) there’s not really a right way or a wrong way. I could spout (and have spouted) lists of rules on grammar and spelling and word usage and on and on, but breaking those rules won’t necessarily make your book bad any more than following them will make it good. That said, when you approach NaNoWriMo, there’s a good chance you haven’t written much (or anything) before. That’s part of what NaNo is meant to change.

So here are some basics:

1. Write every day. Write a blog post, write a poem, write utter nonsense as it pops into your head, just write. Think of this as stretching before a run; you’ll get your creative juices flowing, get your fingers moving, and get yourself relaxed and comfortable and thus in a position to write. As a bonus, since the goal of NaNoWriMo is to just finish a novel, not necessarily a publishable one, you might even be able to run that “utter nonsense” I mentioned into a NaNo winner. The chances that said project will be particularly good may not be high, but you’ll never know until you write it.

2. Don’t freak out if you fall behind. Don’t freak out at all really, but if you find yourself a thousand or two thousand or ten thousand words behind, don’t flip your keyboard and walk away from your computer. Just take a minute, breathe, and figure out what’s keeping you behind. Are you stumped? A lot of people will tell you to throw a plot twist from left field to keep you on your toes. It’s sound advice that works for a lot of NaNo participants, but it’s never really worked for me. Give it a try and see how it goes, and if it works, great. What I normally do in that situation is just brainstorm. Usually when I write something I keep notes on some iOS app or another (usually just the stock Notes app, though I’ve used list apps and mindmap apps as well). Any thought I have relating to my story I write down. Should I find myself unable to progress, I get the list out and go over it and try to figure out where this story is going. I also write down ideas I’m not sure I’ll use, and sometimes one turns out to be the perfect thing to put into my story. It’s kind of like the above advice, but a little bit less random, which keeps my story a little more coherent than if I just make something up on the spot.

This doesn’t always happen immediately, so like I said: Don’t freak out. Here’s my current stats page, for example:

As you can see, I’m a little behind. The NaNoWriMo website does a lot of math for you, and it’s a good way to keep things on track. At this rate I’ll finish halfway through September, which isn’t a NaNoWriMo winner, but that stat will change if I write a little more. A little can go a long way with NaNoWriMo, and in my case 1652 words per day would have me finishing on time. Now think of this: If instead I write 1700 words per day (less than fifty extra) I’ll finish a day sooner. And if I throw in an extra 150 per day and do 1800, I’ll finish in 24 days (and currently I have 27 left to go).

If you find yourself behind, don’t feel compelled to rush and catch up. Adding a few hundred words per day might sound like a lot, but an average page tends to fall near 250 words, so if it helps you to think in terms of pages, writing an extra page per day can not only get you caught up quickly, it can put you way ahead.

3. Write now, edit later. It’s better to have too much in a first draft and cut away than have too little and need to tack scenes on later. This is especially true when it comes to NaNoWriMo. The goal is 50,000 words, which is actually pretty short for a novel, and anything too much shorter will usually not be a publishable book, unless you’re going for middle grade. That said, don’t be afraid to fluff things up for your NaNoWriMo project. You can (and should) always cut things down a little bit when you revise, and you never know when something you add now will turn out to be not fluff but setup for an epic plot turn 30,000 words from now.

Not everything works for every writer. Chances are you’ll know better than I or anyone else on the internet what does or doesn’t work for you, but you usually won’t just know it, you have to try a few things and learn what gets the gears going. But it won’t hurt to try things that work for others and see if they also work for you. Hopefully you can find something here to help you along your way.

If anyone else has any tips to add, feel free to leave a comment. What works for you? What do you do when you find yourself behind?

Stumped!

I think all of us as writers have reached that dreaded brick wall. You’re writing your heart out, the story is rolling, everything is going fine, and suddenly you stop. You just can’t move.

What do you do?

Here are some ways I cope with being stumped.

Let’s talk about being stumped within a story. What happens when there’s a boulder in the path? A sandbar in the sea? A locked door in the haunted mansion?

Take a step back. Remember these two things:

1. At any given time, you’re probably only half as clever as you think you are.

What I mean by this is often that plot twist you just have to have might be what’s holding you back. That clever back-and-forth dialogue currently marking the end of your page, the wrong path your character took that suddenly doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, the evil twin from the shadowy past come back to rear his ugly head, sometimes that’s what’s blocking you. If you present a conflict and there’s just no resolution, get rid of that conflict. Focus on what you were writing originally. Chances are, if you introduced some spur-of-the-moment thing and can’t figure out where to go after, that’s why. Your clever little sidetrack might end up derailing your piece overall, and if so, what good is it? Cut it out. Yeah, it hurts, but not as much as not getting anywhere at all. Take a step back, assess what’s really important, cut what isn’t, and you might find your path is a little wider than it looked and you might just find the footing you need to keep going.

2. If you’re stuck, make that a part of your story.

I recall a time I was writing a certain story and I had no idea where to go. My characters had not resolved the main conflict (they hadn’t even discovered it yet) and they were safe and everything was just peachy. Boring, right? I felt like I was at a brick wall. And that was the solution. I literally had my characters reach a brick wall, forcing them to take a different path, one that led right into the main conflict of the story.

If you’re stumped, stump your characters. Just throw a wrench in their gears and see what they do. Sometimes your characters know more about where to go than you do.

This sounds like the opposite of what I said before, and in a way it is. The truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to problems in writing. The trick is to know which will work for you. If you throw your characters a curve and you write five pages and then get stuck, go back and get rid of the curve. Try a different path, make a different decision. Have them reach that brick wall and go right instead of left. Have them find a way to climb over it.

In other words, try different things. Don’t be so attached to your writing that you fear pressing the backspace key. The backspace key can be your best friend and sometimes your story’s savior. If you think so highly of your writing that you can’t delete a word you wrote, you probably shouldn’t be writing anyway.

Sometimes you don’t get stuck until after you’ve finished writing. This is the problem I’m currently having. My friend and I have a manuscript sitting at 230,000 words. It’s just too darn long for unpublished writers. It’s easy for us to sit there and justify it (two writers equals twice the length, right?) but that doesn’t do us any good. Our opinions on it don’t matter; an agent’s opinion does. Arguing about it won’t get the book published.

So we have a dilemma. Like I said, sometimes that road block comes after you’ve finished your manuscript. Maybe your publisher wants you to delete your favorite scene, maybe your agent thinks your book should be in first person when you wrote it in third. There’s a time for standing up for what you think is right, and there’s a time for discussion, but there’s also a time to concede you might be wrong. Again, take a step back, look at the big picture. Of course you love your manuscript the way it is. You wrote it. Yeah, it feels like someone is coming into your house and telling you how to dress your child (or, more accurately, how to re-arrange their limbs). But give it a shot. Sometimes you don’t know how wrong you are until you see how right someone else is.

That’s all well and good for people who have it from the horse’s mouth, but it’s more difficult when this problem is keeping you from getting an agent or a publisher in the first place. We’ve gone through about a dozen rejection letters, all form, except for one agent who helpfully let us know our manuscript was just too long.

It’s devastating to find out, it really is. We decided to cut our story in half. We had seven viewpoint characters, we cut it down to three and a half and tied off the loose ends. We have a good length going now, but a test reader informed us it doesn’t feel like a complete story anymore.

Back to square one.

I don’t have a solution yet, but I’m working on it. So I’d like to mention a few of the things I do to try to look at a situation from different angles. The answer is there, I just have to find it, and you won’t see anything different if you don’t look at it another way.

Often when I’m stumped (in either of the fashions mentioned) I’ll step away from the story. I’ll go for a walk, or perform some remedial task, like doing the dishes or vacuuming or rearranging my underwear drawer. There’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon takes on remedial tasks to occupy his mind while he searches for an answer to a theoretical problem, and it works for him. It works for me too, and it can work for you. Often when I have some impassible problem, I’ll have a solution within ten minutes of doing one of these tasks. If you’re like me and you live with your parents and writing is your job, you’ll probably be helping them out and keeping them from going crazy for another few days in the process.

Take a step back. Take a deep breath. Look at it from any and every point of view. Try something that sounds like it’ll never work. Try something you have a hunch will. There’s a solution, and it won’t always be easy, but it’s there. You might have to do a lot of searching, but it’s there.

Your turn. What do you do when you’re stumped?