A Bump in the Night: Nano Prep Season is Back!

Something wicked this way comes, my friends, a masterly challenge that will test the nerve and sinew of even the most accomplished of authors. That is right, the great word race is set to begin: Nano is well on its way, November 1st will ring in the beginnings of a daring adventure made special because in this solitary world of writing, we shall embark together. And yet, this trek is not for the faint of heart, there are plans to be plotted (or plots to be panned?), characters to be drawn, worlds to create; after all, even the great Gandalf had to prepare his wayward band of adventurers before they set their plodding feet to the trail.

For those of you who are wondering what the heck I am talking about, Nano (or NaNoWriMo) stands for National Novel Writing Month. This is a daring adventure that takes place the entire month of November. The goal: to write 50,000 words by the time the clock strikes midnight on the last day (and some years you are working right up to that point). You choose your own project; anything that your heart could desire. You track your own progress throughout the month, only verifying when you finally submit your work for a ‘win.’ If you are interested, go to http://www.nanowrimo.org to get more information or join us on this lovely quest. I promise, you wont be disappointed.

It seems that this year some new goodies will be awaiting us! The one I am most excited for? A brand new word-sprint tool! Considering that is one of my favorite ways to pile on my numbers, I am very excited to be trying this one out instead of timing myself with my phone. As usual, the message boards will still be up and running, and in most areas the local events will be kicking off. I’m still trying to work up the courage to go to one, but alas, it has not happened yet. I know I would be happy once I went, but it is terrifying when I don’t know a single person. I’m not exactly a social butterfly, so this could be an eventful adventure.

At this stage of the game I am typically pretty anxious to pick my project and get it registered. The sooner I do that, the sooner I can dive into my plotting (and delve into the slightly distracting world of the Nano message boards, a favorite way to lose myself when I need a break from the project itself). I am normally a big fan of starting a fresh project for Nano- because honestly, there is nothing better than the promise of a blank page at the beginning of a story, nothing can match the excitement of the unknown. And yet this time around, I think I am going to break my own rules. The past month I have been working on editing old projects and organizing my ideas and snippets for new ones. October is going to be much of the same. So I figured- while I am enmeshed in this world of polishing my words to make them truly shine- why don’t I follow that thread and pick up some older projects that were abandoned partway through? There is nothing more depressing than an unfinished story, broken promises just littering the pages, forever held in a state of suspended animation. They were good ideas that, for one reason or another, I got distracted from. And so this November is going to be the month of the Untold Ending, the Unfinished Story will finally find solace in it’s conclusion. And I will feel better knowing that I am one stop closer with them.

The main project will be my Vampire story that I was working on last Camp Nano- it seemed fitting, considering my prep month will be falling during the Halloween season. I love the story idea, but I changed a few key plot points halfway through the project- forcing me to change a lot of the beginning and re-frame the rest of the story. It was a necessary change, one I am happy that I made- but it put me behind. So now, it will be time to finish it. And, the best part- after all of the changes that I decided to make, I still have a ton of prepping to do through October.

So here’s to late-night writing with nothing but a bright laptop screen and a hot cup of spiced cider to keep you company. Here’s to long days at the office with a notepad off to the side so I can write in my spare moments. Here’s to message board bonding over our favorite writerly memes and long discussions about the inner psyche of the best villains, the inside jokes that only a fellow narrator will understand. Here’s to blank pages and common ground. Here’s to telling the stories my friend, to finally giving a voice to the thoughts that have been dancing through your dreams and distracting your from your daily life. It is going to be one beautiful trek, my friends.

‘Fire Walls’ and Editing Epiphanies

I’ve hit the ‘fire wall’ of the editing stage. And no, I’m not talking about my super not-so-secret computer ninja that fights off all of those pesky viruses that attack my computer from the myriad of research sites I’ve visited (I’m just saying, some don’t seem sketchy until you’ve visited the home page. Then that back button can’t be hit fast enough). No, what I’m talking about is a phenomenon that all writers, nay, all creators, will inevitably face. It’s that phase where you look at your work, read through all of that time and effort, all of the blood, sweat and tears that you put into your project- and you want nothing more than to toss it into a fire pit and light it up. Dance through the ashes wearing nothing but your war paint.

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They say its natural to question the validity of your work, that this stage is all a part of the process. And while I appreciate the sentiment, that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to look back on my old projects and attempt to sift through them, to pinpoint the elements that just don’t feel right. I don’t even know where to start. After the past few weeks, I am pretty sure my face will be permanently pinched in this position:

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I will admit, I was discouraged. After all of this time, how could my writing still feel so sub-par? I know what makes a good book, I know what that spark feels like as a reader; so why am I still unable to capture the magic and portray it the way that I want? Or am I just being too hard on myself? I wont know, because I wont let anyone read it until I’ve given it the green light (are you starting to see my never-ending vicious little cycle here?) It wont be good enough until someone can tell me how to make it better, and I will never let them read it until I’ve made it good enough. I am Sisyphus pushing my boulder with pure dedication.

In an effort to keep myself from hitting that delete button, I decided to look at this problem from a new angle. I’ve been working really hard with my writing, attempting to hone my skills and get better. I plug along every day, even when I don’t have it in me. I started putting myself out there and writing this blog- which has done amazing things in terms of discovering my own voice in my work. These projects that I am currently editing: they’re older. In fact, the one I’m in the process of slogging through right now is several years old, it was one of the first full novels that I finished when I got back into my writing. So instead of being frustrated with how sub-par it feels, perhaps I should be proud of how far I have come.

Reading through my old work shows me that all of these miniscule steps I am taking every day are actually paying off. I am making progress and I don’t even realize it. I am able to see where my voice feels forced, where the story doesn’t flow, where the word choice is too stiff. I’m finding elemental issues that I hadn’t noticed on previous revisions. Through my efforts I am becoming a better writer. And while that means that I will have a bit of an uphill battle waiting for me during these editing forays, I cannot forget that they are difficult because my writing levels are surpassing my previous skill set.

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I am not the best writer that I can be, not by a long shot. But I’m getting there. So instead of being frustrated, I am going to be proud. I will open up that old document and tear it apart with gleeful abandon. Because I know that it will be better, because I know that I am better.

Sorry friends, the bonfire is canceled for today (although I am sure I will attempt to re-schedule it in another week or so when I start in on editing the next novel).

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Write What you Know – Misleading or Misunderstood?

We have all heard those words, the first cardinal rule told to any aspiring author: write what you know. Some say that this is the worst piece of advice that could ever be given in the history of the written world. But in true Tisy Typer form, I am going to  play a bit of the devil’s advocate with this one, mainly because I believe that it’s a bit of misunderstood advice.

Those who take the words at their face value find themselves at a loss; does this mean that to write a believable murder mystery you have to actually have the experience of killing someone? Or to write about an actor, do you need to jump out there and get your fifteen minutes of fame so that your frame of reference is authentic? By that same token, J.K Rowling should have personally attended Hogwarts, Suzanne Collins would have to participate in the Reaping for the annual Hunger Games, Douglas Adams should have dragged a towel through the universe and Tolkien should have annual birthday parties with the hobbitsies. And yet these are all still excellent books. So do these examples themselves refute the old quote?

No. You see, there is a very similar thread that runs through all of these stories, and it is a rather simple one. They were all written in such a way to make you feel something deep in your gut, something true, something genuine. These authors wrote about what they knew in terms of the emotions that they used. Have you ever been so scared that you felt your body move on pure instinct- you could run a thousand miles, pick up the baseball bat you have next to the door, scream bloody murder in the middle of the room? You have just discovered the animalistic fear that shades The Hunger Games. Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong, like there was something different about you that everyone else could see? Have you ever felt the desire to protect those that you love? Do some of those emotions remind you of Harry Potter at all? The truths that you need to write aren’t superficial events, they are the truths buried within your soul. They are your fears, your hopes, your dreams, your emotions. The thing that makes a book truly magical is the feeling that it can generate in another. The books that speak to me are the ones that seem to be reading my soul and reflecting it back to me. They say the words that I have never been able to utter. Those are the stories that change me, those are the things that make a good writer elevate to a great one.

It’s easy to get caught up in superficial thoughts and emotions of a scene, to plot and plan what you would expect a character to feel- which is right enough in its own way, but you can’t forget to add that prism of personal color. You need to tap into your own heart to convince your audience that the words you say are real. Use these lessons, these experiences, these deep emotions- and bring your work to life. If you wish to make an impact, you have to learn to bleed your soul into your writing. Otherwise you will be just another fluffy novel on the shelf, to be easily forgotten.

We want to see fiction that speaks to us because it is full of truths. We take inspiration from everything that we encounter in life; the books we read, the movies we watch, the magazines we scan, the news that assaults our ears, the coworkers in the breakroom- the world is full of nothing but literary fodder. We love the created realms that remind us of a part of our own lives. We are drawn to apocalyptic fiction because it feels like that is where our world is headed, it feels like the road we are traveling. We see a terrifying truth within those pages. We love Harry Potter because, in spite of the simmering cauldrons, incantations and wand waving, we remember what it was like growing up. We remember that girl in class who knew all of the answers, the boy that everyone wanted to know, we all had that funny best friend that made all of the difference. We remembered the friends of our own past that became family; fights and all. We also recognized the simple fact of a world divided. There were those that believed in keeping the wizarding bloodlines pure, and those that felt embracing diversity would be the answer to all of their problems. Doesn’t that sound like a familiar theme? We want to see something that we can recognize in a world full of wonders and adventures. We can look at the pain and problems of our own world through the prism of a story.

When I read a book I want to feel something. I want words that will resonate in my soul. I want to feel like I am not alone- because at least one other person out there has felt the way that I have felt. We all have such varied experiences to color our work. Some know the pain of losing a loved one, the deep struggle of dealing with addiction, the joys and frustrations of love, the fear and panic a midnight call can bring- we have more stories within us than we will ever know. Write what you know, be brave enough to remind your readers that they are not alone in this big scary world.

The Planning Process: Pre-Nano Panic

Less than one week- a little over four days (98 hours to be exact), and the last minute panic is starting to set it. I started out this month with a plan held together by my best intentions, and in the typical style of life- everything went sideways. In spite of my best efforts, I am reaching crunch time with a mountain of prep work to do before nano begins in four days plus some change. This is the last minute scramble, the mad dash to get to the starting line before the race begins. The panic is rising, but I have a plan.

A few years ago I started to finally get organized with my prep work. Above my work space I have a shelf full of binders, each with it’s own little sticky note saying what story is contained within it. Each one holds my ‘story bible,’ so to speak. All of my prep work and notes are in it, organized into categories. And as I work, that binder is typically my constant companion. There is even one on that shelf for this blog right here- with all of my ideas for future posts and notes on ones that have already been cast out into the world.

Prepping for any new story is an exhilarating and also slightly daunting task. It’s like a relationship- when you have your first idea, it’s all fresh and exciting, you are constantly learning something new about it, it takes up all of your waking thoughts. And after a while, the honeymoon starts to end. You begin to learn where you will each fit in one another’s daily lives: this is the prepping stage. I have a pretty steady process I use when I’m getting ready to start on another big project.

Step One: The Research.

I love this part of the game, soaking up new information that will inevitably give me another inspired idea to chase down. I will peruse the internet and find books to take notes off of. The library and kindle unlimited become a writer’s best friend. Usually this is the stage that will help morph the ideas of my work, changing my original track subtly. I like to key into little details and let those take on the role of deciding factors. At this stage I am also starting to think about the bones of my story and reviewing my options re: world building and characters. Everything is still fluid and malleable.

Step Two: World Building.

I think it’s always important to know the ‘rules’ of the world you will be working in, I like to get as much detail as possible in this section, though only a small portion of it will actually make it into the finished piece. To see more on this process, take a look at my post: World Building Brick by Brick. You can also find a copy of my worksheet on my Resources page here: Top Shelf: Writing Resources

Step Three: Character Analysis:

This is perhaps one of my favorite parts of the planning stage: getting into the heads of my characters. The current project has more players than I usually work with, so that will make it a bit more complicated. I go through and make up an analysis for each one. I think it helps with the continuity of their actions throughout the story if you know what motivates them. A writing exercise that I like to take part in when I’m at this stage is delving into their backstory. I will pick a certain moment that might have been prominent in their personal background and write a scene about it. It’s good practice and helps you get to know your characters on a deeper level. Also, as I am in the process of writing a story, I will occasionally pick a scene and write it from a different character’s perspective. Sometimes it is fun to take a step back and look at the problem of your novel through fresh eyes. It can give you some new ideas that you hadn’t thought of before. To see more about my Analyses, check out this prior post: Character Analysis. As with the World Building Worksheet, you can find a copy of my character analysis sheet on my Resources page right here: Top Shelf: Writing Resources.

Step Four: Plotting/Outlining:

This is when you finally get to delve into the heart of the story. I prefer to work with a bulleted outline noting key scenes, and then I will fill in more detailed information about the scenes/transitions below it. This is either hand written or done on the computer, whichever seems to be working better for me at that particular time. I like to leave my outline somewhat open so that I can still follow the natural flow of the story as I am writing it- if a new idea sparks inside as I’m actually working through the scenes, I want the freedom to be able to follow that without having major issues with the remainder of my plot. My outline is pretty fluid, I will usually add and subtract from it as I am working.

Step Five: This is where the magic begins with the rough draft. It is an exciting and terrifying time. I am constantly having to remind myself that I am simply shoveling sand so that later I can build castles.

With only four days left to go, I am currently still on step one. Slightly overwhelmed with the amount of work I have ahead of me, but I know I can get it done. The madness will just be starting a little bit early this year. July 1, the start of Camp Nano is when the rough draft will finally be in progress. I can do this, I know it- that will be my mantra for the next month. Wish me luck, my friends.

Write drunk, Edit Sober: The Controversy

I can confidently say that there are people who don’t understand this blog or it’s intent- they think that I’m touting alcoholism and writing as something funny or glamorous. So it seemed like today was a good opportunity to delve into this debacle.

“Write drunk, edit sober,” four little words that seem to stir up debates no matter how you spin them. Let’s start with who said it- this quote is most commonly attributed to Hemingway, you can look at nearly any Etsy store with a literary theme to see his name plastered right beside it. Although more recently, some in the community have been contesting it, making a firm stand behind American novelist Peter De Vries as the true author. In fact, he has another quote that strikes a suspiciously similar chord:

“Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation- the Apollonian and the Dionysians, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”

Sounds pretty familiar, right?

How Hemingway may have been erroneously attributed these little words of wisdom that have caught fire in the writing community is no real stretch of the imagination. He was a known alcohol in an era that is somewhat romanticized for it’s creative boozers. Acting as a devil’s advocate- even if he did speak these words, they were not a practice he followed.  Hemingway was actually quite sober when he penned his famous works. He was a morning writer, up and working with the first rays of dawn, generally working from 6am through noon. He would do some editing in the afternoon, and usually didn’t start tipping the bottle until about 3pm, hours after his projects had been put to bed. It never seemed to matter how much he drank- he was always up and ready to work again the next day. He spoke of his work, not like a man who needed a drink to discover his muse, but as a man who needed one when he was not in her company. He was an innately creative soul who struggled when he wasn’t in the active pursuit of his writing.

Which brings me to the real point, the crux of my argument, if you will- regardless of who actually uttered the fateful words- what was their real intent? Now, you could take it at its fact value, following a literal word-for-word interpretation. I guess that would give you a good excuse to start taking shots like there’s no tomorrow- and who would I be to stop you? Hell, maybe you’ll manage to conjure up a vision of your muse (though you might not remember it the next day). Unless you are anything like me- then you’ll have a few drinks, laugh at your own jokes, sing a few Disney songs while doing your best impression of dancing- and fall asleep before you ever power your computer up (and if you manage to make it far enough to see the glowing backlight of your monitor- kudos to you, good luck not getting sucked into the Pinterest void).

Now, as a writer- I struggle with the literal interpretation. It could be all of these years of English classes throughout my education that force me to see symbolism in things as innocuous as the color of the drapes- but I believe this quote is more than the sum of its words. After all, the author of this quote was most likely a writer- a creative soul filled to the brim with literary tricks, so why would they do something as bland and boring as a literal translation? No, I think there’s more hidden under the surface, and it really doesn’t take a lot of scratching to see what is hidden underneath.

When they say to ‘write drunk’ it’s more of a state of mind. Any writer who carries a passion for words knows that feverish zone you occasionally find yourself in; when your mind is buzzing, your fingers cant move fast enough, you can see the flash of your story right before your very eyes, and hear the voices of your characters. You want to be brave and bold in your work, open to fresh ideas and new twists, alive with the heartbeat of the world you created thrumming through your blood. You want to be drunk on the words as the paragraphs slip from your mind onto the page. It’s about writing without inhibition, fully exposing yourself and allowing your ideas to stretch beyond your typical boundaries. Writing drunk is about the passion, that driving force that brings us to the blank page day after day because we have a story inside that must feel the light of day.

After the moment has passed, the passionate writing has run it’s course, then it’s time to be sober; to be calm and methodical about your work. It is the tedious process of editing, where you have to look past your emotions and evaluate the bones of your creation. You need to keep a wary eye on your work, view it with the appraising mindset of an outsider, someone who doesn’t intimately know and love your project simply because it is your own heart and soul bled on the page. You refine it, clean up the ‘drunken’ work and make it presentable. You correct grammar, spelling, and all of the other banalities.

As De Vries said, its about the balance. You need both to function in this little world we have created, too much of one will send you spiraling; they are the yin and yang of the writer’s world. So yes, I am a huge proponent of writing drunk and editing sober- and I can do so without a drink in my hand. So write to excess, work without inhibition- be brave and bold- you might be amazed at what you come up with.