Saturday, November 30, 2013

Reflections on NaNoWriMo

The day is done, the race is run and my NaNoWriMo sprint has been satisfactorily completed,even though I had to stop with 500 words to go last night so I could finish this morning. Now it is time for reflection on the experience.

What I learned
 One of the take-aways from this one-month excursion into creative writing was that writing the long form seems easier than for short stories.  I enjoyed being able to ignore the boundaries of brevity and  precision that are required in writing shorts.  Being able to divert from the plot to explore the by-ways of exposition without concern for length provide a freedom I did not otherwise enjoy.

I found that my style, my voice, did not change. Sentence lengths and paragraph constructions remained as always for one of my first drafts. I did have to restrain myself from editing and not going back to change this or that scene to keep the whole piece coherent.  The objective was to complete a 50k draft, not to have it perfect (or even complete!)

I also realized that writing without a road map is dangerous and can lead you into blind alleys, unresolved puzzles, and characters whose behaviors vary unrealistically.  One must maintain some idea of the goal of the entire piece, the major arc from which all subplots and narrative expositions dangle like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

What I vow to do next
Now that I have some assurance that word production is not a problem and that the pace can be sustained over a long period,  I might consider writing in the long form to actually produce a novel but only if I also promise to:
1. Establish a clear objective/end state before starting.
2. Perform some research in advance in sufficient detail that major errors are avoided.
3. Block out at least two subplots, but not in detail.
4. Give the main characters NAMES and histories at the beginning.
5. Give myself permission to ignore the previous four items.
6. Vow to finish within a reasonable period of time.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Crossing the Ridge on Thanksgiving Morn

I usually go for hour-long walks each morning.  The territory around here is hilly, not mountainous but neither do I live on a flat plain. The walks therefore consist of uphill, downhill and level sections all of which I try to take at a consistent pace.  My progress through the month's NaNoWriMo challenge has been a lot like those walks.  I started out full of confidence that my brain needed no prior planning to produce a mere thousand or so words a day to reach the fifty thousand word objective and knew that if I maintained a steady pace I should easily make the finish.

The first week or so I breezed along, believing that the level path I was on would continue with little change. Writing the allocation did not seem that hard and allowed me to do some other, more serious work of editing, creating, and planning after I'd dispensed with my daily obligation.  In fact, the challenge was sort of fun as new characters, settings, and scenes rolled into being without forethought.

Then I hit the first uphill portion; when the lack of a plot began to manifest itself. I found myself needing, inventing reasons for the characters to act as they did.  I needed some sort of narrative thread that drove the story along. I needed drama, action, suspense, and lots of other stuff instead of just ambling down the path describing settings and holding pointless conversations.  Suddenly maintaining the pace became more difficult to the point where I began floundering.  My writer's mind had finally asserted itself and demanded that I produce a STORY, damn it!

I fell behind, terribly behind as I fretted about the story, unable to make my quota, worried that I was not going to accomplish the full fifty thousand words.  I felt terrible. What to write, what to write, what to write drummed endlessly in my head.

And then, as quickly as that, I somehow surmounted the ridge of difficulty and found myself on the downhill leg, picking up speed. Words poured out so quickly that I caught up with the quota and managed to get three full days ahead.

I have no idea of how this happened or why a story suddenly became so clear.  Had my subconscious been scheming to bring all of the disparate elements I'd created into a unified whole? Perhaps, but I won't know that until I finish the piece somewhere far beyond the fifty thousand limit. I don't care. I am ahead of the pace. I will make my goal.

Two more days!


Friday, November 22, 2013

The NaNoWriMo Marathon

There's a warning experienced marathon runners give to those about to run the race for the first time. It's called "The Wall" and it occurs for most runners at different distances, but most often a bit beyond the halfway mark. At this point your legs are in continuous pain, bordering on cramping, every labored breath you take is like inhaling molten iron into your lungs, and your stomach hurts so much that you want to retch. Catherine wheels spin before your eyes within the narrow focus on a spot ten paces ahead that you fervently pray that you can reach without collapsing and, when you manage to reach it, you pick another spot and go for that. But that's all just long-distance running.  "The Wall" is reached when every bit of strength you brought to the race has been spent, every erg of energy has been expended, and your tank of confidence is completely, utterly EMPTY  and you feel like you can.. not...

My personal NaNoWriMo Wall has manifested itself slightly over the three quarter word marker.  Up to this point I thought I was doing fine, pegging better than the allotted amount each day and gradually getting further ahead of the pace.  When I passed the halfway date I was almost three days ahead of the alloted pace, and then I was barely two days ahead, which turned into parity, and now I've found myself lagging behind the pack.

My writer's brain, which had so effortlessly produced material for twenty-two days has suddenly and without warning decided to stop running. The clear path of a steadily unfolding plot has suddenly become hidden, providing me a glimpse of only the next sentence but no hint of where I might go afterwards. Suddenly I have to face the fact that I must actually contrive a plot, conceive a solid objective,  or develop reasons for my characters to have been behaving as they have. Somewhere deep in my unconscious lay the story, not one I had deliberately planned but one that arose naturally from the intersection of character, situation, and setting - the big three - and was now lost, leaving me bereft, breathless, foundering and looking for that gasp of air that might take me another day closer.

I know that my personal race continues and the finish line lies just ahead, almost within reach. All I have to do is dig deep to find that last vestige of creativity that will let me stagger over the finish line of fifty thousand words.  Instead of pushing the story further I find myself dithering with names of characters, places, and cultural artifacts - time wasting fluff for the most part.

So here I sit, writing another God-damned pity piece.  At least I'm writing, but that's scant comfort and does absolutely nothing  to help me accomplish my personal objective.  I just have to put my ass in the chair and keep going.



Friday, November 15, 2013


Every morning I take an early hour's walk before settling down to do my daily duties. The other day they had predicted snow and rain but when I checked at 0630 it was still clear so I dressed warmly and set out to put in the time.  The breeze grew brisk as the cold front was passing through, driving cardboard boxes, papers, and endless drifts of leaves before it and impeding my headway as I set out.

As I was returning I spotted a dark shape rising over the tree line between me and the South River, soaring toward my position.  It appeared to be a turkey buzzard, quite common hereabouts, taking advantage of the stiff wind. His route was toward me but varied as the wind quartered, drifting effortlessly to this side or another, only to return to his main course.  At times, when the breeze was right, he would hover motionless, suspended fifty or more meters above the ground, with only his pinions adjusting his flight. When the wind lessened the buzzard swooped to the side, diving to build speed then rising again to catch the wind from another direction.  I admired the ease with which he followed his search for his meal, the delicate control over elevation and attitude with tail and wing.
Eventually he passed over me and disappeared to the north, disappearing behind a row of houses; gone, but not forgotten.

My current experience with NaNoWriMo is similar to that buzzard's flight.  The wind of plot forces my direction, ever forward and never looking back to find that morsel that will feed the story.  Just like the buzzard, my story diverts on occasion, but always, always returns to the main thread.  Sometimes the emotional feeling of the story rises and falls, the characters grow more complex, or the situations simply arise from the activities they are performing.  I know that somewhere ahead lies resolution of one or more of the subarcs, but its shape and size are as yet unknown.  The NaNoWriMo wind is at my face, ever pushing to complete my task, to build the story, to achieve something I have, before now, thought impossible.

It is wonderful to feel that wind beneath my wings.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Game's Afoot

Last week I despaired of participating in the annual NaNoWriMo debacle, wherein writers are forced to face the limits to their physical and mental capabilities by attempting to write a minimum of fifty thousand words in a single month.  To understand how daunting this is you must know that I am a deliberating short story writer who plans every step while trying to define the shape and size of a story at the outset before deliberately filling the empty pages with words, words, words, I thought the idea of attempting, e.g planning, something so long as a foolish venture.

[Flashback] At this year's CapClave Jamie Todd Rubin and I presented two approaches to writing.  My approach consisted of plans and careful plotting while Jamie's Pantser approach was flying by the seat of his pants.  Although there was a certain similarity in the tools we used, the philosophical approaches we chose were quite apart.[/ Flashback]

Frustrated (as usual) by my incomplete novels, the recent impossible demands for editorial revisions ("... but not just now, please") and having made yet another contribution to the collaboration, I decided to throw caution to the wind and just let the words come out as they would.  Perhaps that would clear the mind and allow me to find out what this "pantser" crap was all about while climbing the NaNoWriMo mountain to see how far it might take me. If nothing else it would give me an excuse not to actually work at writing something "good."

I was already three days behind when I made this decision so my hopes were not high that I could eke out more than a page or two - three at the outside - with nothing more than a skimpy outline of a thirty-five scene progression I'd put together years ago when my dreams were larger than my talent. I had no idea of plot, of setting, or background as I read the first scene, which was, in its entirety: "Introduce the characters and give them a purpose."

Thus I began writing a rollicking fantasy quest that soon seemed to be taking place on a distant planet and with steam technology, alien ruins, and ...  I really don't know what comes next because the rest of the progression is replete with non-specific titles e.g. "First conflict" or "New character introduced."  Within two days I'd caught up to the demanding word count and, much to my surprise, was actually having fun as the story told itself to me without forethought.

Which makes me ask myself; have I been a closet pantser all this time?


Saturday, November 2, 2013

The NaNoWriMo Worm

The NaNoWriMo month has come again, like Jason knocking on the door with a creative chainsaw in hand, demanding another fifty fucking thousand words of tribute - OR ELSE! The last thing I need at this time of year is this annual dollop of writerly guilt added to the angst-ridden heap already cluttering my virtual desk.

It isn't as if I haven't been productive. I just wrote a humorous short story while struggling with a collaboration and cranking a dozen new sentences into a revision requested by an editor, as well as going over galleys until my eyes began to boil.  These things take time and each carries a time-bound load of obligation to be discharged. Yeah, that and the random rantings I commit that add to the unfinished draft pile-o'-guilt.

Each year at this time I have a moment of cold reflection and wonder whether I have the fortitude, courage, or willingness to embark on developing more of the fledgling novel I attempted last year (and the year before, to be honest.)  Write, write, write the NaNoWriMo cries while my own worm of time eats at my temporal gut: would the level of risk in expending a month of time and effort on a single novel really worth it?  What is the value of risking that my fifty or a hundred thousand burst of words may never be read by another soul?  

Consider the economics of the situation: would the same amount of time and creative energy be better be spent writing short stories, one or two of which might eventually see publication?  At Rio Hondo Paolo Bacigalupi observed that unless your joy comes from the writing of a long work you should not consider doing it.  But to me, at least the prospect of spending a month writing something that may never touch someone's heart appears pointless.  I have no illusions that any draft I may create during the NaNoWriMo period will be in any way superior to another's or even that it might convey some unique insight on the human condition. Contrariwise, I have more than a reasonable expectation that my quota of fifty thousand words might be more elegantly employed in writing (and editing) short, incisive works.

So, at this point of my life I face a choice: to continue to write short stories in hopes that a few might eventually find market, or to spend my remaining time writing, marketing, and promoting a longer work.  There are not years enough for both so I must choose, and soon.  NaNoWriMo has started and I am already three thousand words behind.

The worm of time consumes the moments remaining and I must use them wisely.