Tag Archives: storytelling

To Camp or Not to Camp: NaNo is the Answer

This morning as I was getting ready for work, I knocked over one of those ever present piles of ‘to read’ books that decorate my house. The one that caught my attention was a beautiful little Jane Austen 5 year journal. It seemed that even before I knew I was a writer my family and friends must have thought I was because there are several, mostly empty versions scattered about my house. But this journal was special, a graduation present from a former English class friend; it celebrated my lifelong dream of finishing college. The fact that it took me nearly 40 years to reach that goal made it all the more precious.

The book flipped open to January 12th, 2014 and the short note read, “Went to my first writers’ workshop. Interesting people. Next meeting Feb.9th.” I was hooked. My friend Natalie accompanied me and we met some great people and learned so much. For a couple months I took notes, learned, and talked with writers who had taken the next step in story writing, rather than story thinking.

When March rolled around, the talk began to center on Camp, which of course many of us newbies thinks actually concerns marshmallows, sleeping bags, and mosquitoes. I had heard the term NaNoWriMo thrown about – National Novel Writing Month – but knew the process of spewing out 50,000 words in one month was not daunting as much as impossible. The longest thing I had written so far was a term paper on Eowyn from Lord of the Rings, and it was something under 4,000 words.

The idea of Camp, I was told, was to set your own limit and write what you wanted. The amount could be as low as 10,000 with the sky as the limit. I balked and my co-writers persisted. “It’s fun!” “You can do it!” “You could win!” Win? The competitive side of me reared its ugly head. To think I could win at anything was the final draw.

I signed up nervously, setting my goal at 10,000 words and got to know the website. The best thing for me was the graphs. Not only did it show me how I was doing for the month, but it let me know exactly how many words I needed to finish per day to stay on target and finish by the end of the month. The idea that I only needed to write 323 words per day was doable. The first week went fine. I was averaging around 350 a day and some days a bit more. I made it through the honeymoon stage, but then, as it must, life interfered and I missed a day. With a real effort I brought the numbers back up and surged on.

Sailing along at just over 400, I was so excited. But then my ideas stalled. What was I doing? What ever had made me think I could do this? I wasn’t a real writer. I would never win at this rate. I was doomed to be a ‘wannabe’ for the rest of my life. Reality TV would become my life. (My mind actually works like that sometimes). I drove my family crazy. How could I back out gracefully?

Finally I talked with the other writers, many who had had their own doubts at one time. They encouraged me to stop self-editing and let the words flow unheeded. Editing is for later. Enjoy the creative process. Later you can delete and add and punctuate. It made all of the difference. The competition was back on and I was ready. Each day I worked to increase my word count and as I did my story was running onto the page and making me laugh (lucky for me, it was a comedy). I was so far ahead that a single missed day did not end the race. I could see the finish line and the end of my story careening to a spectacular climax! Actually, it was more like an ‘aha’ moment, as I tend to write comedic mysteries, but I was very pleased. So pleased, I forgot about winning, forgot about whether it was good enough, forgot to think what others would think and just enjoyed. And in so doing I won.

Epilogue – Because, don’t all good stories have one? I finished my first story at around 12,000 words and went on to sign up for my second camp in July. Pledging 15,000, I finished at 20,000. When November rolled around I was ready for the challenge. I finished one day early with a grand total of 51,000 words. I had won again. After much editing and fixing, and the help of my friend Natalie, I compiled my stories and released my first book, Murder in the Library, a cozy mystery collection of three short stories, all because of my first attempt at Camp. My advice? Do it. Make it happen. Open up and let your words out. Enjoy. And even if your word count doesn’t meet your expectations, you still will have won.

process improvement for writers

Cross-posted from my blog, barbrude.wordpress.com.

If there is one thing I learned from writing Demonspine, it’s that I don’t actually have a process yet.

It’d be easy to fall into the trap of thinking I did. I mean, I’ve been writing for six years, almost seven now. I’ve logged a lot of novels (lost count somewhere, which is fine because most of them don’t deserve to see the light of day anyway), and I’ve learned some stuff… right?

Well, yeah. There’s a lot more to learn, too. Not just fiction techniques and storytelling and words, but how to better use my time. How to spend less time spinning my wheels.

Because that was my downfall with Demonspine, and the reason it took 18 months to release it after Angelhide. To give you an idea of how much time I wasted, I actually had 90% of the first Demonspine draft done at Angelhide’s 2014 release and it still took me 18 months.

Granted, most of those months weren’t writing. They couldn’t be. I don’t quite remember what all I did then (other than a couple NaNoWriMo projects) but it wasn’t working hard on my next novel like I knew I should be doing. And I could play the ‘but but toddler’ card, but let’s be honest–it wasn’t his fault.

These hard lessons in self-awareness and procrastination have come at a cost–my time.

I can’t be alone in this. But I have some good news. There are a couple of things I’ve found that really improve my process, that help the writing go smoother and be more fun. And when it’s more fun, I suddenly ‘find the time.’ (And some days I still have to make the time–that will never change).

Without further ado, a list!

5 Process Improvement Tips

  1. Journaling. This one still surprises me. For the longest time, I compartmentalized journaling as that thing other writers do to daydream and that’s cool but that’s not me.Except it is.There’s a lot of junk in my head and it’s amazing what getting some of that junk out can do. Sometimes it’s writerly junk, I can’t do it, this is awful, why did I think I could write? but other times it’s health. I couldn’t sleep last night and now staying awake hurts. I’ll make a deal with myself–one more cup of caffeine for a serious attempt to finish this scene.

    I would have thought that allowing myself to whine in notebook form would create a storm of negativity that I can’t get out of, but the reverse is true. The junk comes out, it gets acknowledged, and it gets solved. This is soooo especially true for the writerly junk because once I get the words I’m so bad at this out they just stare at me until I keep going–I feel this way because I’ve stalled in a scene and I’ll feel better as soon as I fix it.

    After a page of working through ‘it’ (whatever it is at the moment) I usually have a pretty good writing day.

  2. Goal-Setting. This one seems super obvious, but every week that I don’t set goals is a week I get next-to-nothing done. What’s been working the best for me lately is plotting out the entire week, keeping in mind my other obligations like work and family. The big mistake I made at the beginning of September was I didn’t account for my family coming up over Labor Day weekend. Naturally I fell behind, but instead of whining it out in my journal and moving on, I stagnated. I didn’t set goals again until last week. Thankfully, my long-term schedule for Heaven’s Most Wanted hasn’t been fatally compromised–I built in a little fudge factor for getting the first draft done. Now that fudge is gone (I still want more chocolate), but I can do this.
  3. Aspire higher. Normally I cringe when other writers say they are aspiring writers or aspiring authors (author is a person who has written, so are you seriously aspiring to have written? Please, no). Stop aspiring and start writing! Your future writer self will thank you.But… I look at my greatest time sinks in writing. Combat and high-danger scenes take me so much longer to write than fun banter. For a long time I just accepted that as part of my writing self. It’s ‘how it is’. Except, it’s not! Writing to a halt became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It takes longer because I expect it to. Oh, here comes another of those scenes, gonna spend a week on that and hate every minute…

    This attitude is completely unprofessional. I aspire to be professional, to treat writing like the career I want to have. A professional doesn’t accept this kind of junk and gunk. A professional asks, how can I improve this process?

    I read a writing book on conflict. I wrote in my journal and learned that the reason I don’t enjoy writing these scenes isn’t the scenes itself–it’s because of the time sink I’ve made them into. The self-fulfilling prophecy of doom has come full circle.

    I made a list of ways I can work more professionally, and the most pivotal is this one:

  4. Prewriting. How many times have I started a scene and got 25%, 57%, 83% into it, only to realize I’m going approximately half a word an hour and I don’t like where I ended up.Whenever I take a page from Rachel Aaron’s playbook (the ultimate process improvement guide) and pre-write each scene before I get started, everything goes so much smoother. In fact, the difference is so extreme that some of my fastest, funnest scenes come out when I block each and every beat out before I actually write it.

    It’s like plotting to the extreme. First I ramble through concerns and questions I have about the scene–what’s really at stake here? What disaster is looming? Is there enough conflict? Is this an interesting location? It’s amazing how often asking a question, not just in my head but putting it on the screen or paper, gives me the answer.

    From there, I take that overarching idea and block it out. It’s tempting at this point to just start writing, but then I slow down again. I gotta keep it simple, even if that means making the beats ridiculous and the dialog unpunctuated. In fact, keeping it that raw keeps the flow.

    And once that’s done, it feels like no work at all to clean it up. I’m happier with what I wrote, it took me less time and anguish, and I still have energy to tackle the next scene. What’s not to love?

  5. Intrinsic motivation. The thing about writing and art in general is that no one cares if you do it. Oh, we say we do. We ask how it’s going and give a thumb’s up when you tell us you’re plugging along.But at the end of the day, the only person who can finish that draft is me. No amount of external pressure will make that happen (I’ve heard a contract deadline helps, but I’d still argue there’s strong intrinsic motivation propelling a writer to meet said deadline). Intrinsic motivation is the key–finding yours is a personal thing.

    I’m still looking for mine. Sometimes I remind myself where I want to be in a five years. I think about what my life would be like without writing. Almost always, I ask myself why the story I’m writing is important to write right now, more important than all the other things I could be writing. That’s usually a good jumpstart.

    How do you improve your writing process?

story prep workshop

I had a great time at yesterday’s workshop, WriMos!

In case you missed it, we talked about a lot of ways to plan and prep your story, because NaNoWriMo is just around the corner. Here are some links we shared, plus a few more, because I love arming you with resources:

Candy Bar Scenes — Holly Lisle’s website is a treasure trove of writing inspiration and information.
Snowflake Method — Advancedfictionwriting.com has novel design down to a science, or close to it as you can get. This method is great for plotters.
Scene and Sequel, MRUs — Advancedfictionwriting.com has another great article for how to structure scenes, both large- and small-scale.
Story Engineering Beat Sheet — Storyfix.com has some great resources for story planning as well as this beat sheet.
Jami Gold’s Website — all the fill-in spreadsheets and plotting devices you could dream of, and then some.

NaNoWrimo YWP Novelist Handbook — ignore the fact that these are for kids. No, really. There is some great advice in these pages, as well as some awesome printouts.
Scrivener NaNoWriMO 2014 Free Trial — Scrivener is offering a free trial of their writing software for this year’s NaNo, from now until December 7th. If you win, you get a coupon for 50% off.
Sacred Cow of Publishing: Writing is Hard — deanwesleysmith.com tackles the myth that writing is hard.
Sacred Cow of Publishing: Writing Fast is Bad — deanwesleysmith.com tackles the myth that writing speed = writing quality.

We’re about to get very busy, WriMos. November is coming–we are ready with write-ins, workshops, and a write-a-thon. Check our calendar at nanowrimo.org or on the calendar button at the top of this page. I can’t wait to see you there.

Happy Writing!

prep your story

I am absolutely not going to panic that we have a month and 4 days left before NaNoWriMo. Nope, nope, nope, not gonna do it.

Instead of panicking, I’m going to talk story prep. We’re hosting a workshop on October 12th, but in the meantime, here’s a link I’ve found helpful in planning stories, from Storyfix.com: The Single Most Powerful Writing Tool (that fits on one page).

There’s a lot of balls for a planner to juggle. But one thing I’ve found is that if I can nail down the first plot point and set my character down the path of emotional growth and give them proper agency, then the rest of it comes together.

A few things to remember about the first plot point:

  • this is the moment your character commits to the story
  • there is no going back
  • it should be the protagonist’s choice, not coerced
  • it should show a shift in the protagonist’s emotions or thinking, for better or worse, a willingness to change or a realization that change must happen
  • the first plot point bridges the gap between part 1 and part 2 (of a 4-part story), in which the character goes from setup to response
  • plan this big moment between 20%-25% into your story

Don’t let first plot points scare you. They can be high-stakes or low-key, from betting the farm to admitting to yourself that yes, maybe the house is actually haunted. Both of these moments require a response–now the the farm is at stake, the wager (and work) begins. Once you admit the house is haunted, you have do something–either prove there are no ghosts, move out, call in a priest, or learn to play nice with your ethereal cohabitants.

In fact, your protagonist might have to do all those things, but first, they have to admit those strange sounds at night aren’t just mice in the wall boards. That’s the power of the first plot point.

what changes you bring

I’m writing by the seat of my pants this summer more than I ever have. It’s a lot of things–weird, wonderful, exciting, terrifying, roundabout, experimental, liberating, and slow-going.

Every novel I’ve written teaches me something. Sometimes the lessons came in failures. Others were simply in the practice of doing.

This pantsing summer for me has taught me much in the practice of doing (there’s plenty of lessons via failure, as well, I’m sure). How it feels awkward and stumbly, a bit like blindfolding myself over a tightrope of questionable stability.

There’s lots for me to cling to, to reinforce my sense of balance, of direction, and trust. After all, I’ve written a scene or two before. And dialog, physical conflict, emotions, all that good fictiony stuff. Now, instead of having a lot of these juicy bits planned out, prepared for, researched, and imagined, they come out as they come out.

It’s kinda neat.

One thing I still can’t rely on to come out by itself is mission-driven scene execution.

Someone really oughtta come up with a better name for it than that, because I can’t say that start to finish without biting my poor tongue. Mission-driven scenes really just means every scene has a goal, and knowing that goal helps carve out what needs to go in that scene.

Or put more poetically, what changes you bring (to the story).

Today I’m working on a scene in which a character learns a new piece of information. Often, this can be the change and that’s enough. But this new information, which she intentionally sought, doesn’t move the story forward–it’s a dead end. There’s nothing she can do as a response, other than say “oh, well, I tried.” I close the door on her, without opening a window or at least setting the house on fire.

The scene doesn’t bring any real change (new information that can/must be acted upon, raised stakes, escalated conflict, accelerated time-bomb, created a need, destroyed something important), and that’s a problem.

So that’s my new question: what change do I bring in this scene?

emotion, experience, empathy

DSCN1291

Stella Chomperella was my third ferret. We brought her home–the meanest baby at the pet store–six and a half years ago.

Last night, she had some sort of injury, something that hurt her so bad she couldn’t walk or stand up. My husband found her, called me home from the write-in, because she was clearly shutting down. She refused food and water. She was uncomfortable. We took turns holding her until she finally drifted into the Big Ferret Sleep late last night.

It was a new experience for me. Our two boys had slow declines and we brought them to the vet. Their passings were distant. I watched them get carried away by the vet, unsure of what exactly happened beyond that STAFF ONLY door. But with Stella, I was there till the end. Her last breath. Her weight changed in my hands and I knew, without holding my own breath and counting the seconds, that Stella was gone.

Squinting against the too-bright light of morning, I need to make sense of things. It’s in our nature to search for meaning. And while so much of this experience was new, much of it wasn’t: namely, the emotions. Each loss is part new, and part a story we’ve already endured before.

And there’s the writing segue, coming at you 220 words in. We read fiction for a lot of reasons.

Story experts remind us that our need for story is biological, stories teach us to survive and cope and tell those stories to the next generation, so they can do the same.

You don’t have to experience what I went through last night to understand. I could narrate those moments, describe the soft blanket or sitting in the dark or pacing through the house, clutching her to my chest, but honestly, you’ve probably got your own swathe of experiences to bridge the gap between you and me. And if you don’t, you’ve read a story that showed you how others experience it, and that gives you an idea of what it could be like for you.

This is why we write.

Fiction illuminates the path, allowing us to experience things that happens to others, that might happen to us, that are happening to us, that have happened to us. It connects us by our emotions. It leverages our empathy to gird us for what lies ahead.

Many fictioneers subconsciously draw from that pool of empathy–be it personal experience or vicarious. We can also choose to consciously bring out a full range of emotions in our characters, applying story-truth to their actions and reactions. We can choose to imagine their experiences fully, and experience them ourselves as we convey them in the story. It’s not always easy–I’ve got a good-bye scene to write soon and it will bring back last night (and all the other nights of bitter loss) in bad ways for me, good ways for the reader.

But it’s important.

I can’t wish you happy writing today, fellow writers, because I’m just not feeling it. So instead, let me bid you till-next-time with a hope that your writing is peaceful, cathartic.

a (quick) scene checklist

We’re one week into Camp NaNoWriMo! Did you survive the holiday weekend with your novel intact?

I didn’t as well as I wanted to, but that’s okay–seeing family was good, and helping my toddler recover from all that family (and not enough sleep) was necessary.

Now Monday rolls in with this reminder that Camp is a quarter over and I’m right where I left off five days ago. So here’s something I’m using today to get me jump-started back into noveling excitement…

A (Quick) Scene CheckList:
Does my scene…

  • have a mission or story purpose?
  • raise the stakes, escalate the conflict, or introduce danger?
  • create/show motivation, needs, or flaws?
  • evoke all five senses?
  • have dialog/internal monolog?
  • have a strong point of view?
  • have a setting that the characters use/are influenced by?
  • show us something specific and new about the characters/story?
  • have a beginning/middle/end?
  • reflect the context of the novel (foreshadowing, setup, payoff)?
  • fit the story I’m trying to tell?

Setting out to make every scene fit all these criteria (and more, since there are more complicated checklists out there) can get stressful, but if I can’t check off most of these items, then my scene isn’t really a scene. The bolded are my must-haves.

What scene criteria do you look for to make planning your scenes easier?

candy bar scenes

Holly Lisle has many, many resources for writers. A website of advice, downloads, courses, videos, and a newsletter. Her stuff is great. Fantastic, even.

One of my favorite tools comes from her tips on How to Finish a Novel: candy bar scenes. In planning/writing stages, these are scenes you simply can’t wait to write, the ones where the important story-stuff happens.  Maybe you still haven’t worked out all the details yet, but you know these scenes are the reasons you need to write this particular story.

Her example is ‘hero discovers he has magic’ for fantasy. Looking back, I realize my own candy bar scenes have run the gamut of story types–plot discovery, relationship developments, confrontations,  complete and utter failures, and of course, realization of new magic powers, because what kind of fantasy writer would I be if my protagonists weren’t constantly pushing themselves?

In my Camp NaNo project, I’ve been spinning my wheels for a few days. The problem was essentially this: I didn’t have any candy bar scenes. I had the emotional arc for the hero, a strong antagonist, and a plot. But no idea what the actual scenes should look like.

My solution: concentrate on coming up with candy bar scenes. What events/story stuff can I already clearly visualize?

Answering that generally fills in a whole lot of other plot details, because once I’ve figured out some of these cool moments, I work backwards. Let’s say I want an angel to get her wings. To make that accomplishment have meaning, there’s work to do. I have to build the world–why a junior angel doesn’t start with wings, what she might have to do to get them, and what’s stopping this angel from achieving that. Oh, and why she wants wings in the first place–that might seem like a no-brainer (what angel wouldn’t want wings?) but every character wants what they want for personal reasons. Is it a matter of pride, status, envy, insecurity, proof of competence, or a need to look strong? Or something else entirely?

Candy bar scenes are a great tool in your writer’s toolbox. If you’re stuck planning or troubleshooting your story, give your candy bar scenes some thought.