End of an Era

It’s come time to retire my little old laptop. It overheats, turns off and on on its own command, is the equivalent weight of a pile of bricks, and despite multiple battery replacements over the years it can last only about fifteen minutes when not plugged into an outlet. I want to retire it now before one day it just decides not to turn on any more and I have a major melt down.

I’ve been thinking this for a while, but with NaNoWriMo looming, my fear that the computer would just call it quits in the middle of a massive write-in session has been keeping me up at night (I kid you not).

My little old computer was a Christmas gift in December 2008 when I was a sophomore in college. That was very nearly SIX years ago! As I’m sifting through the computer, making sure everything is exported and archived to an external hard drive, I started keeping tally of how many books I wrote on this old keyboard and I realized something:

I wrote my very first novel on this computer.

I mean, the first novel I consider my “real” novel attempt. There were of course novels in middle school and high school I muddled in and a few I even finished, but the book I wrote for independent study, a MG historical, in spring 2009 was the very first experience of me sitting down with a plan and a novel-writing goal, the first time I produced something (nearly) novel-length worth sharing with others.  All told, I’ve written nearly five books on this thing:

1. 35,000-word historical MG (spring semester, 2009)

2. 54,000-word YA (2011; first 4,000 written as college creative writing capstone final, 50,000 to completion for my very first NaNoWriMo win!)

3. 15,000-word non-fiction (2012; my published Byberry State Hospital book!)

4. 66,000-word YA dystopian (started in NaNoWriMo 2012, finished in December 2013)

5. 12,000-word YA (NaNoWriMo 2013 attempt)

6. 40,000-word current WIP, MG (started in January 2014)

We’ll just combine #5 and #6 together and call it one full book, shall we?

Let’s not even mention all the short stories and extremely lengthy history papers written on this thing. It’s seen a lot of miles/accrued a huge lifetime word count! [pats affectionately]

And may the new computer, a slim, sleek MACBOOK AIR (I am fangirl dancing inside…it is SO LIGHT) last as long and help me write the next five awesome books! Anyone want to join me for NaNo for the first 50,000-word stretch on this new keyboard and cheer each other on? :]

How many book-shaped things have you written on your current computer?

 

Writing Shortcuts: (Part 4) Characters

This is the fourth post in the Writing Shortcuts mini series where I discuss all the things I learned in the second draft that I wish I had known (and done right!) during the first draft of my current WIP. Check out post #1 and #2 (setting) and #3 (pacing) to catch up!

Apparently everyone in the world besides me knew about this handy little writing trick. Even the non-writers of the world (I polled a few, so it might be an unreliable sample) knew. And when I mentioned my mind-blowing, brilliant, life-changing writing idea to them, even the non-writers paused and stared at me like I was crazy. “. . .  you don’t already do that?” some asked. “Doesn’t every writer do that?” others asked, inevitably referencing some world-famous writer who had admitted to the practice in an interview/magazine article/memoir.

Apparently, this is obvious to the logical people of the world.

But in case some of you out there never had this idea occur to you before (like me) and (like me) just go at a manuscript and writewritewrite 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 words with no real character knowledge, just kind of expecting each word to get you a little closer to the character having life breathed into them, I have news for you:

Characters back stories are the most amazing thing in the world.

Character back stories are a get-to-know you opportunity. They’re generally only one or two pages long and in them they include first impression information (what you’d notice right away if you met them for the first time), self-introduction information (the quick-and-dirty sort of elevator speech every person has when introducing themselves to someone you want to get to know. Think back to how you introduced yourself to your college roommate), and the deep dark stuff you’d only pull out of someone past 2:00 am when you’re laying on a trampoline together, staring up at the stars, and talking about life.

These back story write-ups were inspired by MG/YA authors Kit Grindstaff and Jennifer Hubbard, who gave this great session at the NJ SCBWI conference back in April that completely rocked my world. It was about dirty little secrets. About how important it is to know those secret, dark things about each of your characters. Only once you understood them like that, could you then throw them on the page, like I had been blindly doing, and expect any magic to percolate.

After reading the first draft and giving the first few chapters to a critique partner, I knew one of the greatest weaknesses of the manuscript–and one I didn’t yet know how to fix–was the main character. She was the most important person in the book, by definition, especially because I was writing the book in first person, but she almost barely existed. She had no personality and was overshadowed by the much clearer secondary characters. I was having her do all these things and say all these words, but she was not a fleshed out person with flaws and feelings and fears, and it was really obvious that I just didn’t understand what made this character tick. What was her motivation? Her favorite things to do in her free time?

I came up with nada.

The other characters were also pretty flat, so I systematically began approaching each character with a homework assignment: each one had to have this entire form filled out completely and satisfactorily before I could dive into revisions.

CHARACTER BACKSTORY

[Full name, occupation]

Motivated by: [i.e., truth, justice, fear, guilt, secret crush, etc.]

Instant description words: [i.e., adventurous, devoted, controlling, bubbly, lone wolf, etc.]

Biggest mistake ever made in life: [usually a flashback memory scene to a regret]

Biggest obstacle: [The thing the character finds most challenging, the thing they’re constantly trying to work on. Example: needing to fit in, mending a frayed relationship with a loved one, getting over fear of heights]

Least likeable quality: [Flaws are so much more illuminating of a character than why I like them. This question helped me figure out that one character was meek to a fault, for example. If I had just focused on her likeable qualities, I would have had a pretty flat character who was friendly, polite, and a loyal friend. But with that meekness shining through, she has an added depth and becomes more real.]

These are the basic things I always answer. A lot of other stuff gets written down and crossed out and doodled, but these are the bare bones I need to understand every character’s personal history. I write these out by hand, so they’re pretty much a hot mess of scribbles in a notebook that only I can decipher.

It took me about two weeks to do a character sketch for each of the secondary characters. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about each one. But I kept returning to that blank page for my main character. I’d jot down ideas, tid-bits of the main character’s history, anything to get to know her better.

After a few weeks and a lightbulb moment thanks to a brainstorming session with my sister, I finally finished her character sketch. I understood her. I got her. And it made revising her scenes, her dialogue, her actions, and writing new scenes for her so much easier. I was able to edit away all the crap in the first draft that, it was very clear to me now, was simply not this character’s MO. If only I had done these character sketches to begin with, before I ever started the first draft! Writing that entire first draft over the course of about four months didn’t help me get to know the characters better. I wandered through that world and through that plotline as lost as any of my characters. It wasn’t an effective method for me. The characters just foundered for pages upon pages and even when I wrote “The End,” I was still lost.

Lesson learned? Always write character sketches for each and every character before the first scene they appear in. It’ll help make them consistent and it’ll help the scenes write themselves. Now, off to squeeze in some character sketches to prepare for the secret NaNoWriMo project…!! I can’t wait to spend the month practicing writing a speedy and much better first-draft process! Join me?

Writing Shortcuts (Part 3): Pacing

This is the third post in the Writing Shortcuts mini series where I discuss all the things I learned in the second draft that I wish I had known (and done right!) during the first draft. Check out post #1 and #2 (setting) to catch up!

While reading through the first draft, I slowly came to realize how uneven the days of the week were. The plot spanned across the course of six days. Nearly 40 percent of the book happened on Day #1. (!!!) Other days got as little as 5 percent of the grand total page count. (This was partly a symptom of my speed-writing need. I get really excited about a story idea during a first draft and want to get to the end so badly that I write only the barest of bones. I just want to write “The End” ASAP…and scenes, chapters, and entire day’s worth of events get increasingly shorter as a result.)

Something that would have REALLY helped me during the drafting process to slow down my writing pace and, as a result, create a manuscript that had better story pacing, would have been a calendar.

Like this one.

Plotting Calendar

Plotting calendar. Magical tool for measured pacing!

Once I read through the first draft, I bullet-pointed the scenes on the calendar. That’s when I started seeing the holes. Literally. Huge, gaping holes. Seeing it laid out like that, I realized that one day only had one scene: a random conversation that happened during the evening. Then, cut scene, the next day! Seeing all these holes was like instant inspiration to dig in and start fleshing out the story. I started envisioning the characters interacting together–these were detailed visions I was itching to get on paper–in scenes that didn’t yet exist in the draft, but which I knew HAD to happen and would fit in those holes perfectly. The calendar helped me see a lot of scenes that I should have written during the first draft but was too rushed to give them the time and attention they deserved.

So, lesson learned? Always have a calendar for a first draft. (A lesson learned just in time for NaNoWriMo! Anybody else doing it? Friend me!)

Becoming Friends with My Inner Editor

Even though I’m not supposed to, even though I don’t really have time, (considering my Byberry book is due to the publisher in two months) I’ve started writing a new book. I mentioned it briefly before, when I wrote the first chapter on vacation a few weeks ago. I mentioned that I think it’s good. Like, good. Because I’m superstitious, I won’t really say more about it besides that it’s middle grade and that the opening chapter is set on Halloween.

What’s exciting for me is that I’m writing this book differently. When I’ve written manuscripts in the past, my biggest problem has been rushing through it. I need to get this idea.the next idea.the next scene down on paper rightnow and it leads to a sort of listed story “Henry walked home. Then he turned around to look at the sunset one last time. Then he went to bed” that’s heavy on the “then’s” and scanty on the rhythm, prose, and descriptive details. My manuscripts in the past have been bare bones; it has the structure, it has the plot points. But there’s wind rushing through the hollow ribcage of my story. And the worst part is, it’s such an ugly pile of words that I really have no idea how to deal with it. I still haven’t looked at my 2011 NaNoWriMo book because it’s terrifying. I know I’m going to have to rewrite the entire thing, because what I have right now is worthless. Not only is the pace far too fast and the prose far from pretty, but because I rushed through, the plot doesn’t even make sense. It’s a mess and I don’t know how to go about revising it.

Because that obviously hasn’t worked for me in the past, I’m trying a different process. And even though everybody says you should lock up your inner editor while writing the first draft, I’m finding that it’s actually much better to have her keep me company. I’m not editing each sentence, paragraph, or chapter within an inch of its life before I move on (if I did that, I might never move forward and write the next chapter). But I am writing it like a sequence of short stories. I write a chapter. I fiddle with it, rewrite it, move things around. I don’t worry about perfection, but instead focus on the voice. I really want the voice to stay consistent because it helps guide me in the next chapter and it keeps me from writing scenes that so obviously do not belong in this book. It’s still a draft–it’s still going to need to be revised and edited at a later stage–but by letting my inner editor visit earlier in the process, it’s a strong draft. Each chapter can stand on its own, independently. It’s a good foundation for my next chapter.

It’s working for me. So far I have four strong chapters that do everything I want them to do. They move along the plot and are slowly developing the characters. As I read through them as a cohesive unit, I see things that later down the line will need to be changed. There are entire scenes that I think will probably get cut later down the line. But I’m not letting my inner editor have full reign. I value her opinion, her suggestions, but I’m not letting her get bossy and redo everything I’ve already done. She’ll have to wait until the whole book’s written before I let her do that.

But it’s a nice surprise to see that writing this book hasn’t been as hard or stressful as past manuscripts. It’s plodding along–I’m four chapters and 8,000-words in, which isn’t half bad considering I only wrote on vacation that one week and this past Labor Day weekend–and I’m happy to write new chapters as they occur to me and I’m happy to let it sit and work on something else so I don’t butcher it because of some ridiculous need to get it done as soon as possible. It’s also nice to learn that my inner editor isn’t as evil as various writing books and author lectures and blogs have led me to believe. I think I’ll keep her.

(Image source: The New York Public Library Archives. Flickr Commons.)

The Pros and Cons to NaNoWriMo

During the month of November, I pretty much secluded myself away from the writing world.  I didn’t read any blogs and I didn’t submit any new stories.  I was so busy trying to bust out my NaNo word count every day that I actually forgot I was waiting to hear back from several publications.  The month sped by.

This was both a curse and a blessing.

The Curse:  I got two rejection letters during the month which were extremely unhelpful discouragement.  One was from Cicada–FINALLY! I thought they had lost my submission ages ago–and the other was from New South.**  Both were form letters, but one was actually a forwarded rejection which just seemed to increase the impersonal nature of it all  [deep sigh of melodramatic depression]

The Blessing:  The month went by so fast that I didn’t even have time to count the seconds until I hear back about some contests I entered a while back.  I find out about the Tiny Texas House contest as soon as this Friday (cross your fingers!) and about the Writer’s Digest Young Adult Fiction Competition by December 31st.  Woohoo!

I didn’t know this until I read this article, but apparently the writing world is split into two camps concerning NaNoWriMo: friends and foes.  I think most of the Cons on the Writer’s Relief’s list are rather silly, so I’ve composed my own Pros and Cons list:

Pros:

  1. You get a whole book written–with a beginning, middle, and end, and an entire cast of characters.
  2. You don’t have the luxury to procrastinate and only write and rewrite and then rewrite the beginning again . . .  for years.
  3. You’ll become a better writer, with better writing habits and better discipline.
  4. Every writing project in the future will seem easy and completely achievable in comparison with NaNoWriMo.
  5. You’ll have taken so many wrong turns in your novel and reached so many dead ends that, through the process of elimination, you now know what can’t happen in your novel and, therefore, what can.
  6. Even though your whole book is crap (see below) it’s a lot easier to rewrite and edit when you already have the bare bones of the entire story.

Cons:

  1. Your whole book is crap.  When you go back to reread the draft, the sentences are horrifying, your descriptions are fluffy instead of visionary, and in general you can never show this book to anyone.
  2. You are going to have to rewrite the whole book which, for a moment, will make you question whether or not you wasted thirty days of your life doing something unproductive (you didn’t, I swear).
  3. Because of the attention to word count rather than quality, it is almost certain that your writing won’t improve over the month.

In my opinion, the pros totally outweigh the cons.  In fact, the cons aren’t really even cons.  They’re more like complaints, complaints that every writer will have some day.  Because we all must–and dread–the rewriting stage.

**Personal submission response time for Cicada magazine (see my write up about their submission guidelines etc. here): it ended up being 8 months, 29 days for a rejected poem; in the past, I only had to wait 27 days for a personal rejection to a short story.  Obviously, it ranges . . . What’s the longest you’ve ever had to wait to hear back from a publication?

(Image, No Copyright)

The Moral of the Story: What I Learned from NaNoWriMo

Even though there was a rehearsal dinner, a wedding, a weekend spent upstate visiting my beloved roommate, Thanksgiving, and, at the very end, a very nasty head cold, I survived and WON NaNoWriMo this year!  Hurray!

I now have a very crappy, embarrassingly awful, but decently plotted 56,000+ word novel (I only wrote 50,000 words this month, but I had 6,000 words previously written for this story).

No Plot?  No Problem!, which I actually found to be quite good company throughout the month of literary abandon, recommended that I celebrate with champagne.  Being that I looked (according to my mother) and felt a bit like death warmed over, I settled for some very delicious and throat-soothing chocolate ice cream instead.  And then I rewarded myself again and had some for breakfast this morning.

NaNoWriMo was quite the experience and I learned a lot about myself and my abilities as a writer.  I went to regional library write-ins and met some great people; some of whom have done NaNo before and actually self-published their previous manuscripts and were working on the sequels this month.  I feel successful and accomplished on one hand, and completely terrified about how much I might hate the whole book when I go to edit it in a few weeks on the other.  But nevertheless, even if I have to rewrite the whole book and realize that my writing skill itself hasn’t improved, I think I’m a better writer and now have better writing habits because of NaNo.

Most Important Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo 2011:

  1. Writing out of order is perfectly acceptable.  I got really stuck half-way through Week Two because I was writing under the unconscious assumption that I needed to write each scene, as much as I dreaded it or could not think of what exactly happened next, as they occurred in chronological order.  So when one of the pep talks encouraged us to write out of order, it was completely liberating.  Being allowed to hop around my manuscript and dump a scene or one thousand words wherever the mood struck me was much more effective and fun.
  2. It’s not that hard to write a whole novel in a month.  Yes, I had to give up blogging, tweeting (for the most part), exercising (which was not ideal considering the fact that it was Thanksgiving), and generally reduce the amount of television I watched.  But I was shocked by how much extra time I had after finishing my daily quota.  I had plenty of time to bake, see my family, read (though, admittedly, most of my reading was reduced to audiobooks during my never-ending commute and while waiting in doctors’ offices), and sleep.  Now that I know I can do it, pushing myself to write a book in two months seems completely reasonable.
  3. Accept that the first draft will be awful and write the whole crappy thing so that there’s a beginning, middle, and end before editing.  I normally do this with short stories, but with past book attempts I kept editing individual chapters before moving onto writing the next chapter.  With my NaNoWriMo manuscript, I figured out that you don’t really know where the plot will end up going; with all the twists and turns, you’re going to have to end up rewriting and reorganizing the first chapters anyway—something that was originally a red herring is not critical, and needs to be fleshed out, for example—so don’t waste your time or use those first three chapters as an excuse of why you haven’t written the rest of the book.\

How was everyone else’s November?  Did you do NaNoWriMo?  Did you write something less lengthy, less messy, but equally fabulous?  Did you get any awesome writing accepted for publication somewhere?

What 1,100 Words Looks Like: Gearing Up for NaNoWriMo 2011

I’m currently plowing through the book No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, the creator of NaNoWriMo, as I prepare for the incredibly unplanned month of writing ahead of me.  (Being that I’ve gotten SNOWED IN  the weekend before Halloween–strange and unacceptable–I have time to start and finish an entire book.)

Four inches of snow before Halloween; Pennsylvania, 2011

Reading it is actually calming down my nerves quite a bit . . . and leading me to call everyone I know and begging them to be a “NaNoWriMo Nazi and/or slave driver” for the next month.  (Baty recommends that NaNoWriMo participants brag about our aspirational, completed-novel intentions beforehand so that we’re guilted into actually finishing.)

One of the main things the book stresses is pre-planning our writing time by recording what we do on a daily basis, color-coding the essential, important, and non-important activities and committing to replacing the non-important and occasional important activities with writing time.

My average day as it stands now looks a lot like this:

6:30 am:  Wake up, make sure younger sister hasn’t overslept her alarm and is heading out for school; fall back asleep.

7:00 am:  Wake up again.

7:00 am-7:30 am: Shower, dress, eat, pack lunch.

7:30 am-9:00 am: Drive to work while listening to a lovely audiobook.

9:00 am-1:00 pm: Official editing day job.

1:00 pm-2:00 pm: Lunch break.  Sometimes blog, sometimes read, sometimes take a walk in the local park.

2:00 pm-5:00 pm: Official editing day job continued.

5:00 pm-6:15 pm: Drive back home while listening to more of the lovely audiobook.

7:00 pm-8:00 pm: Physical therapy.

8:15 pm-11 pm: Hang out with family and/or boyfriend.  Sometimes this involves writing/blogging while boyfriend is doing homework.  Sometimes this involves watching unnecessary amounts of television.

I’m thinking that if I forfeit that extra half hour of sleep every morning (even as I say this I know it’s unlikely), make my lunch break a power-hour (higher likelihood), write some more in the parking lot before physical therapy (similarly high potential, as long as traffic doesn’t steal away the time), and commit to being in the same room with those I love but generally ignoring their presence (possible, especially on nights when the boyfriend is ignoring me because of his own heavy homework load) while I write should make NaNoWriMo physically possible for the first time ever, for me at least.

If you were reading between the lines, you noticed that I cut out my blogging time for the next month.  Sad, but true.  Unfortunately, I’m going to have to take a working vacation and neglect the blog for awhile (I’m sorry!!).  I’ll still be on Twitter–mostly for the daily bragging (or shamefully pathetic) tweet of my word count–and apparently we can have friends on the NaNoWriMo website this year, so don’t miss me if you don’t want to; be my writing buddy and we can cheer each to the finishing line!  (I’m listed as HannahKarena.)

I tried NaNoWriMo once before, my sophomore year of college, and promised myself I would never put myself through it again until after I graduated.  You don’t have free time in college; you just have time where you can multitask homework with something more social and pleasant.  Like doing homework in a group at Dunkin Donuts at 11:00 pm.  Or watching reruns of Will & Grace on the couch with your roommate while you read your textbooks during the commercials.  There was simply no room to fit more homework-like activity.  Kudo’s to Amanda, a freshman who’s making a go of it despite the odds.  Also kudo’s to Katy and Sammy, who are not freshman but lead busy lives and deserve ample amounts of credit for their pledge.

I did write my first book in college, though.  I invented a “How to Write a Children’s Book” independent study where I wrote my book for credit, so my class schedule actually built-in writing time.  Every two weeks I had 2,000 words due.  As I face NaNoWriMo–where I’m expected to write 1,667 words a day–that deadline of long ago seems laughable, but it was really good practice for me.  By the end of the semester I had a roughly 18,000-word manuscript with a beginning, middle, end, and break-neck-speed pacing.  (That summer I rewrote/edited it and it slowed down into its expanded current size of about 35,000).  The reasons for this less intense productivity were:

  1. I was carefully editing my pages as I went so that my adviser (shout out to Professor Lawrence!) could actually enjoy and potentially be mildly impressed by my prose.  NaNoWriMo, on the other hand, results in 50,000 words of garbled crap worthy of nobody’s eyes but mine own; instead of being born naturally–complete with all ten fingers, plot devises, and toes–NaNoWriMo projects are like a really horrifying Frankenstein experiment.  It’s going to take months of rewriting and hardcore editing before this new book is even reasonably presentable to the general public; and,
  2. It was historical fiction and I was spending hours every week doing extensive research.

To help myself along this time, I’m doing a completely fictional book.  No research.  Everything will be pieced together from my own imagination.  Also, to help I’ve already gotten 6,000 words written.

Now stop right there.  I heard all of you start hissing “cheater.”  I promise, I’m not cheating.  I solemnly promise that I will not include these first 6,000 words toward my 50,000-word goal.  Instead, in the end I shall have a 56,000-word manuscript.  But the benefit of already having a head start is that I have a grasp of my characters, the narrative voice, and a general idea of what I want to happen along the way.  I went into my first NaNoWriMo experience completely blind and started writing a random novel.  When it died after 6,000 words or so, I started a new one.  And when that one died, I gave up.

This year, I’m dedicated to actually finishing.  My motivation?  The 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.  They have two categories–general fiction and YA fiction–and the winner of each gets a $15,000 royalty advance and a publishing contract with Penguin.  What’s not to be hopeful about?

Hope to see a bunch of you in the NaNoWriMo chat rooms, lots of you at the finishing line, and everybody else in a month!

Just keep writin’ writin’ writin’ and don’t forget to submit, submit, submit.

*For gauging purposes, this post is an example of 1,100 words.  Can you write that plus a smidgen more every day?