Saturday, November 26, 2011

Word Wars and the Art of Speed Writing

As of this morning, I'm 5000 words from completing NaNoWriMo. In the last two days, I've written 6000 words, and I hope to write another 2000 or so tonight, which will hopefully lead to my finishing this weekend.

I accomplished this with a lot of help. For the last three Fridays, I met with a few other NaNo writers in my region. Together, we sat in Starbucks from 7:30 until close, writing away and occasionally pausing to chat and relieve some of the pressure. For all three of these days, I saw word counts at least over 2000. Yesterday, I wrote 4470 words.

And they weren't bad either. I know that, by its nature, NaNoWriMo encourages you to write a lot of crap in the hopes of finding something good amidst the wreckage. The idea is that putting something on the page, no matter how bad, is better than having nothing. But yesterday I wrote two short stories in the Rosetta universe which could, depending on how things fall into place, wind up at the end of book three (or maybe somewhere in four, if there is a four). They're certainly not ready-to-publish yet, but they're solid stories that are at least tangentially related to my main novel.

To spur each other on, we engaged in word wars. Basically, you set a time limit, and everyone writes as much as possible. Whoever writes the most words wins. We did three last night: two for 30 minutes and one for 20.

I strongly advocate word wars.

Nothing focuses me quite like a competition, especially when my competitor is sitting next to me, clacking away and making me think that she's racing along (turns out she was; I lost two of the three wars). So I just kept writing, never stopping, hardly thinking, and I wound up with something that can be trimmed down to something very nice. I already have the ideas. I just need the extra push to put them on paper.

I also strongly advocate writing in groups. I thought it would be distracting, that I'd want to talk more than type. And sometimes I did, but more often we egged each other on, scolding when we got too distracted. I worked harder on those days than any other, and I counted on them to help when I fell behind in the word count. As a result of last night's (and my increased motivation today) I'm currently 1700 words ahead of where I need to be. And this blog post will only add to that.

Anyway, the moral of this story is to consider writing with a buddy. Whether it's sending your chapters to a friend or getting together with other writers for a little good-natured competing. You might be surprised by the results you get.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Story Hints: How Much Is Too Much?

When I'm writing a novel, I often have many things about the ending planned in advance. I assume this is a common thing for writers, since ultimately the goal is to get to the end. In the case of Rosetta, I also have things planned for the next two books. Obviously, to get to these things, I need to build toward them gradually. In other words, I need to drop hints along the way, so it's not surprising when all of a sudden two characters sleep together in book two. But the question is: how big a hint is too big?

I have a tendency toward dropping too many hints too quickly. I don't want to leave the possibility that the reader might not pick up on it, or that it might be jarring. I have every intention of fixing this problem during editing. But I'm constantly worried that the reader, who is not inside my head and therefore has very little idea of what I'm thinking (though admittedly that problem may not be remedied if they were inside my head), will not understand the way my characters grow or change to fit the end game I have planned for them. So my hints tend to be heavy-handed, more of a smack in the face than a teasing caress.

On the other hand, my friend Kim trusts her readers much more, and she's very cautious about giving away too much. She relies on the reader to put the pieces together on their own, never wanting to give them too much information so they figure it out too early. She likes to give her readers more credit, believing they can reach the same conclusions she has. As a reader, I appreciate this quite a bit. As a writer, I find it incredibly difficult to do.

So maybe this is the question: is it better to err on the side of too much information or too little?

I've always liked those books where you don't pick up on the hints right away, but when you read them a second time (and I'm a chronic re-reader) you suddenly start to see them all for what they are. It's what I've aimed to do with Rosetta, especially with some of my main character's personality traits that I plan to develop more as the book and series go on. Yet I can't help feeling discouraged when I read a chapter back and realize I "casually mentioned" one such aspect four times in one chapter.

I have this problem when Quinn feels anxious about something as well. For example, in the first few chapters, she runs into her ex-boyfriend and spends the entire time thinking about how she acts like a lovesick teenager every time she sees him. Luckily, in the first round of edits, I sought and destroyed many instances of this, leaving just a few to acknowledge that she is, in fact, acting like a 13-year-old girl around him (a character trait that made me grind my teeth together and pray she grew out of it soon). It got so bad I actually broke the fourth wall and yelled at her through the page.

Now in chapters seven, eight and nine, she spends an unhealthy amount of time obsessing over a test she didn't believe she should have passed. This was done partly because I wanted to show her need to prove herself, but it exploded into her solitary focus for about 35 pages.

At what point do I start believing the reader will understand Quinn's insecurities without my harping on it any longer? At what point do I assume they'll understand a dropped hint or a secret smile that may show up several chapters later? And at what point do I trust that a few actions on her part will do more than a thousand long (internal) monologues? I'm just never sure.

Writing Prompts

So I spent the better part of this evening looking for ways to fill my NaNoWriMo word count. After running through my list of projects (Rosetta, Dash, YA, Long Live, and now my newest story Angels), I came up with... writing prompts. So I set about searching for writing prompts online to help get me started.

I have to tell you: they suck.

I don't know if it's just the websites I found, but there were a ton of one-word writing prompts (which can be fun when I'm in the mood for them) and a ton of prompts along the lines of, "Write about something you dislike about yourself." But there were very few longer prompts, containing things that might get your mind working if you're having trouble coming up with an idea of your own. It's all well and good to have the prompt, "Cinnamon," but if you're already a little burned out and not having luck coming up with a concept, sometimes you need a little more.

Maybe it was just the way I was searching. I typed "Writing prompt" into Google and went with the sites on the first page. Is there a better topic to search? Maybe "story starters" or something like that?

When I was in high school, I used to spend the first fifteen minutes of every morning doing free writing. Basically, I'd sit at my desk at 5:15 in the morning and write about whatever could possibly come to mind.

Needless to say, there were a lot of angry journal entries about how much I hated being awake that early.

I liked doing the free writing. I read about it in one of those "How to Be a Writer" books (maybe Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird), and the author talked about how it loosened up her mind for the rest of the day. I noticed a distinct uptick in my creativity whenever I did it. I felt more awake during the day (which was ironic because I woke up earlier), and I felt like my brain was firing on all synapses.

Unfortunately, like most things I did in high school, this faded away as I got older. Eventually, I valued the extra fifteen minutes of sleep more than the burst of energy and creativity I would get from free writing. Nowadays, I wake up and sit on my computer for a half hour before even attempting to move. I could use this time to write/free write.

Instead, I watch reruns of Boy Meets World or play games on Sporcle.

Part of the problem is that I'd rather write than free write, but I'm afraid whatever I wrote at six in the morning would be completely useless--and it probably would be. But I don't want to have to rewrite everything I do, and I don't want to waste time writing things that don't matter (aka stream-of-consciousness free writing), so instead I write nothing. And for some reason my brain is okay with this.

Anyway, at this point I'm just looking to fill my word count, but I will go back to the initial point and pose a question to all of you who are reading (so possibly just Kim): Does anyone out there have a tried-and-true writing prompt site they use?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

NaNo Update

It's amazing. Ten days into National Novel Writing Month, and I'm still within spitting distance of being on schedule. In fact, until yesterday, I was actually over my word count, and I expect to get back to that level again this weekend. While I have actually managed to complete the challenge before (in 2009), this is still a minor miracle for me. What's even more important (and unbelievable) is that I'm still enjoying what I'm writing.

I've spoken at length already about the Novel-We-Speak-Not-Of and how, even though I technically won NaNoWriMo, I felt like I lost. Well, this year's been different so far. I'm doing a couple things differently. I already explained that I'm working on three different novels and possibly some short stories (I also count these blog posts... anything that involves words being written on a page). However, I've found myself focusing on Rosetta a lot in the past week, and I think this is still working because I've planned a lot more of this story than the NWSNO. Also, I don't expect to finish it this month. Removing the pressure is key.

This is actually doing something quite lovely for me: it's reminding me why I want to write in the first place. I know there are a lot of writers who have a love/hate relationship with the actual writing process. I think any task which asks you to put a piece of yourself into it can cause that type of reaction. But for awhile I was only writing because I felt like I ought to. Vaguely, I remembered it was something I liked to do, but it wasn't calling up the same feelings as before. It's been ages since I've reached anywhere near the middle of a story.

I just finished chapter 8 of Rosetta. This is maybe a little less than 1/4 of the book, and it's just now starting to get past the basic introduction and into the main plot. I just introduced Eli, a character whose very presence apparently makes all scenes flow better. And suddenly I went from really struggling to write anything coherent or worthwhile in chapters 5 and 6 to writing my favorite chapter to date in chapter 8.

I feel like I spend a lot of time talking about how I'm finally optimistic about my writing, but this seems to be more than that. I sit down every night to hit my word count and I'm not thinking about the millions of other things I could be doing. I don't turn on reruns of Boy Meets World to procrastinate. I don't even need to be on AIM with a few friends to break up the whole writing process. I wrote for a half hour while on my lunch break today just because I wanted to. It's a lot like being back in high school and carrying my notebook everywhere on the off-chance I had a few minutes to write... just because I liked it. Except now my notebook is Google Docs.

Anyway, this is a fairly meaningless blog post in the scheme of things, but I felt good about what I was doing so far and wanted to share. I hope NaNoWriMo is going well for everyone else, and I'm looking forward to seeing other's results.

Monday, November 7, 2011


I'm currently in the process of writing chapter 8 of Rosetta, the chapter which will introduce Eli, a 24-year-old werewolf who will become quite important throughout the rest of the book and future ones. Eli was probably the second or third character I created, and the first one I had actual expectations for. I know what I want him to do by the end of the book, and while a whole host of other things need to fall into place to make it work, the thing that frightens me most is the Eli won't be the character I need him to be to make those things happen.

This happened to me once before. I started a novel with the intention of the main character getting together with this one guy. And when I got to the part of the outline where they were supposed to get together... nothing. No sparks, no chemistry, no conceivable reason why these two people would ever see each other in a romantic light. He was her sons' principal; she was his students' mother. Nothing more, nothing less.

Instead of rolling with it and changing the plan, I panicked and shut down. This was the concept I'd built my whole story around. If it wasn't going to work, what point was there in continuing it?

I'd like to think I've grown from this, and that I can readjust if Eli is not ready to do what I need him to do at the end of the book. I'd like to think I'm a better writer now than I was when I was 18. And I'd like to think I'm more flexible now. But the problem with having expectations for a character is that then they have the potential to disappoint you.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NaNoWriMo - Day 1

I don't think this will become a daily update on how NaNoWriMo is going, but I finished my word count early today, so I figured I'd throw this in too.

So I'm at 1908 words, which is technically 241 words over what I needed to do today. This will become important in the future, I think, when I have less time to write (or less inclination). I wrote 365 words of Rosetta by hand, then switched to my untitled YA novel (which will henceforth be referred to as simply YA), of which I wrote 1543 words. I made an Excel spreadsheet which breaks this all down for me. It's an incredibly complex Excel spreadsheet. There are charts. I'm very proud of it (kind of stupid proud actually. Perhaps I could have better used that time elsewhere).

I actually thought I'd write more of Rosetta. There are a couple problems with that though. First, Rosetta is handwritten. I carry my notebook with me everywhere and write whenever I get a chance. It's something I started doing in high school, when I was working on my second novel Merry-Go-Round. Back then, I did it so I could write in class (we weren't allowed to use personal laptops in school... probably so kids didn't do exactly what I was doing. Or surf the internet). Now, it's still easier to carry around than my computer. Unfortunately, this means I have to transfer everything to the computer intermittently so I know what my word count is. Plus, it's a slower process in general. Sometimes I like this. During NaNoWriMo, it can become somewhat of a hindrance.

The other problem is that Rosetta is my (current) baby. 1667 words (the target word count per day) is almost a complete chapter. To write a chapter a day, when I've been writing a chapter every two weeks so far, is a big step up. And since I so desperately don't want to screw it up, I'm taking it much more slowly. If I can write a few hundred words per day, I think that's enough for that. Which puts a little more pressure on YA and Dash (of which I wrote nothing today), but I'm less afraid of writing crap for those stories.

I have a short story, tentatively titled Long Live, that I'd like to work on/finish in the next day or two, and I wrote the first sentence of Dash but was too lazy to go upstairs while I was writing and get it. Those are tomorrow's projects. That could all change if I wake up tomorrow and feel like writing anything else. The nice thing about the multiple projects system is that if I ever get bored... I move on.