On the Necessity of Writing Sabbaticals

restIf you’re, like me, an obsessive-compulsive writer who gets stressed out by not finishing things, taking a break can be difficult. This is especially true during November, or as most of you know it, NaNoWriMo. I have never participated in this insane push to write a novel from start to finish in one month, partially because the past six years of my life have been stressful enough without trying to write a whole book in such a condensed period of time, but also because the pressure I put on myself is enough to make me crack without additional external pressure. I seriously hate taking a longer than anticipated time to finish my projects; it’s stressing me beyond belief right now that I haven’t done much with my novel in two months, despite the fact that said lack of progress is due to moving to another continent and taking up a new job. Y’know, normal adult stuff that is naturally going to get in the way of side tasks in general. But something I’m learning right now is the benefit of taking a break from my writing. Not just one project, mind you. I’m talking all of my non-RPG projects. As of today, I’m on a complete writing break for a week. I find that when I’m having trouble writing and am unable to put words to paper, taking time off for a bit, even if it’s just a day or two, helps me re-exert control over the process. Suddenly it’s not that I *can’t* write at that time; I’m *choosing* not to write. That simple act of controlling the situation actually helps me with the writer’s block when I return to my work because then I’m in the mindset of “I chose to rest; now I can go back.” This only works if I take a sabbatical from writing altogether. No idea why, but that’s the tru9h of it. It also relaxes me by taking my brain out of freak-out mode and allows me to redirect my creative energies elsewhere, such as into dancing or learning Polish. If I try writing another project during a mental freak out, I end up just stressing out about how much I should be working on the other project and how annoying it is that I can’t progress any further. Sometimes, you really do just need to take a break. It’s okay to take time off (though maybe not this week, if you’re doing NaNoWriMo). Just make sure that you set parameters for yourself: how long the sabbatical will last, what other hobbies/projects you’ll work on during that time, and what you’ll start work on when the break is over. If you’re exhausted and haven’t gotten much writing done lately, take a break. Have a Kit-Kat. Listen to a Dalek Relaxation Tape. Your stories will thank you for it.

 

NaNo D17: Habits

There is a reeling against NaNo, and I was smacked repeatedly with it yesterday. Instead of firing back at them on Facebook, I decided to blog about it to all of you. I’ve went over why you should do NaNo, but they were ultimately superficial reasons. What I want to talk about now are the NaNo writers, habits, and bad practices which come out of this.

This all came to pass yesterday when someone bemoaned the horrible critique she received from an organization willing to look over NaNo drafts. For this next part, if you take bad news poorly find someone to hold you. I’ll wait.

Alright, now that we’re all cozy, the truth is your first draft is nearly unreadable. It is going to receive a generic “What a nice premise” from the kindest of critics. You keep your first draft in a drawer of shame somewhere, after you edit, only to go back and laugh at it while drinking heavily. By. Your. Self.

It has typos, grammar issues, plot holes that could swallow a super nova, the same character called by three different names, and at least one deus ex machina that the Greek’s would be ashamed to use in their plays. When December hits, or whenever you finish, throw it aside, let it breathe for a week, preferably a month, and then get down to editing. Trust me.

NaNo is also not harming or scaring away future authors. The majority of people who start with NaNo have been saying, “I’m going to write a novel” for the better part of their life. Some of us since we became enamored with Big Friendly Giant fan fictions in second grade, moving on to Jurassic Park in fourth. By fifteen I had a firmer grasp on intellectual property, but just barely.

Most of the people writing for it would still be staring at a blank screen. Or a TV. Or a video game. Or…. Of those who do write, some get no further than 5,000 words. The lowest on my buddy list currently is almost at 150. That’s around 150 more words than they wrote in the past 40 years.

I feel we all fail to remember your average NaNo author is a hobbyist. This isn’t bad. Hobbies are great. Tons of guys play basketball, football, and other sports on the weekend without any hope of getting into the most basic of paid leagues. They aren’t trying to get published, they won’t get past a first draft, they feel no shame and that is excellent.

When I did Tough Mudder, by the end I was a broken rag doll. I looked like crap while many others were running as if they just started. Getting through with grace and making a start in my athletic career were not my goals. Finishing was, and I achieved that. We aren’t instilling future authors with bad habits. We’re giving people something to be proud of, even if it’s a one shot gig.

Some people have the same look after Nov 15th. But less mud. Usually.
I didn’t even realize they took the photo. I hit the “What am I doing here” point. Some people have the same look after Nov 15th. But less mud.

For those wanting to get beyond hobbyist, here are some of the good habits.

Write. The first few pages are difficult. I’m pretty sure I had less pain and anxiety getting my cavity filled two weeks ago. The bill for that filling is another story.

Once you get rolling, keep rolling. Like Juggernaut, what you leave behind may not be pretty, but you’ll have a path and your momentum will often times carry you. You can always pave and beautify later. If you stop, it takes a lot of effort to get going again.

Don’t edit until you’re done. Maybe you’re rare and can do this, but I’ve never heard of a single person capable of making any substantial forward progress when editing while they write. They may edit the last paragraph or two as they read what they wrote last night to remember where they were going. The people I know who edited the first chapter after they finished have been on chapter one for the better part of two years. The rest finally quit.

Set deadlines. Sure you can break them, but the guilt of failure eating away at us has a tendency to make us strive for more. Or go catatonic. From what I can tell, however, if you’re going catatonic because of guilt, you’re definitely not going to survive the critics. Try to stand firm on your deadlines. If you miss, adjust.

Here are the bad habits. No one cares about your progress. At least they don’t three times a day. Or once a day. Pick a day, like Friday. Release an update around 3pm, when everyone at work is bored and looking for a distraction. Brief, to the point, and add some humor. If you’re just updating word count, put up a counter or use Twitter.

November is the only time you break this rule. People are there to help you and everyone shares. You don’t want it to be the norm, but it sure does feel good for 30 days.

Edit your work. Not after finishing chapter one. After you write “The End.” As stated above, draft one is not up for public consumption. A rough draft is like a road: until it’s finally paved, you don’t want to drive over it. This includes excerpts. Put up those “road closed” signs.

Don’t ask for our opinion on passages. On ideas. On really finely detailed minutia. You have friends. If you need literary friends, go make some. It’s easy to talk to us through a computer screen. In real life we’ll likely stab you repeatedly. It’s just good business practice to get rid of competition.

A final word. People are under the assumption you plan for 11 months, and write for one. I usually write for three, edit for the rest of the year, and start planning in mid September. If November doesn’t work out as your novel writing month, don’t sweat it. Make it work on your schedule. I find the deadlines and excitement get me moving and catapult me well through November.

This is something we can all benefit from, from those who do NaNo to those who disdain it. While I know we all write in our own way, NaNo can teach a lot of great habits. The bad, more often than not, are incidental, not directly taught by the event. Find what works for you. Cut out what obviously doesn’t. If you do it as a hobby, sweet. If you want something more, there are plenty of resources to help you get past the first step.

Staying in Practice with Short(er) Prose

“You’re doing NaNoWriMo, right?” people keep asking me.

“Uh, no,” I reply. “Not this time. Sorry. I’ve got too much else going on right now.”

“Come on! You should do it!”

“I mean, maybe I’ll try a little bit. But, realistically, I just don’t see it happening this time.”

“Lame!” they chide me.

And I almost wonder if they’re right. NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month, for those unfamiliar) is designed to help you actually write something even in the midst of your busy schedule by setting reasonable goals for each day and having many people all writing at once to help keep each other accountable. And I know I’ve been the one on the other side of the spectrum at times, encouraging and/or pressuring my friends to be as gung ho about creative writing as I am. So what does it say about me that I’m not willing or able to put forth the effort this time around?

I did participate in and successfully complete NaNoWriMo three years in a row, but that was back when I was still an undergrad. Now that I’ve moved up in my education and taken on more commitments, this is my third year in a row not doing NaNo, and I do kind of miss it. I even have a plot outline in my brain that I’ve been wanting to get out on paper for some time now. But it’s looking again like this November is not going to be that time.

The good thing, though, is that even though I’m too busy to do NaNoWriMo, it doesn’t mean that I’m not writing. It doesn’t even mean that I’m not writing for fun. As I touched on in another post, while it’s been a while since I’ve tackled any larger works of fiction, I’ve shifted my attention in recent years toward shorter prose of various different styles. In addition to writing for this blog, I write articles for an ezine, I’ve dabbled or tried my hand at other online magazines and forums, I recently put out a few posts full of lighthearted anecdotes on my personal blog, and have of course been writing academic papers for my grad classes too. While part of me looks forward to the day when I can work on my novel(s) again, I dare say that I’m not exactly being slack in my writing right now.

Image taken from studentleadercollective.org
Image taken from studentleadercollective.org

Maybe you’re like me, and you want to stay in practice with your writing, but the thought of a huge, lofty project seems daunting or unrealistic right now. If that’s the case, then you may benefit from hearing what I’ve been doing to try to stay in practice even in the busy times of life:

  • Be disciplined. We’ve probably all heard before that good writing requires discipline and dedication. I don’t really have anything new or profound to add to that conversation, except that I’ve been finding that it really is true. While it’s not a novel, working on short prose and academic writing like I’ve been can be plenty daunting on its own, especially if you’ve taken on several different projects like I have. This week I put out two posts on my personal blog, because they had been in my head for a while and I wanted to get them out into the world, but I also had this blog post due and the next article for the ezine, along with at least five pages of a rough draft for a grad paper. How do I do it all in the same week? The only answer I can really give is discipline and making writing a priority. Lately, after all my other homework and reading is done, I’ve usually been using the last hour or so (sometimes more) of my day before bedtime to write, instead of to watch TV or whatever. It’s a good time for me to get a lot of thoughts out in a relaxed manner (as long as I go back and edit later when I’m less tired). Of course, each person’s schedules and habits are different, but I’m willing to bet that you have time to write in your day if you just work a little bit and prioritize to find it.
  • Be flexible. Being flexible can incorporate a few different things. For me, working on several short pieces at once, it means that I have to be able to go back and forth easily; sometimes I’ll work on two or three or four different pieces in the same day or night, and I have to be able to focus on each one without letting the mental shift feel too jarring. But flexibility also means writing what you can when you can. If you’re not sure what to write in the absence of one grand, overarching project, then just take whatever smaller opportunities come your way, or start a journal or blog about your own personal experiences. If you don’t have a huge block of free time in your day that you can devote to writing, then use the smaller times you do have, and cram it into five or ten minute slots wherever you can. Since there’s no one definite formula for good or consistent writing, you need to find whatever works for you and be willing to do it, even if what works for you is drastically different from one day to the next.

    Image taken from busywriting.net
    Image taken from busywriting.net
  • Be creative. If you’re used to writing creative fiction, then the idea of shorter prose may not appeal to you as much at first. But writing blogs, articles, and other short works doesn’t mean you can’t still be creative and let your own unique voice shine through. There’s not room in this post to delve thoroughly into what constitutes the genre of creative nonfiction, but it’s basically telling a story the same way you would in fiction–except that the story just happens to be true. You can still give things your own interpretation and your own personal spin and narration. Just because you’re writing something short and (arguably) more serious doesn’t mean you can’t express yourself and have fun with it, too.

I realize I haven’t said anything particularly profound and new here, but this is what has been working for me recently. Still, if anyone has any good tips on how to balance writing short projects with everything else in life and also work on a novel somewhere in there too, I’d be glad to hear them! 😛 But whatever you’re writing this month, keep at it and be consistent! You never know how it might help you stay “in shape” as a writer and improve your craft for the future.

NaNo Day 3: Writer Struggle

I’m on the road in a rainstorm. The winds gust with all the volitility of a cat given too much attention. My driver is suspect in his abilities at best. It doesn’t help we’re in a cargo van filled to the top quite literally, making the rear view mirror a false comfort. In vest and tie, I sit here, on a full stomach and a little hard cider, with the understanding I must write. When I finish this, hopefully within the hour and a half it will take me to get home, I have NaNo writing to do.

I also need to do my dishes. Clothes should get put away. There is an amazing TV show on Netflix I really want to watch. Destiny won’t play itself. My back aches, my legs feel like metal rods were put in them (standing on concrete for hours on end gives a level of pain that’s difficult to simulate), and I have two presentations to ready for a major meeting on Wednesday. Then off to San Antonio Thursday through Sunday for a men’s church leader retreat. In 27 days I will still have 50,000 words. This is not arrogance, dreaming, or foolhardy passion, though I’ve plenty of all three. This is dedication to what I want to be, what I want to achieve, and where my goals are leading me.

These habits do not die with the end of November. I will write when I don’t want to. I will sacrifice video games. Sometimes I’ll sacrifice sleep or eating. Fortunately currently I’m never hungry from stress, so it’s not like I miss it. Some days the writing will be crap filling up plot holes, and I will hope when I go over it again, something nice grew. I will edit when I don’t feel like it and my inner voice is throwing a temper tantrum.

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You have those days, too. Sometimes you give in. The house is miraculously clean. The children somehow were fed. An entire season of Supernatural was knocked off on Netflix. And sometimes you say, “Bad inner voice. Sit down, shut up, and let daddy get to work.” Or mommy, or your real name, perhaps creator of worlds is the preferred moniker. I’m not here to judge if you’re not.

What I’m trying to say is this cannot end on December first. There are disciplines being formed right now, and while you don’t have to write at the pace you currently are, you should be writing daily. You should be writing something, no matter what it is. Maybe tomorrow all that happens is you write in your journal. Perhaps Thursday you get out your blog. Friday you spit out 200 words for your novel, curl up with your stuffed animal named Blackie, and wonder why anyone would read what you just wrote. Blackie is a 25 year old Pound Puppy. Remember, this is a no judging zone.

The point is, every day you work on your resolve, no matter how little, is another day it’ll be easier tomorrow. Tomorrow you will hammer out 2,000 words and you won’t feel like vomiting. You will flesh out a character, step back, and lose your breath because it’s almost like you created someone real. Your mind will buzz from a plot which is becoming epic and giving you chills.

Don’t give up. If you’re serious about writing, and I do acknowledge and respect the hobbyist in it for the 30 day thrill, do not lose these persistent habits when December hits, even if you cut back a little. Write like a demon. Edit like a grammar teacher. Be passionate as a high schooler on prom night.

Hope your writing is inspiring you as it will no doubt inspire others. Keep those word counts up!

Scene Challenge of the Week

nanowrimoWell, as Paul pointed out yesterday, NaNoWriMo is coming up in November! I won’t be participating for a couple of reasons: 1) I don’t write that fast on a good month and 2) I have no time to write. However, if it makes anyone feel better, I will have written about 260-300 pages worth of papers this semester. I am actually hoping to publish one of the papers that I’m writing, we’ll see if that happens. I do encourage all of you to challenge yourselves. If you have the time and the gumption, take on NaNoWriMo. Your result might be unfinished, you might quit half way through, you might wind up with trash, or you might write something great. However, unless you make a serious attempt, you’ll never know. Anyway, I imagine that you’re here for your scene challenge. If you don’t know the rules: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your challenge: Go troll the web (preferably with a friend). Find something that strikes you as interesting and try to write a scene of at least 300 words describing the situation, scenario, scene, whatever. This could take multiple formats. For instance, you could write as though you were the one doing whatever you found. You could write from the perspective of a fictional character reading the story that you read. You could even write the scene as though it was an article or an incident report. The form is entirely up to you. When you’ve both finished your scenes, trade and read what the other person wrote. How did your perspective and personality affect the scene that you wrote? What did each of you focus on? What details are present in both stories, and what details are unique to each? Consider your particular viewpoints, attitudes, beliefs, and emotional connections. How did each of this affect your scene?

Why NaNoWriMo

I was trying to stick to the theme of video games, and I even have the next post planned out. However, Sunday was the relaunch of the NaNo site, which means I could put in information for my next novel. I also have seen a lot of anti-NaNo posts. So here is my pro-NaNo post.

First, a disclaimer. Everyone writes differently. Everyone has their own way of doing it. Just as we respond differently to different stimuli physically, we do mentally. NaNo is not for everyone. I also firmly believe no one should ever be subjected to the sadistic practice of reading a NaNo draft. It’s just mean. With very few exceptions, they’re unreadable, there’s a lot in there that’s not very good, and they all need a lot of editing. A lot of editing. As Chris Baty would say, “Make no mistake: you will be writing a lot of crap.” Search his quotes. They’re massively inspiring.

Second, for those who do not know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. Write 50,000 words in November.

With that said, here is why I do NaNo, why I think you should do NaNo, and why I even had my students do NaNo. That’s right, I’m doing a list. God save us all.

1. Women

That’s right. Women. I first participated in the community last year. The first two years, I hung out on my own and I lost. Last year I won. And there are a lot of gorgeous women who attend these gatherings. I think there’s a correlation between this and my victory.

2. Public shaming creates commitment

We’ve all heard this one. When you go out and say “I’m writing 50,000 words this month,” people look at you funny. When December rolls along they’re going to ask, “So did you make it?” There will be a twinkle in their eye, a sneer in their lip, and a condescending look to their face. You’ll want to punch them. If you don’t finish, you will hide in a corner and cry. Don’t cry. Get your 50,000 words, wear your proud “I won” shirt ($20 to claim victory), and it’ll look like you punched that smug co-worker in the face.

I even shame my notebooks when they disappear on me for two weeks. Glad I took all those notes for my novel in it.
I even shame my notebooks when they disappear on me for two weeks. Glad I took all those notes for my novel in it.

3. It feels good

When you get the punched in the face look without assault charges, it feels amazing. My students participated in NaNo when I was an English teacher. It was a month long, and many of them still write to this day because of it. I hear many collaborative fanfictions are floating out there and it’s been three years. Why? Because it feels good. It’s like drinking. You enter a haze, it feels great, but when you look back on it you wonder what you were thinking. The awesome thing about a novel is you can edit it to be better. If your friends took photos of your night out, it’s too late to photoshop.

4. Otherwise you won’t do it

This is to those out there who say “Tomorrow.” Guess what? It’s never tomorrow. Tomorrow is always tomorrow and never today. NaNo is about today. When I did Tough Mudder, I did it because I had to get in shape today. When I did NaNo it was to scream out I’m writing today. When I did mission work in Guatemala it was to show love today. Because most days I go around with a frown, kicking kittens. I’m not sure how to put this delicately, but you could die in your sleep, get struck by a meteor, get hit by a bus, pick up the glass of anti-freeze when two cups are placed in front of you. Live today. Do NaNo. Volunteer. Hike the Grand Canyon because TM is ridiculously expensive now.

5. Dates

Guys, seriously. This is like going to yoga class, but the women can’t see that you have no idea what you’re doing. You just pluck away at your computer about your day, and they all think you’re an inspired genius. “Let the dog out today. He chased a squirrel. A brown squirrel.” You’re the next Hemmingway.  And when she asks what you’re writing about? It’s a memoir. Follow it up with you’d love to find out more about her novel over dinner. I’ve gotten dates out of this. Granted, I’m writing an epic following the great and proud tradition of barrel-chested men drinking and killing things, but the women still have no idea what you’re writing.

That’s it. Five points, and two of them are aimed at a specific demographic. I hope you consider participating. If this isn’t your thing, I do hope you’re at least writing. For those on the fence, for those already frothing at the mouth for midnight on November first, get planning. Write up a few characters, a couple ideas, three bullet points on what you may want, or even a full blown outline.

We are all brothers and sisters in literacy. Keep up the good work, and happy planning.

Time is(n’t) on your side

I saw on a site that there are a lot of issues writers need to overcome. One of them was time. And lets be honest, almost everyone out there comments on the issue of how writers don’t have time. I want to tell you why they all say this: it’s true.

I work from eight to five if I’m lucky. Otherwise I have business dinners, early mornings to prepare for meetings, friends who want me to play board games, brothers who like playing video games, working out so I don’t die of cardiac arrest, dating (this doesn’t take a lot of time for me, but some are luckier in love), reading, and numerous other activities. Some of you are in sports. Others crochet. Perhaps you like putting more than ten minutes into cooking so it tastes like something.

At the end of the day, we don’t have time. JK Rowling wrote on napkins in a cafe when she could. Stephen King was a high school English teacher, writing manuscripts in his free time. If you know what it takes to teach, I have no clue how this man did it and remained married and employed. I wrote my first draft while teaching, but it was only capable due to a break up. My family kept saying they were worried about me because of how much I kept to myself. I was writing.

http://www.hdwpapers.com/steampunk_ancient_clock_wallpaper-wallpapers.html Check out other awesome steampunk wallpapers.
http://www.hdwpapers.com/steampunk_ancient_clock_wallpaper-wallpapers.html Check out other awesome steampunk wallpapers.

The moral of the story is you don’t get to have time for the first book. You might not for the second, third, fourth, or any of them. Writing is sacrifice. You are pouring out your soul, and you either truly want to pour your soul out for all to fall in love with and rip to shreds, or you want to give into the desires of this world. That was a little over dramatic, but we are writers for a reason. However, it is true to a point. If you want to get that first book finished, you need to make sacrifices.

Prioritize what you want. If writing is what you want, make an hour or half hour for it each night, whether you’re writing, plotting, planning, creating in some facet, you need to give yourself that time. So this is a short motivational kick in the pants. If you want to write, you need to give it your time. It will be frustrating, like working out. It will be exhausting, like having a child (I exaggerate again). It will wear you down and chew you up. But you love it. That’s why you do it. And if you can’t give it this time, then you don’t love it yet. But don’t worry. Writing isn’t just a fling. It’s a committed relationship. The love can come with time.

Write well. I hope your NaNoWriMo is going well. I should be at 40,000 words by the time this publishes (or 42,000 if I’m really on pace for what I’m hoping). I haven’t won NaNo for the first three years in it. Now I’m in love. You can be too.