What I Learned From NaNoWriMo

Photo credit: Doree Weller

Photo credit: Doree Weller

I joined NaNoWriMo about 4 years ago, and I’ve never “won.”

For those of you who don’t know it, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, and it challenges writers to complete a novel in the month of November.  It calls a novel 50,000 words, which is 1,667 words a day.

In the past four years, my commitment has varied, but I’ve tried to do it, and each time I’ve failed.

This year, I went into it determined to just get words on paper.  I wasn’t going to worry about whether or not they were good, but just go for quantity.  Some writers encourage this practice because just writing can be a key to creativity, and they say that it can override the self-consciousness that holds some writers back.

In past years, I haven’t been able to finish because I struggled over what to write.

You see, I have a problem with middles.  I do beginnings great, and endings well, but the middle gets me stuck.  I’m not the only writer with that problem.  I remember back when I attended a writer’s conference, they called it “Muddle in the Middle.”

I had written 15,000 words of this novel, and it wasn’t working.  I knew it was bad, and I didn’t like where the plot was going, but I decided to go with it, because the idea was just to get 50,000 words on paper in November.  It didn’t feel right to me, but I wanted to try it.

Then I went to a meeting of my writer’s group.  Another group member, who did not know I was doing NaNoWriMo mentioned that he was going to start submitting his finished novel to agents in December, because in reading agents’ blogs, they were inundated with garbage novels after NaNoWriMo.  The other group member made some disparaging comments about NaNoWriMo.

I heard other things that night that made me doubt myself.  Other group members had criticisms that hurt me personally.  Usually, I can take criticism without taking it personally (it took a LOT of practice, believe me), but on this particular night, I couldn’t separate it from myself.

I was sad that following week, and did a lot of soul searching.  I stopped working on my NaNoWriMo novel.  I even thought about giving up writing completely; it all felt kind of pointless.

But when I got over feeling sorry for myself, I started to look at some things with myself and my writing.

I’ve known for a long time that I’m not disciplined or organized in any aspect of my life, and I’ve used the excuse that “I’m creative” to get out of considering to do things differently.

I read a bunch of writer’s blogs and information from various sources.  I took notes on what I read and really thought about it.  I realized that I haven’t treated this process as if I’m serious about it.  I’ve done some of the work, but not enough.

NaNoWriMo is great for people struggling with self-doubt, who need to get practice getting words on paper.  I’ve read that you need 10,000 hours of practice to “master” anything.  NaNoWriMo can be helpful at getting some of those hours.

I’ve written 3 novels completely.  The first one wasn’t good.  The second was better.  The third will be publishable once it’s edited heavily.  I have seven unfinished novels.  When I counted them up and really thought about that number, I realized that there’s something wrong with my process.  I like the ideas of each of those novels, so why haven’t I finished them?  What happens is that I get an idea and get excited about it, then put words on paper without any clear idea of how I’m going to get from A to Z.  It’s less exciting when I need to get down to figuring out how the dots connect, so I move on to a different project.

One of my favorite quotes is:

“Amateurs wait for inspiration.  The rest of us just get up and go to work.”  -Chuck Close

I’ve been quoting that for years, but I’m not sure I ever really thought about what it meant.  Once I did that soul searching, I realized that my lack of discipline is a serious problem.  I saw myself waking up one day 10 years from now and looking at my dozens of unfinished novels, wondering why I’m no further along in my writing career than I was when I was 8 years old.

Something had to change.

As I said, I started reading, because that’s what writers do when stuck; they read.  And I journaled.  And talked to a friend.  Doing those three things helped me realize that I’ve been a lazy writer.  Because I’m good at it, I didn’t feel like I had to do any work on it.  And if I started novels and didn’t finish them, I just hadn’t found the right idea, right?

Wrong.

My major problem is that I don’t map out stories before I start.  I get an idea and I start them with no clear idea of where I’m going.  I like to let the characters lead, but letting the characters lead doesn’t mean that I don’t have to know what the path looks like and the destination.  Knowing the path doesn’t mean they can’t take the scenic route or choose the fork in the road; it just means that I have to have an idea of the direction they’re going in.

The question I had to ask myself was, “Why do I write?”  First and foremost, I write for myself.  I write because I love it, because I have stories to tell, and I want to tell them.  I want to know what happens next.  But I also would like to be published, mostly because I want to share my stories.  If I live until 100 and never get anything published, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll probably still write.  I don’t know if I could stop if I tried.  🙂

I’ve always been a fan of Query Shark, as the query letter is my nemesis.  One of the things she says is that every word must be the right word.  Dean Koontz says something similar.  His writing process is to polish every page and examine every word until he moves on in the story.  I’ve been reading those two pieces of information for years, and I don’t think I ever really understood them.  As a writer, it is my responsibility to make sure the work says what I want it to say.

That disappointing week was difficult for me, but I’m proud of myself, that I was able to really look at what hurt me and learn from it.  When my first novel is finally being published, I know that I’m going to look back on that week and realize that was a turning point for me, and my taking a hard look at myself will be what makes it possible.

I didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo, but I won something much more valuable.

Off the Beaten Path

IMG_1322Recently, I was on my way to work and I noticed that the mountains stood clearly outlined, and white puffy clouds crowded our blue sky. Having clouds at all in Arizona is an event!  I was running early, so I decided to drive down a few roads and see if I could get a picture of that spectacular view. It took about 15 minutes and 3 roads to find an unobstructed view,but i did it.

I love detours. Not the kind that involves “Men at work” signs, but the kind that involves wondering, “what’s down that road?”

I don’t take detours often enough. Part of it is that I don’t have time, but another factor is that I don’t think about it. I get in my car and start driving, so intent on my destination that I don’t think of anything else.

I’ve been thinking about ruts lately, and how easy it is to just do the same thing over and over, mindlessly. When was the last time you took a detour?

Q is for Quotes

photoI love quotes, and have printed quotes hanging all over my office.  I collect quotes in documents, put them on my Facebook page, and occasionally will bring them out in conversation.  Quotes feel to me like mini-poetry, thought provoking and beautiful.

“Words — so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

“A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” -John Barrymore

“Get busy living or get busy dying.” -Stephen King

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” -Anais Nin

“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” ~Leo Buscaglia

“Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong.” -Winston Churchill

“There’s something liberating about not pretending. Dare to embarrass yourself. Risk.” -Drew Barrymore

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” -Hippocrates

“You can turn painful situations around through laughter. If you can find humor in anything, even poverty, you can survive it.” -Bill Cosby

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” -Francis Bacon

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration.  The rest of us just get up and go to work.”  I’ve seen this credited to Stephen King and to Chuck Close.  I’m not sure who said it, but I love it.

If you have any favorites, I’d love to hear them.  A great place to find quotes for any occasion is Brainy Quotes.  Everyday can be a great day.  Just start with a positive attitude and move on from there.

Inspiration from Pictures

I would love to be able to sketch so I could put some of my pictures on paper that end up in my head.  I’m not a very visual person, so being able to describe what’s in my head is difficult.  My stick figures look like a 6 year old drew them, so I’ve learned to compensate by taking pictures and using other people’s pictures for inspiration.  I love to take pictures of everything.  I call it “taking notes.”  And I can’t delete “bad” pictures either.  I try to, but I want to keep every photo I’ve ever taken, even if it has my thumb prominently displayed.  Even if the next shot was the one I intended.

I admire people who can take pictures, real art.  I recently found a website for Nicolas Ruel, who takes pictures around the world in a series he calls “8 seconds.”  He leaves the shutter open for 8 seconds, and ends up with these incredible, dream-like works of art.  If you’re a photography fan or need some inspiration, check out his page.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Stylish Imitation

I don’t remember ever thinking that I wanted to be a writer, when I was growing up.  I just wrote stories and poetry.  A lot of them.  I showed them to friends and family, but no one seemed all that interested.  It didn’t matter if they were or not.  I wasn’t writing for others, just like I didn’t read for others.  I just wrote because I had to.  I wrote because I had words and voices in my head, and if I didn’t put them on paper… well, I don’t know what would have happened.  Luckily, I never had to find out.

As a little girl, I remember my parents read stories to me, over and over and over, probably until their eyes bled.  I could never get enough stories.  My grandmother told me fairy tales, but not the ones that most people know.  She told me about Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, but also about Snow White and Rose Red.  I remember my grandmother wanting me to tell her stories back, and even then, I was no verbal storyteller.  Even now, I can’t talk about my day without boring others inside of 30 seconds.  Write about it?  Sure, of course.  Tell about it?  Um, well, uh, sure.  I mean, I guess I can tell you about it.  Let’s see, uh… I got up this morning and had coffee.  No, I didn’t have coffee this morning, just orange juice.  Or was it this morning?…  You get the picture.

The first author I ever fell in love with was Dean Koontz.  At the library or at the bookstore, I could browse shelves for hours, reading back of books and finding interesting titles.  All that changed after I read Watchers when I was 12.  Suddenly, I had a favorite author, and a focus for my obsession.  I’ve never lost that first love, though there have been others since then.  There’s been Stephen King, John Saul, Nora Roberts, Phyllis A. Whitney, Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwall, Kay Hooper, and Louisa May Alcott.

I would never attempt to imitate anyone’s style.  Not that I think there’s anything wrong with it, but my voice is influenced by all these writers and many more.  I’ve taken mental notes of the best (and the worst), and try to incorporate it into my writing.

It’s fortuitous that this week’s writing challenge is about this, and that there was an interesting interview with Dean Koontz published on Beliefnet.  Koontz gives good advice, but what I think it boils down to is: Assimilate everything, but be yourself.  Check it out.

 

The Reality of Unreality

I believe that inspiration for writing can be found anywhere and everywhere… I just have to keep my eyes and ears open.  If I’m not paying attention, I might miss things.

I like to read and write because I love to immerse myself in a story.  I can be anyone, go anywhere, do anything.  The constraints of real life can float away, almost as if they don’t exist at all.  In books and novels, we get to skip the boring parts. Unless it’s integral to the plot line, we never have to cook meals, go to the bathroom, have a bad hair day, stock up on shampoo, or gain any weight.

People can fall in love and get married within 200 pages, and it seems just fine.  The FBI or CIA can take over your computer and blow up your house, and you don’t have to worry about filing insurance claims.  You can get shot and say, “It’s only a scratch.”

That’s why I laugh when people tell me that a story was “unrealistic.”  It’s all unrealistic!  It’s not a webcam of someone’s life, it’s a story.  I believe that as readers and watchers, we get the best experience when we suspend disbelief.  I’ll believe anything, as long as it makes sense in the context of the story.  If the story’s poorly put together, then it strains the limits of even my imagination. But a well-told story about something fantastic can be… well… fantastic.  (Okay, bad pun.  Sorry.)

All this may be one of the best arguments to have others read and critique.  Maybe the story makes perfect sense to the writer, but that’s because you’ve connected the dots in your head.  Writing at its best will connect (or imply a connect) those dots for readers.  We all mess up sometimes though and miss those vital connections.

Just keep writing, keep reading, stay open minded, and it will all come together.

“…In the Midst of Living.”

I love quotes.  I have quotes printed and posted all over my office wall, in my journal, and stored in my cranium.  I often take a quote and use it as a personal journal prompt.  I read a quote this morning, and had to share it:

“My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.”— Anais Nin

Oh, how true!  I can’t tell you how often I’ve been doing something– anything other than writing– and the idea for a “great” story has popped into my head.  When I stare at my computer screen and wait for ideas, they don’t come.  All that happens is that I get frustrated and end up doing something else.

I believe that writing takes discipline, determination, and a great love of words, but maybe I’ve been going about my discipline and determination in an unnecessarily difficult way.  Maybe forcing myself to sit in a room in front of my computer is not the way to go.

When I want to sit down to write, I’m going to take my laptop out of my house.  Anywhere out of my house, even if it’s just my back porch.

It’s sort of gloomy today here in Arizona.  It’s warm, about 60 here on my back porch, but cloudy and overcast.  Still, there’s a bird flitting around in my orange jubilee.  One of my dogs is whining because she won’t bring me the ball, and I won’t chase her to throw it for her.  My other dog is guarding our perimeter, making sure that nothing interferes with our safety.  It’s quiet.  There are no dogs barking and no children shouting, but the quiet doesn’t have the same quality it does inside my house.  It’s a more active quiet.

It’s great to be here.  What inspires you?

Inspirational Photos

It’s no secret that I love photos.  I’m especially fond of broken down places and nature photography, though I love just about anything beautiful or interesting.

PDN recently had a “Great Outdoors” photography contest, and the pictures are amazing.  I love using pictures as a jumping off point for creating a new world or asking “what if?”  If nothing else, it’s wonderful to take a few minutes to remember that there’s so much beauty in the world.

For the clif notes version of the contest pictures, click here:

http://news.yahoo.com/photos/great-outdoors-photo-contest-1315864032-slideshow/

For full access to the contest pictures, go here:

http://www.worldinfocuscontest.com/

Inspiration

Sometimes people ask me where I get my ideas.  I’ve seen published authors comment on this as well, and though many people don’t like that question, I don’t mind.  I love talking about stories and plot points and the psychology of characters.  In fact, I’ve had people ask me questions and gone on and on until my audience is pretty much comatose.

So, where do I get my ideas?  Where don’t I get them?  I get them from news stories, the grocery store, my dogs, my husband, a snippet of lyrics from a song, a book, an overheard conversation.  There’s a ton of inspiration out there waiting for writers to capture it, twist it, and put it on paper.  Sometimes I’ll take an idea, or a word, and run with that.  Now, some of the stuff I write is bad, and for my eyes only.  But what makes someone a writer is not necessarily the finished product.  Editors can help with that.  What makes someone a writer is the actual act of writing.  The fact that you have to write, just like you have to breathe or eat.

It doesn’t matter what I write.  I have notes, phrases, quotes all over.  I keep meaning to get a system.  Maybe I’ll make it my New Year’s resolution.  Again.  The fact is that I have to be surrounded by words, my own and that of others.

So, if you’re a writer or just curious about the process, inspiration is all around you.  Stop, look around, and get writing.  On paper, or even just in your head.