Wednesday, October 28, 2015

NaNoWriMo Starts in FIVE days! Are You Ready?

I admit, I am no where near ready for NaNoWriMo this year. I've got a great setting, a few strong characters, and a story that I love. Plus, I've been doing tons of research. In the past, this would have been enough for me. I'd take these elements and see where they'd lead. I'd always end up with a sort-of story. It'd have a great beginning, a muddy middle, and an ending that didn't quite add up. Though I never regretted it because I learned a lot about my characters and what their story was... and wasn't.
Plus, by the end, I had a draft of a novel! Which is super exciting. It's even more exciting at the end of November because I'm finishing my draft around the same time as many of my friends are finishing theirs. It's the best part of NaNoWriMo!

But this time around, I want more. I want to come to the end of November with a coherent story. It's okay if the writing is horrible. In fact, writing at the NaNo pace, it's unavoidable. But that doesn't bother me because bad writing is also one hundred percent fixable. What I don't want, is another meandering text - chapters, scenes that were born just because I needed the word count. To avoid this common pitfall, I'm spending a serious amount of time thinking about my plot and learning  my characters' flaws and motivations.

So what's my game plan? This year, I'm outlining my novel using the plotting concepts in the SAVE THE CAT series by Blake Snyder. While I have not read SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES, I did find the last book, SAVE THE CAT STRIKES BACK to be even better than the first.

These books are intended for screenwriters, but the elements of a novel are not all the different. No matter what your medium, Snyder's advice is invaluable. He has mind-blowing tips on character development and story tricks that will strengthen any manuscript. But the true gem of his work is his ideas on structure. Snyder beautifully explains what needs to be present in each of the three acts and how to map them out on his famous Beat Sheet. He further teaches you how to use index cards to make sure that your storyboard not only makes sense, but that the pacing is solid. Doing all this work before you start drafting gives you an edge because by the time you are done writing, you don't have a typical first draft. Your writing may be messy, but the storyline makes sense because all the important plot points are in the right places. How cool is that? Writing 50,000 pre-planned words in a month doesn't seem quite so daunting.

The scary part, of course, is getting all those plot points lined up before November 1st. It's difficult and frustrating work. But what I like about it, is that if something isn't working, I've figured that out on a notecard, not after writing an entire scene or chapter. But what if, you ask, a character does something unexpected? What if your characters get into an unplanned fight and now they won't talk to each other?

It does stink when half of your storyboard is wrecked. Unfortunately, unforeseen events do happen. But then you can scribble out a few scene cards to see if you like this new direction. Maybe it's better. Maybe it's not. You no longer have to keep writing in that vein just to find out. Snyder's method helps you develop a map of your novel, but you are still free to take take detours.

NaNoWriMo starts in five days, but my Beat Sheet still has holes. My bulletin board is bare and my notecards are in a neat stack on my desk. I'd hoped to be finished with this by now and to be preparing my home for a month of near-neglect. Instead, I'm brainstorming and planning out my plot points. Because this year, I know what I want out of NaNoWriMo. And I'm going after it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Mindfulness and Creativity

A lot has been going on with me this year - the kind of things that forced my writing to the back burner for awhile. While the stress hasn’t let up, I cannot ignore my work any longer. It feels like I will fall apart if I don’t sit down and tell some stories. I remember thinking that Stephen King’s quote, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around,” was a beautiful idea. Now I know how very true it is.

I finally sat down at my desk, but the words wouldn’t come. So, I did all the usual things I do when I get writer’s block - I read, I tried writing prompts, I lit candles… but the words that arrived were stilted and forced. I was crushed. And a little scared. What if this was permanent? Nonsense, I told myself. The words will come. But maybe… I should think about rebooting my imagination.

I wasn’t sure how to do that, but I did realize that stress was probably part of the problem. I decided to focus on mindfulness. I’d been so wrapped up in the overwhelming amount of things that I needed to accomplish, that I’d go through each chore, focused on what I had to do next. I rarely took time to pay attention to the task at hand. If I was gardening, I’d think about how I still had to wash the breakfast dishes.
I could just picture Yoda pointing his finger at me and telling me that my mind was never on where I was or what I was doing. It was definitely time for a change. I’d heard that practicing mindfulness would help reduce my stress, but could it also help revive my imagination? The answer is, yes!

The best example, is what happened when my schedule changed and I had to drive nearly eighty miles a day. Obviously, mindfulness is a part of driving so I wasn’t planning to practice it behind the wheel. It turned out, however, to be the best place to use mindfulness to boost my imagination.

There is one stretch of road that I absolutely love. It’s a two lane highway through woods, grasslands, and marshes. There is not one stoplight, store, or business for six miles. There isn’t even a farm stand in the summer. It is fast, a little curvy, and comes with a few hills. Pared with emotionally stirring music, it easily makes my list of all time favorite roads to drive. The trees, the blowing grasses, the shadows… even the telephone poles look dramatic when set to the the soundtrack from INCEPTION, or DIVERGENT. 

But when I hit that stretch of road during morning rush hour, I was dumbfounded by the traffic. Sure, the merge would be bad, but once that was over, why wouldn’t we all just fly down the road like usual? It’s still a mystery.

It was agonizing, crawling down the road that first day. But a day or two later, I remembered to be mindful. After all, frustration wasn’t going to improve anything. The only thing that could improve was my attitude. So, I let go of my frustration, and began to pay attention to my surroundings. At this pace, I could pay attention to individual plants that grew along the roadside. I saw that one type of grass had rusty seed heads while another’s were black. I noticed the grassland wildflowers and the cattails of the marshes. I could smell the plants still wet with dew, and listened to the birds. I noticed how the sunlight gave the telephone wires a slivery glint. I noticed a discarded oil can on the side of the road, a patch of wild asters growing around it. I imagined the flowers grew there on purpose - just to defy our human litter. 

I fell  in love with this road again - in a whole new way.

This experience helped spark my creativity because I spent fifteen minutes of my day finding beautiful things that moved me. I also spent part of that time imagining myself hiking through those woods and grasslands - or living there as a wild animal. By noticing and imagining, I was re-opening my heart to the natural creativity of our world. And I wanted, in my own small way, to add to it.

When I was home, and found a few scraps of time to be at my desk, I wrote. In three weeks, I had written over seven thousand words. Compared to a few months of nothing, that was a big deal. 

Currently, I’m writing at a pace that I’m happy with, although I’m still not meeting my old word count goals. But for now, that’s fine. I’m just grateful that I’m writing almost every day. Two days ago, my schedule changed yet again, moving my drive back by an hour. While there are many benefits to this new schedule, I am truly grieved to lose the opportunity to practice mindfulness as I slowly drive through the country.

On this hazy morning, the sun was an eerie red due to wild fires in Saskatchewan, Canada

Friday, January 16, 2015

Unicorns, Ukuleles, and Other Things Writers Fear

I recently went out for coffee with one of my writing friends. She’s someone I’ve mentored for a number of years and as I read over her current chapter, I gave her several writing prompts to help her flesh out her villain.
Her chapter was shaping up nicely, but it was the results of her free writing that floored me. Her language was strong. Passionate. Words and phrases fell into place as if she’d worked on this exercise for months instead of minutes.  

“You need to keep writing, this way,” I said, pointing to her notebook. “Allow yourself to vomit up words without stopping to edit yourself all the time.”

She grimaced. “Yeah, but if I did, I’d probably end up with a ukulele playing unicorn somewhere in my story.”

I laughed. “That’s what editing is for,” I told her.

She leaned forward, her face serious. “Right. But what if I don’t find it? What if it goes to print and I never knew it was there?” she asked.

I was about to assure her that I would never let her publish a book with a ukulele playing unicorn in it, when I realized the heart of what she was really asking.
What if my book goes to print, and I think it’s good, but really… it’s awful?
This is the fear that stops many writers dead in their tracks. It’s the fear of mistakes. And failure. The fear of negative reviews. And the fear of public rejection. The truth is when you send your work out into the world, you are putting a large piece of yourself out there. Your work (and you), will be judged.

I looked back at my friend. “I trust you,” I said. “I trust you to see the unicorns. And I trust you to edit them out.”

I wished I could give her a magic formula - tell her that if she’d follow rules X,Y, and Z and divide by pi, her work would be perfect and immune to criticism. But there is no such formula. There is only courage, trust, and hard work (work includes but is in no way limited to: writing, researching your market, revising your novel, spending endless hours studying craft, realizing your novel needs a complete rewrite and spending the next day hiding under the bed, reading hundreds of books, re-writing and revising, learning self-promotion, becoming part of the online writing community, buying more notebooks and sticky-notes, following agents and editors online to see who publishes or represents novels in your genre, joining a serious writing group who gives more revision suggestions, melting down, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Instagram, revisions, and querying/submitting). If you have put in the work, you can trust that you are professional. You know your craft well and have honed your story to the best of your ability. Finally, the time has come to gather your courage and share your work with agents, editors, and finally (after another few rounds of revisions), readers.

And what if, after all your hard work and diligence, there’s STILL a ukulele playing unicorn in your book? Well, when the trolls track it down and gleefully show you where it’s lurking, just smile and say, “Well done! And be sure to look for him in my NEXT book!”