Back on day eight, I mentioned that by getting that far through NaNoWriMo, you’d already gotten past two of the primary “I quit” days in the month: Days 3 and 7.
Today, we’re past day 21. If you’ve gotten this far, and you’re still here, I think you’re going to do okay. In fact, I think you’ve probably picked up an unexpected benefit from this month; a habit.
(And no, I don’t mean the caffeine or chocolate addition. Can’t help you with those: sorry.)
A number of the classes I teach at my day job have to do with modifying your own behavior (time management, verbal communication, how to not be a pain in the ass for everyone who reads your email or anything else you write, et cetera), so when I talk about what needs to change, I also talk about how to change that habit or, more to the point, how to make the change stick.
Changing a habit is always the hard part, after all, and it’s why people fail at things like ‘keeping the house clean’ or ‘saving money’ or ‘maintaining a healthy weight.’
Usually, this failure stems from one simple thing: none of those goals involve changing just one habit; they require changing a lot of habits and frankly people aren’t very good at changing a lot of habits at the same time. In order to make progress, you need to pick one habit out of the whole mess, and focus on that.
There are, in fact, steps.
1. Commitment. Commit yourself to a habit change, big time. Make your commitment as public as possible.
2. Practice. Changing habits is a skill, and like any skill it takes practice. Most people suggest challenging yourself to a 30-day Challenge and try to do your new habit every single day for 30 days.
3. Tracking. It’s best if you log your progress every day. This will make a successful habit change much more likely.
4. Rewards. Reward yourself. Do so often, early on — every day for a week or so, then every three days, then the end of every week, and then at the end.
5. Focus. It’s hard to do more than one or two habits at a time — you can’t maintain focus — so just pick one.
Does… any of this sound familiar?
I want to congratulate you. Not on winning NaNoWriMo – that’ll come – but on something much more valuable: on building a writing habit.
This post is really not about writing at all. This is about National Novel Writing Month and the Office of Letters and Light non-profit organization that make the thing happen.
Every time I go to nanowrimo.org, I notice that little donation graph over on the side of the front page, and the info underneath that tells me that a little more than 4% of the people signed up for NaNoWriMo have donated.
That would kind of blow my mind, because it’s such an awesome thing and does a lot of good for kids as well as all of the adults, but the really kind of crazy thing is that despite the piddling number of people who have donated, they’ve collected so much money.
Not quite enough to run the office all year ’round, not yet, but close. If they could double what they have right now, they could do some truly neat thing and worthwhile things (if you mouse over each book in the graph, it tells you what they can do if they hit that amount).
SO, here’s the one time I’ll rattle a tin cup for this little party we’re all dancing at.
I think it’s a good organization, I think they do good things, and I think I can afford to donate the amount of money I’ll spend taking my wife to the movies tonight — I get at least that much value out of it every year. At least.
Hell, this year’s efforts have made me a couple friends that aren’t even doing NaNoWriMo, let alone those that are — that’s worth it to me right there.
I dunno. Search the couch cushions, or your wallet, or just your paypal account and toss a couple bucks in the tin, if you think you learned something this year. Small price to pay.
Sorry, but this bit rather tickled me. It’s from the stuff I’m writing today, which is part of one of the “princess stories” Finn used to tell his daughter, and not from the crunchy-hard sci-fi bits with which the main story concerns itself.
Still, I hope you like it. I do.
“Just… one question, before you skitter off,” said the rook. “What’s in that fine knapsack you’re dragging along?”
“Hmm?” said Mak. He knew exactly what the rook was asking about, but he tried to pretend that he didn’t until he could figure out something to say — all he knew so far was that he didn’t want to tell the rook what was really in the bag. Mak didn’t know very much about birds, but one thing he did know was that some birds very much liked to collect anything that was shiny, or pretty. (He knew this because he himself liked to collect shiny, pretty things, as well as things that were odd, unusual, rare, or simply available.)
He wasn’t entirely sure, but he guessed that rooks were one of those shiny-collecting types of birds, and the king’s crown was just about the shiniest, prettiest thing anywhere; it would be very bad if the rook were to see it.
“It’s a… hat,” said Mak.
“A hat,” said the rook. “Interesting. Not yours, I suppose.”
“Oh no,” said the squirrel. “I’m returning it to a friend of mine, before he misses it.”
“I see,” said the rook. “Very kind of you, given the weather and this high roof you might fall from. What sort of hat is it?”
“Oh, it’s very old,” said the squirrel, making it sound like a bad thing. “It’s something his family has had lying around for years and years. I don’t even think they enjoy wearing it all the time — they leave it behind quite often. Still, I’m sure he’d be upset if he found out he’d lost it.” Mak thought he was very clever for telling the rook what he had, because while none of it was precisely right, none of it was exactly wrong, either. Unlike the princess, he didn’t mind at all if he had to tell someone something that wasn’t true, but he liked words so much better if they they did two things, instead of only one.
Okay, sometimes I talk about things that help with NaNoWriMo, and quite by accident they happen to also be useful things for just… you know: writing. I don’t know if this is one of those times. It may not be. We’ll see.
We’re hitting a point in NaNoWriMo when the disparity in wordcounts is starting to show. Some folks are done already (don’t worry about it – we don’t like those people very much), some folks are a little ahead – around 40k, say, some are just chugging along doing a few hundred more than they need every day (that’d be me), some are five thousand or ten thousand words behind.
And some of us are… really behind.
Let’s talk about being behind.
The first year I did NaNoWriMo, I started out behind. There was this thing I had to go do, and on November 4th I had like… I dunno. 350 words. So I was about 5k in the hole right off. Plus I had never really written anything of any significant length at that point. I so chugged and churned and built a multi-user blog for other crazy people who were doing this new NaNoWriMo thing so we could cheer each other on, and right around the 14th, I finally caught up.
And then I went to this gaming convention (when I should have been home writing anyway), ate a bad chicken sandwich (Carls Jr. can die in a fire), and was hospitalized in ICU with the most mind-blowing case of food poisoning imaginable. Safe to say I fell behind again.
That year, I sent my family off to Thanksgiving dinner at our friends’ place and stayed home, pounding away at the keys to finish up. Only me and ***Dave finished of our local band, that year.
I thought that was the most I’d ever be behind. The following year went fine, though ***Dave’s wife did mention how disruptive NaNoWriMo was for everyone around the writers.
A few years later, I decided to do it again. However, I also wanted to finish up revisions on a previous story (Hidden Things, which has seen at least four ‘final revisions’ since then), and I wouldn’t let myself start til I was done with those revisions.
I didn’t finish revisions until November 8th. As I wrote the first word of a story called Spindle, I was sixteen thousand words in the hole and needed to average about 2300 words a day to finish in time.
Also, I didn’t tell anyone I was doing NaNoWriMo. Nobody. I wanted to prove that I could write a book without disrupting everyone around me. As a result, I didn’t have a good (or even bad) excuse for turning down some honey-do projects during the month, and ended up:
Landscaping the front yard.
Learning how to tile and then tiling the master bath and the kitchen.
I never got caught up at any point that month. I had a few 5000 word days, a 6800 day, and one 8700 word day, but I had a couple 0 days in there too, so don’t get too impressed. I submitted the final text four minutes to midnight on November 30th. The count was 50012 words.
I’m not mentioning any of this stuff to brag; I’m trying to tell you that I know from being behind.
So, you’re behind, what do you do?
1. Forget about the word count.
I know: It’s NaNoWriMo! Word count is king!
Well, the king ain’t on your side anymore.
You remember the story I told about mowing the lawn? Well, if you need to write 33000 words in the next 11 days, that’s too much lawn to look at. You can’t worry about that. (Note: I’m saying 33000 simply because it’s a big number, and 11 divides into it nicely.)
You need to work with numbers your brain and your ego can handle. 3000 words a day? Ouch. Let’s try…
Pages. Pages might work for you. Each page in double-spaced Times New Roman 12 is about 250 words, give or take. I’m saying 250 for the sake of easy math. 3000 words is about 12 pages. Call it 13 for a nice symbolic number. Baker’s Dozen. Totally…
Okay, no. That still feels like a lot to me. Let’s try…
Scenes. Okay, this is a lot better. A decent scene with some action or a good argument or whatever will give you 1000 words. (A really good scene will give you 1200, 2000, or more, but let’s not get greedy.) A thousand words! That’s awesome! You only have to write three solid scenes a day! Totally doable!
Dirty Trick: Don’t just write three scenes. Start the fourth one and stop for the day mid-sentence. You are too far behind now to fuck around at the beginning of each writing session with window- and/or navel-gazing. Sit down, look at the screen, see the half-done thought, finish it, and KEEP WRITING from there. Hit the ground running, cuz you have miles to go.
2. Scout ahead.
Before this year, I’d never written with an outline, but during the year-of-16k-behind, I did scout things out from day to day so that when I hit the ground running, I knew which way to go. Here’s what it looked like:
“But where will I find — [START HERE]
[Bobby and Kiffer, outside Bobby’s house]
[Keven meets the King]
[Keven meets the Master of the Hunt]
[Bobby and Kiffer and the Entourage go marching]
So I’ve got my half-finished scene, three full scenes to write the next day, and a scene to start and not-finish. All I have to do is word-search for [START HERE] the next day and start typing.
Did I word count at the end of the day? Sure I did, but mostly I didn’t bother.
3. Skip to the good (read: easy) parts
About 15k into Spindle, I decided to do a flashback to where the girl (Keven) first met the King and the man she’d later fall in love with (the huntsman) — both of whom are chasing her with a pack of hunting dogs at the start of the story. I wanted to see how we’d got to that point.
So I got into this flashback, and I just… didn’t want to come out. I’ve always liked writing in a fairy tale style, and this was that, but with a sort of gritty YA twist, and I just loved the hell out of it (still do, come to that). I knew I’d eventually have to write the rest of the story, but I figured I’d ride that pony as long as it’d carry me, because the words were coming out easy and I needed all the help I could get.
So that’s what I did: scene after scene, all part of that flashback… which ended up taking the next thirty-five thousand words.
When you do your scouting ahead, you’ll be writing down a few scene ideas out ahead. If you get to one of those starter-notes where the words are coming hard… yes, normally, you’d slog through anyway (and honestly the hard-to-write stuff comes out very well most of the time, even if it felt like sanding your brain to write it), but right now? No. If you see that the next scene after this hard one would practically write itself, get the fuck over there and LET IT DO THAT.
However, be aware that the scene that looked super painful and hard and slow to write yesterday might be your ‘practically writes itself’ scene tomorrow. That stuff happens all the time.
4. … I dunno.
That’s all the tips I have about this right now, except for this:
You gotta have fun. (It may be “17th mile of the marathon” fun, but that’s a kind of fun, too.) Do not fucking burn out on this. It’s not worth it. Write what you write, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t hit 50k, and try it again next year. Or don’t. Or just keep going come December 1st. (That’s what I’m doing, because no way will Adrift be done on the 30th, and I’m kind of thrilled about the prospect of seriously working on something solid for probably three months.)
Remember that you’ve already learned stuff. Maybe you’ve learned that you can’t just stop when you get hung up on a protagonist’s issue, cuz it kills your momentum. Maybe you’ve learned you can sit your ass down and write every day, even when you don’t feel like it. Maybe you’ve confirmed that you really do love this stuff. Maybe you’ve found out you don’t. That’s okay too. Every book needs a hell of a lot more readers than writers.
Two characters fall happily in love? One of them has a fatal disease. A mother and daughter quit arguing? The mother has called the men in white coats to come pick up the daughter and wants to keep her peaceful until the girl’s sedated. The villain invites the hero in for tea? Strichnine, my friend. Strichnine.
Remember: any degree of “happily ever after” that occurs before the end of the story is doomed!
First of all, that’s some pretty damn good thinkin’ going on right there.
Second AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, this is a great engine for getting us more WORDS, people!
But we have to be careful. In order to take advantage of this Dirty Trick, we have to do something we should never do during NaNoWriMo: go back and look at the stuff we’ve already written.1
What we’re looking for in this case is any scene where there’s no real conflict: everyone just gets along pretty well, or no one’s trying to convince anyone of anything, or it’s just an info dump. Something. Doesn’t matter. We are NOT going to read the whole story to find those scenes. We’re going skim.
Skim v.skimmed, skim·ming, skims
4. To read or glance through (a book, for example) quickly or superficially.
Now, I can sort of cheat on this, because while I don’t use chapter breaks in Adrift, I do separate each scene with this:
… so I can just search for that, glance at the first line of the scene that follows the -=-, and ask myself:
What’s the conflict in that scene?
If there is any kind of answer to that question, I move on.
If there is no answer to that question, I then say:
Ah ha, then what was secretly going on in that scene?
And maybe I’ll add one line at the end of the scene where one of the protags calls someone up after the other guy leaves and says, “It’s me. He believed it.” or whatever.
And THEN, I have a whole other scene I can write in which we find out more about what was really going down in that previous scene, and really screw the characters some more.
And that’s it. More words to write. More story stuff happening. Not just plot, but plotting. Aren’t you just nefarious?
That’s it; short and sweet.
Get back to work.
1 – Yes, I have to reread everything in my first draft, while I’m writing it, to do the podcasts. Yes, I’m taking a stupid risk. Do what I say, not what I do. #goodparenting
So, in the last section of the story (episode 4), the characters went off script.
The outline clearly reads:
Go to to Manifold Bazaar, surprisingly not shot at and not robbed.
That’s it. No problems along the way.
But did that happen? Noooo. There were problems, even though I’d said that there weren’t supposed to be any, and pretty soon, Bilabil is pointing across the way and telling us that the only alternative route worth a damn was the old battle cruiser… except it was really dangerous.
There was one small problem with that; I had no idea WHY.
So, following my own advice (which I wrote down and blogged as a NaNoWriMo tip the next day), I dropped that storyline for awhile and wrote something else entirely.
Specifically, I wrote out the entire story of the Princess traveling into the Forest of Anything in search of medicine for the Queen (and, in the process, meeting Mira and Mak and a magical bear-cat named Bin).
The whole story (which I have since chopped up and woven between the action on the Drift during episodes 5 and 6) took me about two days to get down.
Then I went back to Jon and Finn and Bilabil, perched on that ship’s hull, and I knew why the detour was dangerous, and they knew how they were going to deal with it.
So here we are. Week Three, innit it? Bit of pain in the ass, this one. Some folks call it the wasteland. Some call it the weeds.
I call it dirty things you wouldn’t call your wife, unless it was the Special “Diceless Roleplay” Weekend.
Too much info? Right, moving on.
It’d be easy for me to say you’re stuck, but it’s also not quite right. You’re flailing around, sure, and mud’s flying up in every damn direction, and you really can’t see where you’re going cuz it’s all up on the windshield and christ your dad’s gonna be pissed unless you can get it to a carwash before he sees it, but you’re not stuck-stuck; you’re moving, but it’s sluggish, and you’re starting to worry that if you keep going the way you’re going, you really WILL be stuck.
Put simply (and in writing rather than gaming terms), a “Bang” is when a scene introduces some sort of event or piece of information that requires a choice from one of your characters, and you don’t already know what they’re gonna choose.
Let me break that criteria down one more time:
Something happens that cannot be ignored and which requires some sort of response.
You’re not entirely sure what your protag is going to decide to do.
And example from my NaNoWriMo project:
I’m at about 30k words. There’s been a lot of talking going on, and it’s time to shake stuff up a bit. Per my own advice, I attack the scene with genre-appropriate ninjas. This situations creates a Bang (fine: “decision point” if you must) for Finnras:
Return to the ship, where Deirdre is in danger from the G.A.N.s.
Continue onward in pursuit of his daughter, abandoning Deirdre and other members of his crew to their own fate.
A couple key things to pick up from this kind of event:
It put things into motion.
You learn something you didn’t know (or weren’t entirely sure of) about the character.
These are both pretty good boosts for getting out of the muck, and they also have a fairly good chance of propelling the story in unexpected and interesting directions that will give you a boost of enthusiasm and energy — enough to power through to the end of the story.
For reference, here are a couple types of Bangs I’ve used in the past, broken out with labels decreed by a Mike Holmes, from whom I learned a lot of this stuff.
Dilemma: This is like the example I mentioned from my current story. You just grab two Important Things and make up a situation that forces a decision between those two things. Finding the Important Things is pretty easy – take what you know or think you know about the character, pick two things that seem to be roughly equal in importance, and set up a situation where they have to pick between the two. Note: this sort of event can result in the character losing the thing they didn’t choose, but this isn’t necessary, and it might be better (read: more incredibly awkward and painful for the character at a later point in time) if that doesn’t happen.
Be aware that you character may decide to pull a Batman and change the situation: they don’t accept that they can’t get one thing without losing the other, so they put a third thing at risk, trying to save both of the original things. This is awesome. Go with it.
Escalation: this is essentially hitting the same choice as a previous Dilemma, but upping the stakes. Basically, you take the unselected option from a previous dilemma and make it more important or more endangered. Let’s say Finn goes with “I have to follow my daughter,” because the threat to his crew isn’t that concrete and they’re actually pretty competent people. In an escalation, I can come back to that later and set up a scene like “okay, the crew is now captured, and they’re totally gonna die/go to jail for a million years/vote republican… or you can go after your daughter.
Identity Crisis: Do I need an example of this? Really? Okay…
“Luke, I am your father.”
There. Someone thinks they’re one thing, and they find out they’re something or someone else. Hit em with the Sith Lord Daddy and stand back to see what happens.
Something Totally Weird: Exactly what it sounds like. Something really weird happens which can’t be ignored because it’s so… weird. With no particular clue about a solution, what we learn about the character (hopefully) is how they try to address the event.
Ninja! So you’re kind of out of moral dilemmas, but you still need to get the action going. For this, I give the floor to Reverend Raymond Chandler:
Have somebody come in guns blazing, and figure out who they are later.
Does your guy fight or run? Do they freeze? Are there innocents to protect? Valuable stuff that needs to be kept from harm? Watch, learn, and write it down.
Don’t have ninjas in your story? Dude, everyone has ninjas.
Okay, so the guys haven’t quite left the outline behind yet. I’ll talk about that more with Episode 5, when it happens.
This one took me bloody ages to get edited, because I couldn’t seem to get a solid take. By the time I got done, I was a leeeeeettle crazy, so I looped in an outtakes track at the end (it starts around 15:17, for those that want to skip right to the sounds of my fucking up over and over — warning, contains many heartfelt swears).