Tag Archives: NaNoWriMo

Ego throws a mean left hook.

Ego is a funny thing.

Sometimes Ego is my driving force that gives me just enough courage to put my work out there. Other times, Ego whispers something that sends me spinning and knocks me out for a few days.

Several weeks ago, I had my eye on a couple of writing contests. I considered submitting a story I wrote, one that got some good feedback. As I wavered, Ego leaned into my ear and said –  all syrupy and sweet – “Oh, it’s good. Just do it.” She was so encouraging. I clicked “submit.”

Days later, I read a different story to a group of writers, my confidence still inflated. I received some good responses, but those weren’t the ones I heard. What I tuned into was one or two critiques that made me question my writing and myself, and then I focused on Ego’s quiet little whisper that followed.

“I’m not sure why you brought in that story anyway,” she said as we exited the studio. “You know they hated it. In fact, I’m fairly certain they don’t even like you.”

Knock out.

Man, she’s mean.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg doesn’t call the problem Ego, but she writes about it just the same. She says “Do not be tossed away by your achievements or your fiascos.”

I have to take my successes for what they are: rewards for hard work done on a story. When I feel good about a story, I can relish the moment, even write a post about it, but I can’t play into a false belief that everything I write from that point forward will be perfect.

Then again, as Goldberg says, I can’t let my failures drain me either.

See beyond [doubt] to the vastness of life and the belief in time and practice. Write something else. Let go of your failures and sit down and write something great. Or write something terrible and feel great about it.

The problem with Ego is that, whether the words I hear are praise or a put-down, it’s always all about me. And, when I’m all into me, I’m not into writing. The best way to avoid that pitfall is to take Natalie Goldberg’s advice: Write something else. Through successes and failures, just write.

How do I do that?

1. I Keep it short. If I’m writing a short story or a first chapter (or if I’m knee-deep in a 50,000 word first draft), I don’t want to get stuck on perfecting one scene. I keep it short, get the first draft done, and then share it with writers who know what they’re doing. I can trust that a good roundtable session will help me filter through the parts that need more expansion and bump the sections that don’t belong.

2. I Pull out something old and rework it. I hate looking back, which doesn’t make for easy rewrites. But, after spending some time learning the craft, I might pull out an old story and apply some of those new techniques. That’s the best time to see how far I’ve come in my writing.

3. I Enjoy the process. This is especially important when I’m working through early drafts of a piece. Sometimes a whole page of writing reveals only one gem, but that gem may turn out to be the crux of my story. In a feedback session, I might hear the one suggestion that clears up the whole picture for me and brings that story into focus.

I love Jody Hedlund’s final comment in one of her recent posts, because it speaks to my struggle as well:

Perfection is unattainable. We need to guard against thinking we’re already close to perfect. And we need to guard against thinking we need to be perfect. Instead, we can begin to develop a quiet confidence in our writing abilities—seeing how far we’ve come, but knowing we still have room to grow.

So, whatever Ego mumbles in my ear today, I know what I have to do. Write.
Or, rewrite.
Whatever it takes.

Because, Ego isn’t going away.

*****

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986. Print.

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Breaking the Rules: Using Present Tense in Fiction

In my copy of the 1922 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, she says “…a first rule for behavior in society is: ‘Try to do and say those things only which will be agreeable to others.'” So, I wonder if I’ll be ruffling any feathers when I publish this post on writing a novel in present tense?

I know. Throw “present tense” in the midst of a discussion on fiction and you beg for trouble, maybe even set the stage for a form rejection.

But hear me out.

My first writing teacher, Ariel Gore, reminded us one day that a good memoir reads like fiction and great fiction can read like a memoir. The art of the narrative is critical in both genres.

Writers of creative nonfiction often use fiction techniques. And, once in a while, a technique for writing memoir crosses over into fiction. I first considered how the practice of writing memoir can influence a work of fiction in a post I wrote on Stanley Kunitz, Memoir and Fiction. When I flipped open my June issue of The Writer and read an article by Mimi Schwartz on using present tense in memoir, I wondered again about transferable techniques.

I punched out the first draft of my current novel-in-progress during NaNoWriMo two years ago.  In thirty days, I wrote a little over 50,000 words of a story that unfolded in present tense. At the time, I was very much a novice writer and didn’t consider the rule that fiction is usually written in past tense. I didn’t consider anything. I was hunched over a keyboard chasing down a character and her tale before she got away. In the end, I was thrilled at having written a full story, even in its most raw stage.

In between the first draft and a serious rewrite, I read a novel that is written in present tense. I barely made it through the novel; each chapter sounded like a running commentary. So, when I sat down to study and rework chapter one of my WIP, I weighed my options: keep the story as is – in present tense – and risk losing the reader after the first few pages, or rework the story into past tense.

As an emerging writer, I wanted to learn my craft (and earn my way) by following the rules first; I could break them later. So, I changed the tense of the story. Each time I re-read my new version of chapter one, though, something pulled at the back of my throat. My gut twisted. My head was telling me to go one way, but the story insisted I go another.

Isn’t that just how it works sometimes? The story has a mind of it’s own, and I am simply a conductor. I couldn’t ignore the pull to return to present tense.

Here’s where Mimi Schwartz’s article (“The special power of present tense”) comes in. Schwartz mentions a few specific ways that present tense can strengthen memoir.

“For creative nonfiction writers, the act of discovery is what makes the genre so appealing.”

When reading a story written in present tense, the audience experiences the immediacy of the character’s own discoveries, adding to the suspense of the story.

Schwartz also says that using present tense can highlight the main character’s “[changes] over time.” Sure, you can do this with past tense as well, but Schwartz emphasizes her point by sharing her own experience when she used it her memoir Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village:

“…[T]he village and the villagers kept drawing me back, literally and figuratively, into their living rooms and kitchens, as I tried to uncover why these people mattered to me in New Jersey, 70 years later. And the present tense let the reader come along; we walk together in my father’s old world, trying to figure it out.”

Writing fiction in present tense can be a stylistic choice that taps into the readers senses and emotion on a deeper level.

There’s still a part of me that worries I’m biting off more than can chew, being so green and all, but I like a challenge. And I also like to listen to the way the story wants to be told. That means, my choice to stick with present tense must be a stylistic move and not a way of avoiding a major restructuring of a draft. Throughout the whole rewriting process, I must make each word, phrase, and passage count.

What are your experiences with present tense? Have you written a short story or a novel that cried out for it? Or, have you read a novel that used it successfully?

*****

Schwartz, Mimi. “The special power of present tense.” The Writer. June 2010: 26-27. Print.

Post, Emily. Etiquette. United States of America: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1922. p.  Print.

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Back to Wednesday’s routine, sort of

Last week, I took a break from the usual Wednesday’s Word challenge, and hosted guest author Linda Lappin. Tomorrow, I will get back into the virtual ring with Wordsmith.org and his never predictable word of the day.

Well, it won’t be me in the ring exactly. I’ll be cheering from the corner.

For the last two months, I’ve invited another writer to participate in Wednesday’s Word of the day. E. Victoria Flynn started us out. Ann M. Lynn braved the second round. And, tomorrow,  I welcome my friend Dot Hearn.

Dot and I met through Ariel Gore’s Lit Star Training online writing course. During introductions, we discovered we were both new to the NaNoWriMo madness that year, that we both recently embarked on a serious commitment to write, and that we were both sign language interpreters. Of course, I connected with Dot right away.

But, it wasn’t until after Ariel’s class ended, when we embarked on a project together, that I understood the true depth of her commitment to writing and her unconditional support of other writers.

Dot and I, along with a small group of other Lit Star graduates, designed and self-published an anthology (On the Fly: Stories in Eight Minutes or Less) of quick writes that resulted from several writing exercises in Ariel’s class. We were all amazed at the kind of writing that came out of one prompt and an eight minute time limit, and we wanted to share that magic with others. The anthology project gave us all a taste of the publishing world and an even more solid connection to each other.

Dot continues to work with the same spirit and determination. She maintains a website called The Writing Vein, where she posts her own writing prompts every Friday – The Razor’s Edge. I love reading her prompts, as they tap into several avenues of inspiration by combining a written prompt with an image and a song.

I could blather on and on about Dot, but I’ll let her tell you – in her own words – how she came to love writing:

Writing has been one constant throughout my life. Sure, I’ve taken a little time off here and there, but I wrote my first stage script at age 9 and hand-wrote my first novel – all 72 pages – at age 10.

As a teenager and during my early adult years, I submitted poems and a few of them were published. My early college days were spent in journalism, the middle college years brought a sign language interpreting degree, and my most recent college degree included a minor in theater and a minor in writing.

Right now I have one novel in revision; a memoir still being written; short stories and flash fiction and poems floating around on editors’ and contest judges’ desks; a produced radio script, freewrites galore – and more. And I am into the fourth year of a ten-year commitment to write no matter what; I think writing is becoming a habit I don’t want to shake.

I am a writer in the spaces between work and working out. Current projects are completion of a memoir and revision of a mystery novel, alongside writing short stories and poetry. I hope soon to tip the balance of work and writing life, so that work will happen in the spaces between writing and outdoor adventures.

Thank you, Christi, for giving me this opportunity to step outside of my box to participate in your Wednesday’s Word. I’ve been a fan since it’s inception and I’m excited to be able to participate in this way. You are an inspiration.

Thank you, Dot! I can’t wait to see how you wrangle Wordsmith into a crafty creative submission tomorrow!

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Pulling My Head Out of the Sand

Today is Wednesday – mid week, mid month – and I’m avoiding my NaNoWriMo novel. Tamora Pierce wrote a great pep talk for NaNo-ers this week, who (like me) are spending their valuable writing time reading emails and blogs. She listed several questions I can ask of my characters to help get my creative juices flowing again. I read her talk and thought, yes. I will ask those questions. Definitely.

But today is Wednesday, and Wordsmith.org doesn’t put their word of a day routine on hold for NaNoWriMo. I’ve committed to write on Wednesday’s word of the day, nevermind I’m easily distracted and willing to do  just about anything…even vacuum the cobwebs from the corners of every room in my house.  Wait, that’s NaHoCleMo.

Anyway, Wordsmith’s word of the day today is expiate: a verb meaning to atone, to make amends for.

So, I hereby expiate for leaving my NaNoWriMo characters in a lurch this week.

To my dear friend Millie, who prefers to live life watching others through the glass pane of windows, I am sorry I left you at that party, in the middle of a crowd, vunerable and windowless.

To Mr. Millstead, who I continue to address as Mr. Millstead. Eventually, I will get back to my draft and figure out when and where I can start calling you by your given name, and therefore let your character fill out and your face color up.

To Marcie, who’s pissed off at the world and likely at me, since I have given her minimal dialogue and few appearances in the novel thus far. I realize you have much to say, and I intend, wholeheartedly, to give you your day.

To Mrs. Wilson, who showed up in the beginning in a lovely opening scene and was cut, by this author’s swift and indifferent hand, in the first few days. You were kind enough to revisit the story and even willing to let your name take the limelight.

My dear characters, in my first draft of Missing Mrs. Wilson, I promise (with my right hand on my heart and my left hand in the air) to write my way to 50,000 words, even if it takes me until Christmas.

***

Phew, that’s a load off.
Now. Enough stalling. Back to that novel.

Balancing Form and Function

I’m nearing the end of week two of NaNoWriMo, and this year I’ve spent almost as much time analyzing my process as I have pouring words out onto the screen.

There are several writers’ views of NaNoWriMo: some love the idea of a first draft in 30 days, some support it but wouldn’t try it, and some avoid it like a Kindle.

Last year, I wrote 50,000 words, the story flowed like one big stream of conciousness dump:  start, type like crazy to the last day (of NaNoWriMo and the story), upload said draft, punch the enter key, BOOM – 50,000. Woo! And, all the details happened in one year’s time. I had a beginning, middle, and end. At the time, that was all that mattered. This year, after week two, I feel myself beginning to balance between the form and function of the NaNoWriMo sprint.

I still appreciate, and need, that 30 day time limit. If I sat down to write a first draft in three months or six months or even a year, I would flounder after a few weeks and fold. But, while I’m still writing to finish a first draft in a very short period of time, I’m allowing myself to let go of chronological order. I am writing scene to scene, which sometimes means I go back to the beginning or I jump to the end of the story. I’m sure other NaNo-ers do this already, but for me this option is new.

I read somewhere this morning that in life, whatever seems important is rarely urgent, and what seems urgent is rarely important. Today, this first draft seems important. I have a story that, in my mind anyway, wants to come to life on the page. But, finishing the first draft at break-neck speed is no longer urgent.

I want to finish NaNoWriMo, don’t get me wrong. I’m keeping a close eye on my writing buddies, like Dot — who is an inspiration because she puts her writing time first even with her hectic schedule. She’ll hit 50,000 no doubt. And, I know come November 30th if my word count meter doesn’t purple-out, I’ll hang my head. But, not for long. My first draft thus far is wordy in several parts; at least one quarter of it will likely fall into the abyss of ideas or word combinations that should never be recalled. Most of it, however, merits a considerate rewrite, and that’s as exciting as making it to the 50,000 mark.

From Fifth Grade to NaNoWriMo

The first book I ever wrote was during my fifth grade year in Mrs. Young’s homeroom class. She asked us to write a How-To book and to consider ourselves author and artist.

I didn’t think I knew how to do anything well. I played softball every summer, but I did cartwheels in the outfield during most games. I made one attempt at soccer then quit when the ball hit me in the face. I was a skinny, asthmatic kid with low self-confidence and little willingness to take risks. Still, I liked Mrs. Young and I was a dedicated student. I sat on the assignment and observed my fellow fifth graders for a few days. A popular phrase flew around the halls of elementary school that week and sparked an idea for a story: gag me with a spoon!

I remember my excitement as the idea formed in my budding writer’s mind. My heart raced. I ran around the house with wide eyes and hair on end searching for any and all loose sheets of construction paper and a few crayons. The assignment was due the next day; time was my enemy. I sat down at the kitchen table and feverishly scratched out a first (and last) draft.

My idea was solid. Using my author’s creative license, I tweaked the phrase a bit and titled my book How to Gag Yourself with a Spatula. I dressed a quirky Mr. Duck in a black bow tie and gave him prestigious role of the main character.  Mr. Duck’s words flowed onto the paper with ease. He explained the equipment needed, the risks involved, and finally the crucial steps towards the climax of a spatula induced gag.

I finished the book with a bold “THE END” and shook my papers straight. I stapled them together and slid them carefully in my folder. The next day at school, I held a finished book in my hands and waited, for my turn, to read my story aloud. The book was a big hit. Mrs. Young leaned her head back and laughed. I stood at the front of the classroom enveloped in a cloud of joy, elation, success!

That experience, at ten years old, of leaning over sheets of construction paper and scattered crayons with wild eyes and quick hands, reminds me of my last few days of NaNoWriMo. Last week, the words poured out slow and rough. With my idea only partially formed, the main character walked around the story like a cardboard cut out. I closed the file and flipped through other writer’s blogs, where I found solace and inspiration.

Yesterday, Linda Cassidy and Natalie Whipple wrote out exactly what I’d been thinking all afternoon. Recently, Ann M. Lynn’s post reminded me that even though NaNoWriMo is mostly about word count, it’s also about the story. Even in a writng frenzy, authors must avoid developing bad writing habits. And, the last several posts on Cathryn Grant’s blog told of another strategy: balance NaNoWriMo with other ongoing projects.

I took an afternoon and handwrote some thoughts about my main character. I jotted down a few prospective scenes. I let go of my obsession with word count. I picked two short stories to rewrite and refine during NaNoWriMo breaks.

This week, I have a clear idea of the story I want to write. My main character is taking shape slowly. She’s filling out like the inflatable pool I struggled to blow up last summer for the kids. I’ve expelled a lot of hot air, fought off an asthma attack, readjusted my focus. Now, the plastic is finally lifting off the ground. Last night, I closed the file at a little over 19,000 words.

 

Writing with Tunnel Vision

For various reasons, I slowed down a bit with my NaNoWriMo novel this weekend. The decision to take a mini-break was easy, since this year’s NaNoWriMo experience has felt, in some ways, like I’m trudging through six inches of mud. I’m making progress, but it’s slow and sticky and I keep getting stuck.

I turned to Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones again and flipped through my December issue of The Writer magazine. In both the book and the magazine, I found crucial tips or guidelines – or maybe even rules of the trade – that I often miss when I write, whether it’s for NaNoWriMo or just in general.

In The Writer, I saw myself as I read Mary Miller’s “A Case for Plot.” She starts out by saying she never cared much for plot, because she “believed that in order for things to happen in [her] stories, they had to be happening in [her] life.” Like Mary Miller, I keep my life as level as I can, because I, too, am a lover of structure and routine. I prefer logical steps to accomplish any goal and minimal risks. But, when I write with my idiosyncrasies and philosophies in the forefront of my mind, I make it difficult to allow a character in a story to take action or risks.

For instance, in the first 10,000 words of my current NaNoWriMo draft, my main character observes way too much of life’s happenings from behind a window, either the kitchen window or the living room window. Maybe that’s her thing, her own idiosyncrasy. Or, maybe that’s more of me seeing the story through my limited vision.

Maybe my main character would rather step outside and press her nose up against the neighbors window, be more forthright in her snooping. I, myself, wouldn’t be quite so daring. I tend to hide behind the edge of a curtain or to open the slit of the blinds just a smidgen. But, that’s me. I’m only the writer. If I reconsider my main character in her own right, then maybe, as Mary Miller puts it, my main character will “step in and do something, or I’ll get to know her better and her lack of action will feel like a choice instead of just passivity.”

Natalie Goldberg’s chapters “Be Specific” and “Big Concentration,” complement Mary Miller’s article. First, Natalie Goldberg suggests we name things, like a specific flower or a tree, when we write. In naming an object with more specificity, “it takes us closer to the ground. It takes the blur out of our mind” (p. 70). Rather than show the reader a moment in a story from a general distance, naming things keeps the reader present, in the exact moment, and makes the experience more realistic. Second, Natalie Goldberg suggests we widen our concentration on a character and add environmental clues, like a sentence about the temperature or a background noise or even the color of the sky. In this way, we remind ourselves, and our readers, that “the universe moves with us, is at our back with everything we do” (p. 72). It all sounds simple, so simple that I forget to do it.

Each time I force my main character to stay behind the kitchen window (because that’s what I would do) and look straight across the yard to the neighbor’s kitchen window, I isolate her. I force the reader to decipher a story through tunnel vision, and I shortchange the experience. If, instead, I let my main character open up the front door, get hit by a brisk night air, sneak under the dark shadow of a large oak tree, and let goosebumps rise up on her arms, the reader has more to consider and is more vested in the story.  Are the goosebumps from the night chill? Or, are they in anticipation of what she might see once she climbs the front steps and presses her nose up against the cold, glass pane?

Tomorrow, I will have a little more time to spend on the story. By pushing my writer-self to the side and by widening my character’s perspective, I hope to travel easier along the plot line.

***

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986. Print.
Miller, Mary. “A Case for Plot.” The Writer Dec. 2009: 15-16. Print.