Back on Track and the Lessons I’ve Learned While Astray

Terrible oil pastel drawing of that crushing, staticky feeling. Artist: me.

As you’ve probably noticed from my fluctuation between complaining and a lack of posts, I have had some issues writing after quitting my “day job.” I thought at first I just didn’t have the right story idea. Maybe the plot I had in mind (or the characters, or the setting, or the everything altogether) was bad and I wasn’t going to get it to work, so I abandoned the idea. This happened twice in a row. Then I thought that I was pushing myself to work too much or too often. So I took a break.

After my break, I felt much better – for about a day. Then I went straight back into feeling like shit and static filling my head. Maybe I was overwhelming myself with the steps to write something to completion. So I built a system to keep myself focused. This worked for about two weeks and then I fell right back into the pit. 

Maybe I was depressed again. So I decided to narrow down what I was doing, lighten my workload. But I still suffered this…blockage of sorts. What the hell was going on?

Finally I realized I felt the worst when something external reminded me about writing. Someone would ask how my book was coming along. Or they’d make a snarky comment about how I wasn’t working on a Saturday. Just taking a peek at Medium I’d get bombarded with all kinds of writing advice articles. 

The articles were, interestingly enough, the worst. Individually they aren’t bad, but I’d sit down and read a bunch in a row. Every single one of them basically saying the same thing: I should be writing content every single day. 

And the problem isn’t that producing content is bad. I’m writing content right now. The problem starts when you let this outside world into your private routine. When you allow others to tell you how to write or what to write or when to write. And this happens very easily when you feel that your process or your job isn’t valid.

So what changed? 

I can’t say for sure exactly where I unfucked myself. Most likely, it was a culmination of a few things. 

First, I stopped trying to make myself an “authority” on anything. I stopped writing the how-to posts here. This eased my impostor syndrome quite a bit, and being honest about it felt great, but had the unintended side effect of a minor, uh, existential crisis. 

What should I write now? What do I even have to say? Do I have something to say? Should I just stfu and shut down the blog? 

The adage is to write what you know, but what did I really know? Well…I knew a lot about my own experiences with depression and anxiety. So I drafted up a few Medium articles on that. And never posted them.

I’m still learning how to be more honest with myself about my emotions – broadcasting heavy thoughts like that with my name out there for everyone to see felt…wrong. I just couldn’t make myself do it. What I wrote was “authentic” I guess, but publishing it just didn’t feel like me. I kept asking myself, “if not that, then what?” I agonized over this for way too long until I finally asked myself the real questions:

What drew me to writing in the first place? What is it that I like to read?

scenic view of city during nighttime
A whole new wooooorld…
Photo by Andrey Grushnikov on Pexels.com

I love books that are filled with characters who struggle. I love stepping into worlds that are rich and vibrant. Adventures that make me feel alive. Relationships that feel authentic and sweet, even if they start off a bit rocky. I want to open a book and see a massive universe I can set out and explore. Especially if it goes beyond what the author has written. 

Stories like Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, The Witcher, The Dark Tower series. Any world that allows you to imagine yourself living there is like catnip to me. I use literature to escape and I’d love to write the same for others. 

I have ideas for short stories, too. I’ve written several, and in the spirit of the year of finishing things, I will still try to finish the majority of ones I abandoned. But publishing shorts is not my calling. Worldbuilding is. 

This conclusion made me realize I’m incapable of following the route the internet has drawn up for writers. Though there’s more money to be had in publishing an article every day on Medium and in writing and submitting shorts (assuming they get accepted). Guest posts, cross posts, affiliate links, Pinterest infographics, Twitter quotes/screenshots…all of these things and more are great ways to monetize your writing and to gain an audience. I’ll have to do some of them eventually, too. None of this is bad. It’s just not what I should be doing right now.

I should be writing. I should be living in the worlds I’m crafting so that when I’m done, you can live there, too. 

Because of this realization, I was able to shed the imagined expectations weighing me down. I don’t need to write 40 hours a week. Sometimes writing means getting thoughts down on paper (or pixels) whether or not they are coherent. I am writing every day, and a lot of it is unusable crap. If I need to stop mid workday and play Bugsnax or (god help me) Detroit: Become Human in order to relax, I should. If I need to take a whole day or week off in order to “refill my creative bottle” (Thanks for the metaphor, Arbor!), then I absolutely do. If my workday consists of me walking around my office in circles, mumbling new storylines or dialogue to myself, then so be it! 

Stephen King says to write with the door closed, edit with the door open. He’s referring to writing a story exactly how you want to tell it, and then editing it so that it can appeal to other people as well. I feel like it should extend to your routine, too. Don’t let other people dictate how you work, just make sure you eventually do get to work. 

These steps together eventually got me back on track, and I really hope outlining them will help anyone else suffering from a constant burnt-out, static-brained, panic-stricken blockage of words. Basically I think it all boiled down to getting back to why I started writing in the first place. 

A caveat

This is the part where I reiterate that I am so, so privileged. I get a small retirement payment every month, so I can feel like I contribute a little to my household. Beyond that, everything gets covered by my husband. We saved for a long time, we finagled our finances, and eventually got to the point where me not having any other income was doable. I can rest easy while I make-believe and do other weird writer shit. My circumstances are not normal. 

If you want to only write novels, then do it! But keep a day job. Don’t force the pressure of finishing a novel on yourself – you will fail, and it will suck the whole way down. Establish a writing routine around your work. If your job leaves you exhausted at the end of the day, write at the beginning of your day. If you can’t concentrate on work when you write beforehand and it’s threatening your job, find a different job (while still working at your current one). 

If you want to write articles every single day and you think you know your niche, then try it while you still have a job. With either of these options, you want to be able to support yourself (or nearly be able to support yourself) on the money you’re making from your efforts working around your dictated schedule. If you find yourself making excuses, procrastinating, getting easily discouraged, doing or being or feeling anything that keeps you from producing regularly, do not quit your job. 

Anyway, the point is…

…enjoy the go! Oh wait, no, that’s something else. 

But seriously, have fun while you work. If you can’t figure out how to enjoy it, it’ll be more difficult. And if you’re anything like me, the pressure to work while miserable will make you crumble. Sure, I can bust my ass to meet the occasional deadline, but I would die as a journalist. Knowing your work style, your limits, and being honest about and honoring them both will make all the difference if you’re having issues writing like I did. 

And I almost guarantee I will forget this by the time NaNoWriMo rolls around again…

When You’re Unable to Write

woman in white shirt showing frustration
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Sometimes you’re not going to be able to write. You will wake up sick, injured, depressed, or in some other condition that prevents you from working. And if you’re anything like me, you will hate yourself for it. Let’s take a moment to examine this scenario.

What does this look like?

This is more than the obvious, “there are no words on the page.” When I talk about not being able to write, I don’t mean a surface-level “I don’t feel like it” or “I’m too busy.” I’m referring to the physically painful realization that you are incapable of putting letters down on the page to form words. Everything you have tried has failed and now your cursor blinks in time with its raucous laughter, taunting your ineptitude and the obvious forthcoming ruination of your writing career. You are doomed. Fade to black. Despacito plays.

Just kidding. But it feels this way, especially if you don’t have a lot of support behind your work.

What causes this?

Not being able to write has many different causes. Sometimes it’s a simple case of writer’s block or mental resistance. There have been so many articles written about this, including my own, so I won’t really go into detail about that here. What I wanted to talk about today is when you are struggling in some way that interferes with your ability to get thoughts from your brain to your fingers.

When you’re struggling with physical/mental illness, you’re under a lot of stress, or when you haven’t been sleeping, eating, or exercising like you need to, it can cause a thick fog to drift into your skull. It dulls your thoughts, slows you down, and makes everything feel a thousand times harder to do.

For me, it has been all of the above reasons all at once. The first day, I thought “oh sure, why not take a break? It’s alright.” The second day it started to turn into, “you should really be working, Charlie. Maybe try harder?” Then while sitting at the computer, feeling physically terrible, the thoughts of “if you don’t write anything right now, you’re taking advantage of your situation,” started to creep in. By day three and four, it was “wow, you’re really never going to amount to anything, are you?” and other nonsense.

And it is nonsense. A lot has been going on, and that’s okay. Even if I never wrote another word as long as I lived, it doesn’t mean that I never amounted to anything. That’s…a tad extreme, isn’t it? What does that mean, anyway? Amounting to what? For what? 

Either way, it doesn’t matter. Here I am, writing again (and there was much rejoicing). The important part to remember, is that unless you continue to berate yourself and tell yourself that you’re nothing, I feel like there’s actually only a slim chance of never writing again.

So what do I do about it?

Be kind to yourself and ride it out. Some people depend on writing a super huge amount of words every single day in order to survive, and I’m going to be honest: I unfortunately have no advice for you. You are far beyond where I am now or probably ever will be.

But for the rest of you who aren’t living the hustler life, here’s what I’ve learned over the past week or so (yes, it’s been way longer than I would like, but that’s okay):

  1. It happens to just about everyone. I think it actually happens to literally everyone, and those who say it doesn’t are lying, but I’ll let it be.
  2. Beating yourself up about it only makes it worse. 
  3. Denying care to yourself (such as medications you need or getting extra rest) will only make it worse. You cannot punish yourself out of this. You aren’t being lazy, you are being mortal. That’s okay.
  4. Don’t think that you can jump straight back into full days or pre-episode efforts right away. Take it easy when you get back. Maybe you can get right back on the horse, but I would recommend trying half or quarter efforts first. 
  5. I have realized this problem is recurring for me, so I’m going to build a backlog of posts, stories, etc. This means I’ll have something to fall back on when this happens again. At the very least I want to have blog posts I can schedule so I don’t miss a Saturday post. 

What does the future hold?

Unknown. I will continue to work on getting back to a normal, full-time schedule, and then I’m going to try to keep track of everything from here on out. Major events, hours worked, the way I feel after each day is over and throughout the day as well, to make sure I’m not doing this to myself through overwork. I’m also going to keep an eye on what I’m eating, how much I’m exercising, how often I see the sun (hiss), and the like. Maybe I’ll figure out some kind of formula for how I can minimize future episodes. For now I’m going to keep being kind to myself so I can continue even a little.

25 Things to Do While Your NaNo Novel Rests

You’ve finished your NaNoNovel? Congratulations! Or maybe you got all 50,000 words down, but those don’t include “The End” just yet. That’s still freaking awesome. Or is it that you know you’ll cross that finish line, just not in November of this year? That’s okay too!

If you’re in the last two groups, keep at it! Don’t burn yourself out, of course, but don’t quit just because an arbitrary deadline has passed. If you’re a part of the first group, though, you’re probably wondering, “what do I do now?”

person wearing shirt standing near tree
Photo by Alex Smith on Pexels.com

DON’T EDIT

Let me say that again: PUT. THE NOVEL. DOWN. Don’t edit it, don’t read it, don’t think about it. Set it aside, covered, where you won’t be tempted to take a peek. I know everything in your being wants to get back to work (or burn it, even – I get that, too), but don’t. This is the resting period. 

Nearly every writer will tell you that after you write something, you need to let it rest before you edit it, and that’s because you need to give room for the fairies to sneak in at night and fix everything that’s wrong wit–I’m just kidding. But once you get some space between you and your writing, it will seem to change. Passages you thought were terrible when you wrote it will actually seem pretty amazing, sections you thought were great will somehow be awful. Problems and plot holes will become more obvious, but also fixable. Let it rest. Trust me. Editing now will only harm what you have.

So what do I do?

Firstly, secure your novel. You might also want to back it up somewhere in a second location – off-site if you’re thorough – and then give some of these activities a try! Some are serious, some are fun, some are both. But all are worth giving a shot to distract you from your novel just waiting for you to finish it.

Things to do:

  1. Plan how long you’ll let your novel rest. Stephen King says to wait at least six weeks before even thinking about it again. Other writers say anywhere from a day to a year. The longer you wait the better it’ll be, up until the point you lose interest in your book.
  2. Update your followers on your NaNoWriMo success! Don’t have followers? Well…
  3. Start working on your social media profiles, stat. I’m not an expert on social media just yet, but I’ll also work on this while I wait on my own NaNoNovel.  
  4. Flavia Young suggests that you plan your editing strategy for when it’s time to start editing. Figure out what your pace will be like, but be realistic: if you think you can only edit a page a day with your schedule or brain power, do that – a page a day for 365 days is better than doing 100 pages all at once and then never touching it again because you burned yourself out.
  5. Be on the lookout for the editing post I’ll put out soon.
  6. Suzannah Freeman suggests that you set new writing goals, and I agree. What are you going to write next? A suggestion I’ve seen before is to write the first draft of one book, set is aside and immediately start a new book. Finish that first draft, and only then start to edit the first one. Alternatively you can try your hand at writing short stories or your own blog about your NaNo experience. Or cats. Whatever – I’m not a cop.
  7. If you want to go the traditional publishing route, I would recommend you start looking into agents and such. Not querying yet, but looking at their reviews and what kinds of books they represent to get an idea of where your novel fits.
  8. For self-publishing, start looking into what you need to do this: editors, book cover designers, beta readers, sensitivity readers, etc. What platform are you going to publish on? Where does your novel fit in that realm?
  9. Keep working on your writing skills: 
    1. Online courses.
    2. YouTube videos.
    3. Practice with short stories and take them to workshops and meetups for critiquing.
    4. Learn new words.
    5. Read read read!
  10. Pick up a new hobby – getting hands on experience with the world can only be good for your writing. I started gardening in the summer, and soon I’ll be building a garden bed to get ready for Spring next year. I’ve also got a few other hobbies lined up for once that’s done, as I imagine this winter will be a long one. 
  11. Finish your research! Anything that you avoided looking up while trying to get your 1667/day is now open season. Go ahead and find the air speed velocity of a coconut-laden swallow, or whatever else you wanted in your story but used a placeholder instead. 
  12. Jo Gatford has a (great) list of things to do after your first draft as well, including some bits that involve your novel, if you can’t stand to completely step away. 
  13. Get back in touch with all the loved ones you alienated during November! If you were smart, you stayed at home during the holidays, but you probably should have called them once or twice. Or showed up to shove food in your face during your Thanksgiving zoom call. I don’t really know how that goes, honestly. Whatever leafs your family’s tree, I guess.
  14. Make up fun phrases, like I just did there. Make sure to write them down so you can shoehorn them into your next project.
  15. Do your laundry. No doubt you skimped on anything you could during this month, and laundry is one we’ve all been slacking on recently anyway. Who cares if your pajama pants smell a tad ripe? We’re in the apocalypse! Well, now is the time you can start thinking about how you appear to others, if only to rebuild your self-confidence after a month of doubt, pain, and disappointment. Or, if you actually got to 50 thousand words, use your excess energy to get cleaned up for all the rounds of bragging you’re going to do.
  16. Catch up on all the video games, TV, and movies you missed out on.
  17. Get some new pajama pants. I’m assuming, if you’re anything like me, you wore a hole in every single pair you own, since no one is wearing real pants nowadays. Spruce up your winter wardrobe with a whole new set of PJs and sweats.
  18. Feed your pets. You…you did have someone take care of that for November, right? Oh dear…well: 
  19. Regain the trust of your feral house animals. Since they were forced to go lord of the flies on your pantry while you pecked away at the keyboard, they no doubt have a little lingering mistrust toward you. Try to earn that back with treats and scritches.
  20. Go for a walk, or at least see the sun. 
  21. Practice your signature! While it’s too early to start to really dream about success, it might take some time to figure out the perfect way to sign your name on your new novel. And lord knows you don’t want to be caught off guard with a weird scribble.
  22. Find some new bloggers to follow.
  23. Eat a damn vegetable. If you’re anything like me, you eat like shit when you’re busy. Here’s your chance to try to off-set an entire month of pizza with a carrot or something.
  24. Journal about your month. Think about what could have gone better, or what ended up working really well. How did this month feel to you? Rushed? Exciting? Painful? Why?
  25. Breathe: you made it! Whether you actually got to 50k or not doesn’t matter. You gave it a shot and made it to the other side. If you’re reading this, it means that you still want to write, and that’s a win in my book. Again, if you didn’t quite get to the finish line yet, that’s okay. I didn’t either! What’s a problem is if you decide to quit altogether.

    Maybe you came to the conclusion that you just don’t like writing as much as you thought, and that’s okay. But if you do like writing, don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t get to a made up goal set by someone you’ve never met. And if you did make it, make sure to take a moment to celebrate how far you’ve come. Which is only part of the way, I hope you know.

    Editing and rewriting (yes, you get to do all of this again!) is a big part of the process and can be daunting. So catch your breath. Enjoy the view. You’ve earned it.

NaNoWriMo Week 4: Almost There

Huck is a mood.

This week has been a little different mostly because of the holiday. I figured out a new way to approach my writing (at least for this novel), and had a weird turn off/turn back on troubleshooting moment for my brain. Either way, I’m kinda glad this week is over. Back to the regularly scheduled programming on Monday.

11.23.20

As I said before, I’m taking weekends off. I hoped doing this would give me another crazy boost in creativity today as it had last week, but instead I just stared at what I felt was the worst fucking novel ever attempted to be written.

I haven’t decided yet if this is a valid feeling, or just the “I’m a creator” feeling. Instead of deciding, though, I spent two hours trying to fix it, then gave up and started writing whatever. This gets the story on paper that I can fix, rewrite, or burn to the ground later. My new mantra is just get it done.

The results: surprisingly good. I came up with new scenes that do a better job of foreshadowing than I had originally planned and the timeline makes a little more sense now. There’s still some blank spots in my plot, but I don’t care anymore. As long as I know what’s going to happen at the beginning of the next writing session, that’s all that matters.

I’m planning on sticking to the original major plot points, but going freestyle on everything else. This will allow me to stay loose but on a general pathway to the end. Once I’m done with the whole book, I’ll go back and outline to catch plot holes, map out points of view and foreshadowing better, and to make sure everything makes sense. 

That also allows me to think more in-depth about every single scene without that being a hindrance to me getting words down. I can reassess character motivations and goals for every time they appear. Setting scenes will be easier, too. I can add in sensory details as needed or make sure tension is properly built or dissipated. There are other things I’ll be looking out for, I’m sure, but that’s all I can think of.

Anyhow, after outlining it all, I can then plan my editing much better. Knowing that I need to add a scene in chapter 12 before I’ve rewritten the whole book for tone makes each editorial pass much easier and consistent. I assume. That’s what I hope, anyway.

I’m mostly rambling now. The moral of the story is, I hated my book and the characters and everything ever. Then I said fuck it and kept writing what I was writing anyway, and wrote myself into a better mood. So if you hate your book right now, don’t worry. Just keep going. Don’t delete anything: JUST. KEEP. WRITING. I’ll let you know how tomorrow pans out. 

11.24.20

Today has been a weird day. Just the general feel of the house has been…off. I want to say that this shouldn’t affect me, that I should be able to just put some headphones on and vibe to the sounds of creepy castles or whatever the fuck I’ve decided to zone out on that day, but it does. I’m only human, after all, and it’s really annoying. If I could stop, that’d be great. 

But I can’t. So here I am, with a weird feeling day. I managed to write about 1300 words, and they weren’t half-bad, so that’s good. They even had something to do with the storyline, which is great. But it was like chipping through rocks. Now I’m back to the rest of my day and hopefully the mood of the house improves dramatically. I don’t know. We’ll see.

Tomorrow’s been set up well, though. I’m mid-scene so getting back into the zone should be easy. Hopefully.

11.25.20

I have decided that today until at least Friday I’m going to work half days worldbuilding. I’ll be picking a location or two and going more into depth about the people there, the history, the layout, and the feel. That way when I write about something happening there, I can visualize it a little better. I may not even go back to reference what I’ve written, but the important part is that I’ve taken the time to design it in my head.

Today was the church again and the main character’s home. I’m…kinda becoming obsessed with this church, to be honest.

But, in an hour I managed to get both set up and figured out and ended up writing 1,268 words. Tomorrow I’m planning on working on the bar, and probably another place, too. Maybe one of the ritual sites. We’ll see. It’s been pretty relaxed today, with words just kinda falling out of my fingers. It feels nice describing places. 

11.26.20

I am writing this entry on the 27th because the 26th was just…I was a zombie yesterday, basically. I have some chronic medical issues I won’t go into here and they were flaring up really bad yesterday and have been a little more than usual for some time now. When I’m in pain for long periods of time I start to get really frustrated and depressed and it kinda all piled on at once. So I did almost nothing but read or stare into space all day. Or sleep, I did a lot of sleeping, too. 

11.27.20

Today I feel like a completely new person. There’s still some pain, as usual, but it’s at a more tolerable level, and all the sleep and zoning out really got me back to myself again. Worked on worldbuilding some more so the town really feels like a real place to me now. At least, it’s getting there. I really wish I was much better at drawing than I am now because I have the strongest urge to sketch everything out. The buildings, the town, the characters…it would be so great. That’s okay though, I need some other hobby to take part in when I’m not working now, since my hobby was working. I think it’s going to be drawing. So that…I can…be working…while I’m not working…let’s just ignore that part for now. I like living in alternate universes, okay? Can you really blame me? 

Anyway, the plan for the weekend is to enjoy the weekend, but I can’t really guarantee that this is what’s actually going to happen. I don’t know, we’ll see.

The Mishmash of Techniques I’m Using to Plot my NaNoNovel

emotional woman with sprinkles on tongue
This was an available stock photo, so now you have to look at it.
Photo by Cleyton Ewerton on Pexels.com

Plot is one of the hardest parts about writing a book (for me at least). You might have a great character and an awesome world, but it’s going to be really hard to sell if they read all day. 

Depending on who you ask, there are anywhere from 2 to 21 different plots (from “happy or sad ending” to “man vs. man,” “man vs. self,” and so on).  This means a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done for you, with regard to overall structure of plot. This doesn’t mean you have an excuse to plagiarize, but at least you can easily look up simple things like pacing and progress. 

Along with plotting a novel, there’s the idea of outlining it. Some people balk at this idea, being true “pantsers” – those who go into a novel blind, just a general idea of genre and a character or two and then let them run around doing things. In contrast, you have your “planners” who outline everything down to the very scene. Most of my life, however, I have been a combination of the two: a “planster.” 

How I used to do it

I used to think of a vague backstory for why everyone is where they are and who they are, and then think about something that could happen to them. This usually means writing a chapter or two to get an idea for everything. 

As I write the characters, I would close my eyes and imagine actually being them, and trying to think of how they would react to anything thrown their way. Each character got their chance to react as required, and then their reactions (or proactivity) would trigger something new to happen and so on until I reached the end. 

If I had certain scenes I think of during this process, I might skip ahead to write it in a vacuum, or I’d skip over parts that weren’t as interesting. But this ended with me without a real ending, or, if I had an ending, I had a squishy, terrible middle. Side plots might become important but didn’t actually line up chronologically with the rest of the story without adding a bunch of fluff. When it came time to edit, my story was a mess and none of it would be salvageable without a complete rewrite. 

Enter in the research

In doing research on plotting, I’ve found quite a few great resources I am officially stealing from:

The inside outline from Author Accelerator, is a concept that includes the advice I already applied naturally, but inconsistently. The way you should be able to tell your story is not, “This happens and THEN this happens” – it is “this happens, and BECAUSE of this, that happens.” They have a LOT more information about plotting, and I recommend you check them out. They will occasionally have free webinars available teaching the basics of this process.

Lisa Cron’s Story Genius (as I’m sure some of you are sick of hearing me reference), is all about finding your character’s emotional third rail and making sure everything happening in your story pertains to it – whether that’s helping to resolve it or aggravating it. This helps keep you focused on the plot that truly matters and you don’t accidentally end up with a bunch of stuff happening to people with no reason for any reader to care.

I recently began watching Brandon Sanderson’s BYU lectures on Youtube and in his episodes on plot, he mentions another somewhat intuitive-but-also-entirely-not-at-all concept: progress. What keeps people turning the pages of your novel is being able to track your characters as they make headway into whatever it is they are doing. This might be collecting all the magic artifacts to defeat the evil sorcerer or checking each town to see if the princess is hiding there, or even just obviously having incremental progress in overcoming their fear of other people. It’s anything concrete you can check off a list and see the story is, in fact, going somewhere.

My new, experimental method of plotting

engineer working with laptop at table
Safety first when experimenting!
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Step one: Decide what kind of progress I want my characters to make based off of the goals I gave the characters already.

Step two: Connect that progress with the emotional third rail of my characters/story.

Step three: Write down the barest of outlines. The beginning, each progress step, a climax somewhere, and the end.

Step four: Start connecting those bits of progress with scenes that happen with the idea of “because this happens, this happens” as with the inside outline concept.

Step five: Repeat step four until I have every progress point, the beginning, and the end connected.

Step six: Begin to outline all the chapters and scenes and figure out exactly what will be told by whom (since I currently have two points of view to deal with).

So far…

…this is working pretty okay. I fell back to outlining the first chapter or so to get an idea of where it’s starting and to build a sort of momentum. It’s also difficult to jump so far ahead in determining when and where the progress points will happen. I have this fear that by the time I get to where one was supposed to be, the story will be dramatically different and it won’t make sense where/how I put it. 

But that’s the beauty of the frist draft: I can change anything I want in any way I want. If I really get going with writing the scenes and realize it’s not working, I am allowed to completely abandon the prep work I did and see where it goes.

My goal is to finish the damn book. I have left far too many novels unfinished in my time, and I have vowed never to do it again. In fact, the plan is to finish this one and then go back to the others, even if I need to gut them entirely. Wish me luck!


How about you? What have you been plotting? How have you been plotting? How’s it going for you?

The Tip of the Worldbuilding Iceberg

iceberg
Photo by Jean-Christophe André on Pexels.com

There is so much to write on this topic, but today I’m going to cover what you need to get started for NaNoWriMo. I also won’t be talking too much about my novel’s world, as discovery is a part of the story I’m writing. This post is more the process I’m using to do worldbuilding.

What is worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding is exactly what it sounds like: you are building the world your characters live in. This can be as simple as “the same town and neighborhood as I live in” or as complex as “I have created an entire universe and multiple languages from scratch.” Neither is better than the other, so long as it fits the story you’re trying to tell. 

A (terrible) example of why you should worldbuild first

person in yellow coveralls spraying plant
Those ninjas can hide anywhere.
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Rafael finally got to the last stair in the building, huffing as he stumbled onto the office floor. The windows opened to the massive cityscape, awakening for the day. He only had a moment to appreciate it before a shuriken whooshed by his ear, implanting itself into the wall. 

“Great,” he muttered. 

He ducked under the nearest desk and managed to get a clear view of the stairwell. Ninjas poured in from the floors both above and below, but he knew just what to do. Out of his pocket he pulled a spray bottle labeled NINJA REPELLANT and sprayed every one of those pajama’d assholes until they ran back up the stairs. All except one who was immune. Rafael had to take out his gun and shoot this one in the face. 

“My hero!” cried the prince. He stood and embraced Rafael, covering him in flop sweat. 

“Let’s get out of here. I’ll buy you a beer.” They then opened the door to the street on their left and shared a horse to the honky tonk down the old dusty road, stars settling upon the prairie. 

Wat

This story is a mess. Ignoring the brilliant writing (I’m just trying to prove a point, okay?), it can’t seem to decide on a location, time period, or even the make up of the building. Let’s break this down a bit, just in case you missed it due to my amazing storytelling: 

  • The very first sentence suggested Rafael had reached the top floor of the building (“the last stair”). However, once the ninjas started pouring in, they were coming from “the floors both above and below,” and at the end the ninjas “ran back up the stairs.” Then Rafael and the prince opened the door “to their left” and stepped out onto the ground.
  • The description of the view out of the windows suggests it is early morning in a city (“massive cityscape, just beginning to wake for the day”), but this quick encounter ends with them riding away on a horse and “stars settling upon the prairie.” 
  • The weapons used (specifically the ninja repellant) didn’t have consistent rules, working when it was convenient, not working when it was dramatic. 
  • Finally, we have ninjas, a prince, a modern day cityscape/country town, and a guy who carries a gun and rides a horse. What era is this? Why are all of these types of people cobbled together?

Sure, you could come up with all sorts of reasons why the details line up this way, but you won’t have the opportunity to explain it to your readers. Too many inconsistencies makes it a lot harder to suspend disbelief and, unfortunately, this is exactly what you need to do when you’re reading a story involving ninja repellant. 

Why

Proper worldbuilding gives your readers something to stand on: rules, physics, culture. Actions have consequences in a world fleshed out. 

Worldbuilding also allows your reader to fully disappear into the world. When I first saw the Cantina scene in A New Hope, I could see a whole world of possibility open up before me. I could imagine myself living and working in Mos Eisley. This not only made the events happening there feel grounded, but it also made me go back for the Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina book that came out afterward.

Finally, if you weren’t yet convinced, worldbuilding can help you if you get stuck. Going through the process of building a world, looking at its history and geography and cultures, can generate a heck of a lot of ideas. If, for example, you know there is a war going on between two factions, why not have your protagonist stumble upon a group of soldiers?

Even if you’re writing a story based off of a real place, it is important to understand things such as how long it takes to get from one part of the city to the other, or the history of different areas, all for the same reasons listed above.

How do you build worlds?

assorted map pieces
So. Many. Maps.
Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

To reiterate, there are so many books and blogs and videos covering how to create a world, and there is no way I can cover everything in one blog post. Because of this, I am going to cover just the very tip of the process I’m using for NaNoWriMo. So how am I building this world.

Imagine your world. Your real one. IRL. Meatspace. Let’s start with the simple things: what’s the name of the planet? The name of the country and the state or province you live in? Go farther down: city, county/parish, the part of town, your neighborhood, your building. Now think about places you go: restaurants, friends’ houses, work.

This is a lot of very important information, but all this does is create a map. 

Think about why things are the way they are – maybe read up on your city’s history. Was it started by merchants trying to scrape by on a popular trade route? Was it founded by a religious group looking for freedom or a promised land? The farther back you go in history, the more it sounds like a story anyway, but you’ll also learn credible ways to establish places in your fictional world. This is important, because it sets a sort of foundation for how and why your city was set up. Is it mostly markets or museums? Are there a lot of hospitals in your area? Did the city form organically, with winding streets that make little sense today or was it meticulously planned and set in squares? Is there a distinct divide in your town? Why? What’s the dividing factor?

Systems

Now think of all the systems you encounter: governments (federal and local), employers, HOAs, public transit. How and why  were they established? How do you interact with those systems and how do those systems interact with each other? Do they at all? Do they conflict? If they do, who wins out and why? How does this affect the way your world runs? How does this affect supply runs and emergency services and utilities like running/potable water or electricity? Could this be easily exploited or is it solid and secure? How does this affect the people’s attitude about where they live and who governs them?

Culture

This isn’t always just “‘MURICA” (or whatever other places exist out there*). There is a subtlety to everything. Such as: who do you consider your “superiors” and “subordinates?” Who does the culture you’re a part of consider your “superiors” and “subordinates?” Are these the same? Why or why not? What about your neighboring cultures? Are there any other cultures around you or are you in a bit of a culture bubble? Why? How does this affect the cooperation and attitudes between people in your area?

*I kid, I kid, I’m sure there are…a couple of other countries besides us…right?

Other questions to think about: Who do you live with and why? Why do you live in the place you do? Is it common for others to live in similar situations as you? How common is it for others to travel far from their place of birth where you live? How does this affect attitudes regarding “outsiders?” Do you celebrate holidays? Why? Do you celebrate the same holidays as your neighbors? How common is that answer in the country you live in? Why? What about religions, superstitions, rituals (religious or otherwise – think handshakes or promposals)? 

One more thing to think about when it comes to culture are your characters you’ve already created. Make sure they fit this world, and if not, then there should be the proper consequences. Are they loud and obnoxious, even though they work in a monastery library? Make sure they get hushed and punished appropriately. Are they openly a part of an illegal religion? Maybe they are being hunted down by the law enforcement of that town. Are they hiding their involvement? Maybe they’re just being watched – and you know in either situation they probably aren’t too pleased with authority.

Putting it all together

This is a ridiculously small sampling of the different things you can plan out while worldbuilding. You can also go back as far as you want – even to the beginning of time if that has any kind of bearing on your story or its setting. In my novel I’m having to decide on the nature of the universe and how existence came to be, even though that’s not revealed in this particular novel.

Most of what you write in worldbuilding won’t be used directly, but it will help to shape and color your world to make a story that feels like it actually happened.

I suggest you give this a try for NaNoWriMo. See how much of a difference it makes. The questions here aren’t enough to make an in-depth world, but it is definitely enough to inspire your own questions. Look at your day, your inconveniences, your friends, your activities, keep asking why, and see what kinds of ways you can draw parallels between your actual world and your fictional one.

As this is my favorite part of writing, I will definitely be posting more on this in the future.

Additional Resources

The SFWA has a resource by Patricia C. Wrede for questions to ask yourself while worldbuilding as well: https://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/04/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

Avoiding “worldbuilder’s disease” by Michael Schultheiss: https://medium.com/@Michael_Schultheiss/worldbuilding-fiction-avoiding-worldbuilders-disease-a3a30196ae53

Creating Characters: Don’t ask what tree they would be

This tree is obviously the main character in this story.

CW: This post briefly mentions fictional suicide as I talk about backstory for a character I created for my story.

For Prepapalooza so far, we’ve talked about the parts of a story and how to get ideas. Today, let’s get started with creating the heart and soul of your story: your characters.

Who are you?

appetizing bread breakfast close up
My favorite meal is breakfast, in case you decide to write about me.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Write down a list of facts about yourself. Eye color, height, weight, hobbies, your favorite kind of tea, how do you eat your toast, are you a lefty or a righty…now take another look at this information. How well do you think someone could get to you know you based off of this information? Do you think they could judge if they should trust you or not?

Alternatively, write a scene in which you had an argument with a friend. Write about a time your beliefs were changed and what happened to those beliefs. What about a childhood fantasy – your “I wanna be an astronaut when I grow up” story? Can someone make judgements based on those?

We are not a collection of facts. We are our dreams, our beliefs, our desires, and our stories…and the same goes for our characters.

Characters are so much more than their appearance and favorite foods. They are more than if they are messy or organized. These are all superficial traits that can be changed at the drop of a hat with a little bit of description here, a line of dialogue there, and pow – your Mary Sue just went from liking apples to despising them. Don’t get me wrong, you need to know basic facts about your characters as well as things like their daily routine, but you shouldn’t stop there.

So what should I ask them?

After doing research on how other people create their characters, I have managed to combine their thoughts about personality traits, etc. into one succinct list of questions that I’m going to put into practice for this novel. It seems…odd I suppose, but just roll with it. So far it’s been helping immensely.

Who is your character?

I swear this isn’t the only question. That’d be some high-level trolling if it were.

Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius is more about how to construct a story, but it revolves around a character’s “third rail” or the emotional charge throughout the book. She believes that each character starts off with at least one desire and one belief that keeps them from obtaining this desire. This fact is what she builds her stories on, and is actually the reason I put this article before the setting and plot posts. Once you know what your character wants, you can figure out how they go about getting it.

For my NaNo novel, I have two main characters. One of them is named Pers, and they are the one I am going to use as an example of this process. Pers’s father committed suicide when they were young, and they would like nothing more than to learn how to help others dealing with mental illness. They also, however, believe that they cannot deal with emergency situations or would be strong enough to cope with the stresses of providing mental healthcare (or healthcare in general). They generally believe that they are weak and weak-willed, and this holds them back from their dream job.

They have a lot in their history that has sculpted their disposition at the beginning of the novel, mostly dealing with the fallout of that tragic event and the changes that took place in their mother as she went through the grieving process. I won’t outline them all here, but it’s something you can use to start to work on your own characters.

Why is your character?

Most of these questions aren’t exactly grammatically correct, but you’re just going to have to deal with it.

Is your character shy? Outspoken? Quick to anger? Are they messy, a go-getter, a cheat, a liar? Do they tell the truth even when it will hurt themselves or someone else? Knowing the answers to these questions is great, but knowing why these are the answers is even better. 

For everything you arbitrarily assign your character, you should find out why they are like that. And don’t read too much into the word “arbitrarily.” We all will assign traits willy-nilly because that’s what we picked out of a hat or that’s what the plot needs. What makes these assignments meaningful is what we do with them. 

Figure out why your character turned out an angry person, and you can start to build a much deeper backstory for them than just “they are mad all the time.”

Pers, for this example, is the type of person to not stand up for themself. In order to make this a more solid trait, I asked why – why aren’t they more assertive to get their needs met? After looking into their past I decided their mother fostered these feelings. They were already going to be living with their uncle (the other MC) at the beginning of the story because their mother kicked them out. So they had a father that committed suicide and a mother that was the type to abandon them later. This means that they would have attachment issues, making sure they don’t drive anyone away. Attachment issues easily translate into “I would say something but it might make them angry, so I’ll just stay quiet and deal with it.” Knowing reasons for their personality gives me some character development for their mother now, too.

How was your character…?

photo of woman holding flower
How was your character affected by being a flower person?
Photo by Dg fotografo on Pexels.com

Sometimes, you can’t ask “why.” “Why does your character have red hair,” yes, could be explained by saying “it was the postal worker” if their parents both have blonde hair. However, asking “how was your character affected by this” helps in determining what their mindset is at the beginning of the story. This is the backwards version of the previous question. Look at each one of the basic facts about your character – their family size, their socioeconomic status, their race – and really delve into how that affected them growing up and how it affects them now in your story. 

When developing this system, I thought this question was kind of a stretch (hindsight, okay?) but gave it a shot anyway. It actually got me through most of my creation process. I won’t go through every little item here, because there is a lot. Since they study psychology and their are from a family that has a history of poor mental health, they are prone to doing more self-care items: journaling, meditation, etc. but only when it is convenient and doesn’t get in anyone’s way (see lack of assertiveness/attachment issues above).

Both them and their uncle have issues with abandonment, for some overlapping reasons, but their uncle has a tendency to hold everyone at arm’s length. Pers tends to take this personally, and so this makes them feel very self conscious about themself and how much space they take up in the house/their uncle’s list of concerns.

When is your character?

“When” in their life are they? Technically this is a where question, but just go along with it. Are they full matured and at the end of their natural life? Are they fresh-faced and ready to party? Think about this while keeping in mind that your character should have a lot of room to grow. The exception is if they are a static character like Sherlock Holmes in the original series. Another consideration is where you want them at the end of the story. What’s the progression you want them to make?

Pers is primed and ready to become a functioning adult, but is too damn afraid to make that leap. There’s lots of room for growth for them: they need to develop the ability to stand up for themselves, they need to get rid of their fear of the unknown, and they need to learn how to trust both themself and others.

What is your character?

This is more about how they fit into the story mechanics. Are they the main character or the antagonist? Are they a love interest anywhere? Are they necessary? Some people create a truckload of characters when they should combine most of them into just a couple of people.

Pers is one of two point of view (POV) characters. This means they are a main character whose story will be told through their eyes. They are very necessary to the plot and are the ones that will provide a lot of context for what’s happening through what they discover in the course of the novel.

Other things to consider

Stereotypes

Stereotypes are traits or entire characters that embody an individual in a specific group. This can be based on race, gender, body type or any number of categories. They are not only offensive, but also make for boring, lazy writing.

There are a lot of resources out there to help you avoid problems when writing diverse characters. A book I’m currently reading and cannot recommend enough is How to Write Black Characters: An Incomplete Guide. Obviously there are far more categories out there, and Salt and Sage Books is developing an entire series. The other one I saw is How to Write Asexual Characters, so it seems like they will be hitting quite the spectrum of diversity.

If you aren’t in a specific group, it doesn’t matter how many books you read or movies you watch, you will still never fully understand what it’s like being a part of that group. That’s okay so long as you try in earnest and make sure you get some sensitivity readers. Not to mention, y’know, actually including all types of people in your social/professional circles…

Side characters

Depending on the world you are creating and the particular scene you’re building, you may need a lot of background characters. I consider background characters more a part of setting/worldbuilding than actual characters. They vaguely represent the world your story takes place in and do not have “speaking roles” unless a snippet is overheard here or there. However, when your main characters interact with an individual, you start to get into side characters.

These are the characters who appear several times throughout the story but only serve a tiny part in the plot. They speak, they have personality, they might even have a home, but they aren’t necessarily as deep as your main characters. Even if you create them to be as deep as your main characters, you won’t be putting all of that on the page.

This is where I quote someone much more experienced than I, Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

If they have a speaking role of any kind, make sure they have a purpose and a desire. Otherwise it will seem oddly hollow. You don’t have to completely spell it out, but make sure you know what it is. Maybe the clerk really does want to help check your MC’s bags. Maybe the barista would like to be anywhere but in that particular coffee shop. It doesn’t have to be life-altering, just something to make them seem more human instead of a prop for your scene.

Motivation and Stakes

astronomy atmosphere earth exploration
Too big to care.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This is another bit of advice from Cron (seriously, you need this book). The idea is to think about not only the “why” of your character, but “why is the why a thing?” You need to keep asking why until you have something super specific so you understand their exact state of mind, and what they feel is at stake in the story. This helps to build empathy. There’s a difference between “they want to save the world because if it blows up there’s no world any more” and “they need to save the world because if they don’t, their abusive step mother would be right about how worthless they are, and they will disappoint their little sister who admires them yet again.” 

I can’t relate to needing to save the world, but I sure as hell know what it’s like to let someone down or prove an asshole right. 

In conclusion

This is NaNoWriMo – you are writing the absolute first draft, a.k.a. a pile of literary poo. Your characters might not be perfect from the start. Hell, your characters might be completely different by the time the month is over, and I don’t mean because they learned lots of life lessons. You will change your mind, get rid of characters, combine characters, add characters, and possibly fall in love with one that doesn’t really fit but you’re going to try to jam them into the plot anyway because you can’t bear to part with them (remember, you can use that character in another story one day so try not to do this last one, yeah?). 

The important part, in this series at least, is to have something – anything – to start with come November 1st. 

What about you? Who are your characters? Do you have any insights from the way you created yours? 

NaNoWriMo Prepapalooza: What makes a story?

photo of person holding book
Photo by Mark Neal on Pexels.com

There are a million different articles and texts written about each component of a story and what they mean, and I’m sure MFAs could rattle them off in their sleep. But this is my blog dammit, so I’ll be explaining it my own way. Who knows? Maybe this explanation will be the one to click for you.

Most of these sections will be the focus of future articles, so don’t worry if I seem to be glossing over them. I only want to point out the basic building blocks. This gives you something to start with for NaNoWriMo, and the rest of the “Prepapalooza” series. Not to mention any other time to start to write a story.

So what makes up a story? My oversimplified version is: It’s something that happens to someone, somewhere, while making a point

A funny thing happened on the way to the theater…

First up, the something/someone/somewhere: your plot, your characters and your setting. Nothing can happen without these. If we were building a building, these would be the bricks in the walls.

Something that happens 

This is the plot, the sequence of events, in your story. If your story was about someone who went to a store, then the plot would be all about encountering traffic, fighting for a parking spot, and so on. 

I say “something that happens to someone,” but there are some options here. If things keep happening to someone regardless of what they do, this would be a plot-driven story: the characters don’t have much influence over what happens, it just kinda…happens. If you have someone who goes out and does things on their own, however, this is a character-driven story. 

There might be perfectly valid reasons for having a plot-driven story, but it is generally considered more interesting to have a character with agency over their destiny.

Side note: this is also something to keep in mind about your own life.

Somewhere 

This is your setting: where and when the story takes place. This can be as broad as the entire universe since the dawn of time stretching all the way until the end of time, or you could have a story happen within a single place, during a fraction of a second. Setting is also a great place to get started with worldbuilding, but that’s another post.

Someone

This is your main character (MC). Besides the MC, you also have supporting characters, villains, disposable characters, etc. They need not only be people, either. There are many stories where there are animals and even cities as characters. 

An important thing to think about when it comes to your characters is their arc – who is this person before the beginning of the story and who will they become over the course of it? It’s rare that a compelling story is told without the transformation of at least one central character, and in fact, you can base your entire story on how they change and why. 

How You Tell the Story

photo of old church building under cloudy sky
The best bricks mean nothing if you can’t hold them together.
Photo by Harry Smith on Pexels.com

If the previous section described different types of bricks you put together to create a building, then this section is the mortar that holds them together. Without the glue that binds your characters, setting, and plot, you won’t know what any of it looks or sounds like, and you wouldn’t understand what’s going on.

What it looks like

This is description, where you talk about how the light reflects off of someone’s hair or the motion a person makes as they swipe with their knife. It’s the way we communicate plot and setting, otherwise it’s just a list of action words and place names. 

There’s a bit of a problem with description: a lot of writers tend to overdo it. Some want you to see every inch of their world how they see it. While that’s not a bad thing in itself, it gets boring fast. I have a tendency to skip over large descriptive paragraphs when reading unless masterfully written (like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods). Too little description, however, and it becomes confusing: “Where are they again? What’s happening? Which guy is talking?” It’s like trying to watch a movie mid Twitter argument. 

What it sounds like 

This is dialogue – what your characters are saying. Many writers struggle with this part, especially when it comes to characters from a different demographic.

Dialogue is not a way to pad your word count, by the way. What your characters say and how they say it can be clues to their backstory, ideals, and morality, especially when coupled with what they do. If someone is always gently reassuring your main character then turns around and stabs them, then you get a better idea of who they are. 

What’s Going on 

This is not plot exactly, but a way to explain the plot or the world, exposition being the technical term. Exposition is outright saying exactly what’s happening. Instead of painting a picture of a military force destroying a castle and killing the inhabitants, you would simply state that a military coup is underway. This is a mechanic of storytelling that has a time and a place and should be used sparingly. It’s usually written as dialogue, in fact, and comes in the form of one character explaining something to another. 

For example, there’s a Sci-fi trope of what I call the uninitiated observer: in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for example, you had the completely ignorant Arthur Dent. He is accompanied by Ford Prefect, who is there to explain how life in the rest of the galaxy works. Arthur also has access to the actual guide mentioned in the title, which does more of the same. 

It feels natural in this scenario, because we’re starting with the same knowledge that Arthur has, learning with him. However, this is easily overdone. “Expositional dumping” is just having paragraphs of information about your world, a character, or the plot, and comes off dry as all hell. “Show don’t tell” is the adage, and for good reason.

The point of it all

beautiful bloom blooming close up
Photo by Jovana Nesic on Pexels.com

If the first two sections were bricks and mortar, this next bit is the reason why everything was built in the first place. You don’t typically start with this why, however. Many writers write an entire story, then on the first editorial pass, they decide which incidental pieces to develop. These inform the first of many rewrites. These last pieces of your story are theme, moral, allegory, and metaphor.

Theme 

The theme is a recurring thought or idea in a story. For example, you can have the theme of loss throughout your entire piece, physical and emotional. 

Moral

The lesson behind the story. If you start writing a story with a moral in mind, you will most likely end up writing something very preachy. Think of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” for example. I mean, do whatever you want, I’m not a cop.

Metaphor 

I had to do quite a bit of reading on this topic to grasp the difference between a metaphor and an allegory. Metaphors are a way to illustrate something else in a simpler way. For example, if you wanted to use a rose as a metaphor for a couple’s relationship, it could slowly die as their marriage falls apart. It doesn’t add any extra information, just simplifies what you already have.

Allegory 

I had to look this up just to make sure I understood it. Allegories are like a metaphor that explains a concept in ways you are more likely to understand. For example, while the rose might be a metaphor for the couple’s marriage, the decline of their relationship might be written in just such a way as to describe, I don’t know, the decline of the millennial’s relationship with capitalism. 

Note: you do not need to have a metaphor linked to an allegory, this was just a way to contrast the two. 

Next Steps

Every one of these pieces has a lot of information to read up on, but I hope this is enough to get you started for now. Please take the ideas you come up with and have fun trying to work some of these in there. The last section you can definitely use as a way to stretch yourself if you are already comfortable with the rest of them. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re still not sure how to incorporate them in your writing. We’ll work on all of these concepts together later.


Do you know you struggle with any of these story parts? Which one and why? Check back in next week when we’ll be talking about where to get ideas.

NaNoWriMo 2020 Prepapalooza

I started NaNoWriMo (“Nano” before I lose my mind typing) in earnest about three or four times since 2008, under two or three different usernames. I mean to do it every year, and I completed it exactly once in 2009. That book is in my WIP list as BS-183. It’s terrible in some ways, great in others. I will most likely tear it apart and put it back together again one day.

Every year has been the same: October 20ish appears out of nowhere, and I realize that Nano’s around the corner. One year I didn’t catch on until November 2nd. But this year, I’ve been prepping. 

If you want to participate in NaNoWriMo this year, then follow along! I’ll be doing a series of articles on how I’ve been prepping to hopefully make the 50k mark a lot easier to achieve. 

But what is NaNoWriMo?

National Novel Writing Month. Every November, writers from all over the world gather on the internets to write 50,000 words toward a novel of any genre they choose. For more information or to sign up for such an event, head on over to nanowrimo.org.

Who can participate?

Everyone! Anyone! Your cat! Okay, maybe not your cat, but you get the point. Nano has been found all over the world in coffee shops, libraries, schools, and – my favorite – locked away in dimly lit rooms with lots of snacks. That last one will probably be the default this year, if we’re honest.

Huck is already overwhelmed, so it’s best he just skip this year. It’s okay, buddy.

Why should I care?

  1. It’s fun. If you like writing, this is a lot of it. If you don’t like writing…why are you even reading this at all?
  2. Community. This year will not have any officially sanctioned, meatspace meet ups, but you still have the forums to chat on. There are groups on Nano’s site for local groups, teens, moms, LGBTQ+, etc. You can go on there and only talk about writing, but they also have procrastination forums or information gathering forums, writing sprints (a game where people start and stop writing at the same to see who wrote the most words), snack suggestions…you name it, and the forums probably have it. If not, start your own thread.
  3. Excuses! When you have: an excuse to write + word goal + a timeline, you are much more likely to achieve your dream of writing a novel.
  4. What the hell else are you doing in the apocalypse? 

No one can write a novel worth reading in 30 days

“You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page,” Jodi Picoult

I said the goal is 50,000 words, not 50,000 good words. All Nano is, is writing a first draft. Word vomit. That’s it. The ideal way to do this would be to write a beginning, middle, and end and fill in the rest of it. Then you let it rest for awhile, edit it, rewrite it, etc. etc.

There are also a lot of published novels started during Nano. 

I can’t do this

If you are privileged enough to be able to shift your schedule, or if you don’t need to at all to have an hour or so a day with the odd pocket of several hours on what you consider your weekends, you most likely have the time. 

And even if you don’t, nothing is stopping you from declaring that you are going to start on a novel and then only write a few sentences a day. Even if you only write one word a day, that’s more toward your novel than you had yesterday. Ernest Hemingway only wrote about 500 words a day, so you may as well try. 

The worst case scenario (with the right attitude) is that you’ill now have words toward a novel you otherwise wouldn’t.

Fine, you’ve convinced me – how does one prep for this?

Come Nano time, I have always been a “pantser” – meaning someone who “writes by the seat of one’s pants.” Because of this, I can’t tell you the sure-fire way I prep, because I never have. Let’s go through the process together. At the end, we can compare notes and see what we can do better next year.

But what parts will I talk about? I already wrote about research awhile ago, so you can read about that there. The schedule beyond that is as follows:

  1. What makes up a story? – this is more just a quick run-down of what to keep in mind when trying to write a full novel.
  2. Getting ideas. This is exactly as it sounds. Where do you get an idea for your novel? 
  3. Character Creation. Obvs.
  4. Worldbuilding. This is creating the setting for your novel. Even if you’re writing something that takes place in your own backyard today, you still need to know things you may not consciously be aware of.
  5. Plot development. What happens during this novel? Why?

These posts, a retro, and a Halloween post will get us to the starting line of Nano, ready to slap down 1,667 words a day for 30 days straight. Our plan won’t be perfect, and our prep will not be exhaustive, but it will be enough for an attempt at a first draft. And remember, kids: it’s supposed to be a fun challenge. No breakdowns allowed!


Do you already know what you’re doing for NaNoWriMo? Have you declared your novel yet?

Finding Your Voice, pt. 2

Last week, we talked about why you want to find your writing voice. This week I wanted to talk about the parts of it and how you find it.

composition of various sour sweets and dragees make up face of screaming person
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What makes up your voice?

Your voice is an amalgamation of many different factors, and understanding each one will help to determine how you want your voice to sound if you are creating a new one. It will also assist in refining your natural voice once you’ve found it.

Vocabulary 

words in dictionary
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Faulkner once said of Hemingway, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” In response, Hemingway said, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

I’m not condemning big or little words here. Reading pieces that cause me to learn new words is challenging and satisfying. Reading pieces with simpler language is engaging and relaxing. These are simply two different ways of approaching your writing. 

On top of if you use big words is also a question of how often you use them, too. While you can use them as often as you like, I would keep your audience in mind. If you are a walking thesaurus and your audience is second graders, you might lose your readers. 

Formal vs. casual

An article from Masterclass.com talks about making the decision on how to fashion your sentences and choose your words. This blends in with the first point and the next point, but it’s worth having a mention in between. Are you going to write in a formal, rules-adhering style or in a casual, colloquial manner? Will you make sure to never have a preposition at the end of a sentence, no matter what? Are you going to pepper your writing with Southernisms or slang? 

Length

How long are your sentences going to be? Will you write long, descriptive, flowing prose designed to titillate the senses of the reader, or will you be concise? Are you going to stick to writing novels or flash fiction? Essays or dissertations? Or, alternatively, will you write everything in between? 

How personal will you be?

Writing has many different purposes, but not all of them have to stay separate. You could write pieces that are specifically for expressing yourself and then other pieces specifically for informing your readers about something. You could only write one or the other, or more commonly, you could write both at the same time. Tell personal stories that relate back to the topic of the article. Express yourself and your thoughts with a bit of useful information snuck in occasionally. This isn’t directly related to voice, but is an important consideration for style.

Flow and rhythm

cheerful elderly man listening to music in headphones
This guy gets it.
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Henneke from Enchanting Marketing suggests adding rhythm to your writing to make your voice distinct. And, while I personally wouldn’t recommend adding things to find your natural voice, it’s a great thing to keep in mind when constructing a new voice. This doesn’t mean you have to write poetry, either. Just keep in mind the way that your words and sentences flow together. Read poetry or a very “lyrical” piece of prose (like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods) out loud and then an instruction manual for your fridge and spot the differences in sound.

Description vs. action vs. dialogue

The aforementioned Masterclass article suggested balancing your dialogue and description. This is another piece that I think would be great to play with when it comes to crafting an artificial voice. Some people write using a lot of description and others, like The Witcher’s Andrzej Sapkowski, can write entire scenes with only dialogue that somehow still has plenty of action.

Plot- vs. character-based stories

I will, of course, end up writing more about this. For the sake of a quick definition, however, plot-based stories are where everything happens to your protagonist and they react to it all. Character-based stories are where your protagonist goes out and finds adventure. There are a lot of opinions on these two methods, but that is not the focus of this article.

Point of view

Point of view can be taken in a technical manner: first, second, third person limited/omniscient, or you can look at it as incorporating experience into your writing or in the voice of the character narrating. Someone who knows everything about a situation will be able to describe the scene completely, and might not explain everything they mention. An outsider to a situation, however, may not notice important things, or be able to describe anything in a coherent manner.

Cultural influence/references

This is somewhat similar to the second point above: using your experiences. However, this might be including allusions or references to famous literary works or mythical characters/creatures. You might write a character who’s storytelling style is heavily influenced by the oral traditions of an indigenous culture, or the dark, cautionary style of Germanic fairy tales. 

Everything

Anything you write naturally is your style. Anything you decide to add to a narrator’s voice simply is their voice. Feel free to experiment with any of these and find other things to tinker with as well. 

How to find your voice (finally, right?)

seagulls on river embankment in city
Photo by Maël BALLAND on Pexels.com

Please don’t look at the above list and feel overwhelmed. You do not have to use all of these consciously, and when you’re finding your own voice, you might want to steer clear of using any of them consciously at first. This is merely a list of things that you might want to think about when considering a voice or what might make one’s own voice unique. 

This next part reflects advice I found around the internet, followed up with my own thoughts on the matter.

Read

Reading is the second most common piece of advice I found online. I am not sure how reading other people’s work will allow you to find your own voice (which is specifically what I was researching), but it is definitely worth it to study how others can be distinct. Enough reading is also required to start to be able to spot cliches and ineffective methods of writing voice, such as poo’ly wri’en accents or ye olde difficulte too reede voyses. 

Describe yourself

This was also surprisingly common. Many writers suggested you write down adjectives to describe yourself, jot down thoughts on how you see yourself or how others see you, or ask others how they see you. 

I say “surprisingly common” though I don’t think it’s bad advice. It sounds like a great way to start to refine your voice once you’ve found it and to develop your personal brand. 

Write

This, of course, was the most commonly found advice. Write, write, write, write, write. 

Journaling can help you discover what it is you care about and what your ideals are. These are great for refining your voice and finding topics you will want to write about in the future. 

Emulating others, which was also suggested, is a more “hands-on” approach than reading, in that you feel what it’s like to write in different voices. How it is to resist your own natural voice, and may even help you understand your more natural voice through the process of elimination.

Experimentation gets you exercising your creative muscles, coming up with different voices on your own. 

Try combining all of these different options: emulate a distinctive style, then try writing the same thing in a style you think could be considered opposite that you’ve created, then write in whatever “journaling voice” you use about how the two felt – what did you like about one over the other? Was there something good or bad about the both of them? How might you change either voice to suit you more? 

Interesting considerations

I found a few pieces of unique and interesting advice I wanted to point out here as well.

Consume challenging content

Brian Kurian wrote for Writing Cooperative about this, and suggested consuming content that challenges you. This basically means anything that makes you think or consider different viewpoints. I like this advice because, while reading a lot exposes you to a lot of words, reading content that challenges you exposes you to a lot of different voices. This also applies to podcasts, videos, Ted Talks, etc. Vary what you expose yourself to and you will get a breadth of experience. 

Read your work out loud

Laura Davis of The Write Life wrote about how, even once you found your voice, you might get too caught up in description or other technical aspects of what you’re writing and stray from your own voice. If you see a lot of instances in my blog posts where I didn’t use contractions, this is probably because I didn’t read it out loud. I have zero idea why I write like Data speaks, I just do.

I would argue that this is also a way to find your voice as well. Assuming you don’t have a speech impediment or disability of some sort, if you read your work out loud and stumble over every other word, this may not be your natural voice. 

Don’t write how you speak

To refer back to Henneke again, they mention that you should not write how you speak. I balked at this at first, but then the explanation was that we all use too many filler words and sounds – ahs, ums, likes, etc. – to be used in our writing. This is very true. If I wrote with as many filler sounds and textually trip over my own words as often as I do verbally, this blog would be unreadable. 

I even agree that how I write and how I speak are not super similar at all. However, as I’ll explain in a moment, that is how I got where I am now.

My thoughts on all this

I’ve gone through all this advice and more on the internet and I have my own thoughts as I went through this myself. You can follow my advice or the others’, I just hope that something here will resonate and help you get where you want to go!

Finding your voice, Charlie-style

bread on wood table and ceramic cup
First, you’re going to need a boatload of coffee…
Photo by La Miko on Pexels.com
  1. Find a topic that you care about. It doesn’t have to be anything super controversial, just something that gets you a’talkin. 
  2. Start talking! Yes, out loud.
  3. Transcribe yourself. This can be done either as you’re speaking if you can type fast enough, or you can record yourself and transcribe on playback. 
  4. Clean yourself up. In the spirit of not writing how you talk, take out any filler words, misspoken words/phrases, etc. You can experiment with swearing if you are so inclined.
  5. Repeat. Do this over and over. If you don’t want to journal, go online! This might seem like a strange thing to do, but I did this naturally since I grew up with AIM and now use Discord all the time. I don’t typically use a lot of shortcuts when chatting unless I’m tired or being silly, and I used to naturally talk to myself as I chatted (I occasionally do that still, but only when I’m alone I promise). 

Eventually you are going to get really good at writing exactly how you would say something out loud. Then comes phase two: refining your natural voice. This means that you are taking all of those parts of speech at the beginning of this article into consideration and tweaking how you write to match how you want to appear to others, or the tone you’d like to convey in your writing. 

Once you can get to a comfortable spot writing how you want to sound, you can start working on better dialogue, or in-character narration, or even, as mentioned in the previous article, writing in the “house style” for collaborative projects you might want to join. 

It might sound like the long way around, why not just learn how to write other voices right now? You can do this, and I’m sure you can become very effective this way. However, I personally feel you would be remiss if you didn’t study voice from the inside. For example:

Why do you write the way that you do? What part of you says to use that word versus this one? How much of what you say is calculated, or traceable to an actual reason over happenstance? Your answers can inform your choices for characters for the rest of your life.

Resources

Kristina Adams – https://www.writerscookbook.com/how-to-find-your-writing-voice-2/
Jeff Goins – https://goinswriter.com/writing-voice/
https://nybookeditors.com/2017/06/find-writers-voice/
Henneke – https://www.enchantingmarketing.com/how-to-find-your-writing-voice/
Masterclass – https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-find-your-voice-in-writing#5-steps-to-find-your-writers-voice
https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-find-your-writing-voice#what-is-the-difference-between-the-authors-voice-and-characters-voice
Brian Kurian – https://writingcooperative.com/3-simple-things-you-can-do-to-find-your-writing-voice-9c6210dd6f0c
Laura Davis – https://thewritelife.com/unique-writing-voice/
Noah Berlatsky – https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/11/finding-your-voice-as-a-writer-overrated/382946/


For those of you who have already, how did you find your voice? For those who haven’t, what methods do you think you might use? Who else out there feels deeply uncomfortable when Brent Spiner uses contractions? Discuss in the comments below!