What Nanowrimo Taught Me…

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Note: The first part of this was originally written in October 2014, before I started my first Nanowrimo:

I am afraid but I have purpose.
Like hundreds of thousands around the world, on November 1, I am going to start the attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel.
It’s a big deal for me, especially since I tend not to write a lot every day.
However, and this is what drives me; the winners get two copies of their book printed in paperback for free.
So, the deal is basically, if I complete the 50k mark for my book, then revise it, in a year I will be holding a copy of my book.

The only thing holding me back is the actual writing.
Fifty thousand words in and of itself is a daunting task.

Any writer will tell you that it’s a big chunk of writing.

To try to do it within a month is even more daunting.

Yet, it gets done all the time; thousands complete the challenge every year.
Many working writers, such as Stephen King, regularly set 2,000 words a day as a reasonable daily goal.

Many amateur writers do it as well.
Some Writers even complete the Nan0 Century, which is 100,000 words in a month or 3,334 words a day.
Looking at that number makes 1,700 words a day seem easy.

Like most things, it’s attacking it day by day that will make it happen.
The thing is that we need to get up, get at it and see how it takes to get 1700 words out.
Given what I’ve read, at a steady pace, 1700 words takes about 2 and a halfr hours to write.
The way I want to split it is one and a half hours in the morning and an hour at night.
Anything else is, as they say, gravy.
However, the hour and a half in the morning doesn’t come cheap. Prime writing time is from five-thirty to seven, when the rest of the house wakes.
All we need to do is make it work.
And to make it work, we need to sacrifice everything past 9 that is unessential.
Cut away the fluff and reap the rewards of getting up early and getting writing.

 

(This part was written in December, after finishing (and winning, thank you very much) the Nano:)

What I learned:

 

– There is magic in doing.
The way I was able to finish was to start and keep going. I had days and times where I didn’t feel like writing, but just made myself keep typing and I think this taught me a lot about the process of writing and being a writer.
– If you just keep writing, eventually you’ll get to the stuff you like.
– very little is as bad as you remember it.
– It all works itself out in the revisions.
– It’s a process as well as a mindset.
– Setting time limits leads to better productivity than ‘just writing’.

The best way to get past an Internal Editor is just to write as fast as possible, going forward and not stopping to correct errors or second thoughts or whatever. By doing this, we get words on paper which is the entire point of writing: to have something written.

 

As well, by writing quickly, we often lose track of what we think we should be writing and the story starts to come out of us on its own accord.

Characters start talking the way they think they should, often taking on a life of their own and becoming more fleshed out in the process.

There can be a seeming throwaway phrase that solves a question of character motivation or plot-knot.

Often, a character will surprise me by saying something that I was not planning to have them says, taking the story in a different direction.

Is this sometimes frustrating?

Yes, it can be, especially when you think that you see the home-stretch of the story starting to appear in the distance and then your character reveals something that is interesting to explore, but means that your ending might not be so close after all (or might not be the ending at all)

 

 

 

 

How to Create Great Characters for a Series:

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We love a good book that seems to come out of nowhere, makes its mark with one spectacular burst of brilliant story-telling then ends, leaving us wanting more.

Ask a person about their favourite and you will get a variety of answers, all generated by by a certain kind of recollection.

However, ask a reader about what books they loved growing up and you’ll get a certain special look come into their eye.

The stories we loved as children are very often the stories we love best of all.

And often those stories came to us over the course of many books.

Most of our favourite reading memories come from serialized writing:

Harry Potter

Sherlock Holmes

The Hardy Boys.

Good serial characters are like good friends: we know that spending time with them will make us feel  better.

As writers, we should work hard at creating the kinds of characters that readers will love to visit again and again.

 

How to create great characters

1)Learn about your characters: If you are writing a series or plan to, knowing your characters is essential.

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  • J.K. Rowling  supposedly wrote the backstory of every one in Harry’s first year at Hogwarts, as prep for writing the first two novels in the series. While this might seem a bit of prep overkill, it also no doubt helped her in the subsequent novels when she needed to create sub plots and supporting characters, because she knew the characters’ stories and therefore a clue to their motivations and reactions to situations.
  • Knowing the background of your character right off the bat can seem a bit daunting. After all, aren’t we supposed to learn about our character by writing? Isn’t that what first drafts are for, to tell ourselves the story?
  • However, there are ways to get to know your character:
    • Pick one aspect of the character that you already know, like the job they have.
    • On a blank page (or if you are intimidated by all that white screen or paper, just start writing at the end of something you’ve already written; you can C&P or tear it out later) ask your character to describe something about their job: a day at work or how they came to be at that job.
    • Feel free to just turn off your brain and go with the flow. Don’t overthink, just go with the first thing that comes into your head.
    • By getting your character to answer these seemingly benign ‘cocktail party’ questions, you are sneakily getting insight into your character, building up a reservoir of knowledge and character traits that you can use to inform your choices within the novel.
  • Developing characters profiles can seem a little like procrastination and not “really writing” a novel.
  • However, taking a while to get to know the history of your characters can only enrich the characterization as well as making the process of writing smoother, since you can base your writing on what you know about your characters.
  • Even if you don’t explicitly use the information, it will help you make narrative choices:i.e. “Mary would never act that way; she was in the Peace Corps for three years.”

2) Contradiction

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No-one is all one thing or another; There are shades of grey in everyone.

  • Make your character sometimes hold an opinion that seems at odds with what you know of her.
    • Maybe Mary’s Peace Corps experience made her slightly impatient with the political process.
    • Maybe she realized that she wasn’t as tolerant of other cultures as she thought.
  • Sometimes a character knows how they should act in a given situation, but things like fear or apathy force them to not act in a given way.
  • While this can create suspense and tension within a story (Will Mary fold under pressure again?) it shouldn’t be just a random ‘dice toss’ but should really flow from a logical place within her character.

3) Give them a rich environment:

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  • We usually enter a novel in media res, with many events having come before the action described within the pages of the novel. These events are what brackets and informs the story, even though they are often only hinted at or alluded to.
  • In addition, the story is very seldom the only thing going on in these character’s lives, especially if we are seeing them in jobs.
  • Think about what the rest of their lives might be like can help us make more informed choices about their character.
  • In one detective series, a Detective is also part of a weekly hockey team. Does this  directly figure in the action of the novels? Rarely, but it does offer us a bit of insight into the way she thinks and why she might look at a case like a game.
  • Sometimes the best way to look at the action of a novel and finding ways to develop the story is to pull back from the immediate actions and events of the novel and look at the bigger picture of the world it describes.

4) Give them something to eat:

 

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  • To quote, “you are what you eat.”
  • A great way to unlock character is to find out what they like to eat.
  • Oddly enough, this simple act can reference all the things we’ve talked about:
    • Deciding what they like to eat can help us understand a bit more about deeper motivations and character traits.
    • Having a character that is raised in one ethnic environment, but who likes food that is in contrast to those assumed traits can add *ahem* flavour to a reader’s understanding of the character. A Chinese girl who likes red beans and rice? Go for it….A man raised in the Deep South who needs a Dim Sum fix every once in a while? How cool is THAT?
    • Nothing creates an opportunity for a great scene like sticking a few characters in a restaurant and having them chat things out over lunch.

These aren’t the only ways to build strong characters, but I think that they offer three ways to help start the process.

Experiment, mix and match and see where you can go with your characters.

 

 

 

 

Drafts and Re-Drafts: Why Once is Never Enough.

 

 

 

Let’s be honest:

Finishing is awesome!!!

Finishing a novel is even awesome-er.

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The feeling when you get to type “The End” at the bottom of that last page feels great.

Maybe there’s a bottle of something bubbly in the back of the fridge, some thing that’s been there for weeks, months, maybe even years, waiting for the day you finally put the finishing touches of your labour of love.

You want to crack it open, but there’s something nagging at you, something that makes you feel that something isn’t quite right about celebrating the end of the book.

Something that feels…..unfinished.

There’s a reason for that: It IS unfinished.

Or at least it SHOULD be; If you publish your first draft, you are one of two things:

  1. A Genius
  2. An Idiot.

(Statistically, there are relatively few geniuses writing, so…….)

Maybe calling someone an “idiot” is harsh.

“Ill-advised” might be a better way of putting it.

The brutal truth is that one pass through a manuscript is almost never enough.

There are a number of reasons for that:

One of the most common things that Writers and Writing Teachers will tell you  or want to impress  upon you is the idea that you learn what the story is about by writing the first draft.

Terry Pratchett has his take on first drafts:

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Papa Hemingway has his:

 

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Both are correct; The problem is that, too often, as we are writing that first draft, we can’t help but compare our first efforts to the polished finished work of others.

So, remember to just write. Revision and polishing can only happen if you actually have something to work with.

You can’t fix what you haven’t written.

 

 

 

 

Looking at Character: Megan Hicks.

So, in writing the The Messiah Murders, I started off in the mid-90s with Hicks looking, in my mind something like this:

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For those who don’t remember, this is Gabrielle Reece, pro volleyball player and all around bad-ass chick.

Originally, she and Paxton had been brought on to be the foils to Matt and generally be his sounding board, asking the sort of questions that would draw out the exposition that we wanted to have…well…exposed, I guess.  I was more concerned with the action of the novel and characterization had sort of taken a back seat to that. It certainly wasn’t the best way to go about writing the novel and in fact a lot of people would have told me that I was approaching it backwards; Character should inform the action, not the other way around. However, technical difficulties with my word processor forced me out of the novel writing class and the novel came to a bit of a grinding half, then literally gathered dust for years, getting tinkered with every once in a while. When I returned to writing in 2013, I started thinking about the novel again. One of the things that I took from the novel class was the criticism of one class, where it was suggested that I move the setting of the novel from the American  West to something a little closer to home. I eventually came to a compromise and have the novel set in a slightly fictionalized version of the Fraser Valley just east of Vancouver, British Columbia.

However, as the novel progressed and evolved and then got re-visited last year for Nanowrimo 2015, I re-thought how I saw her in the book. I took another approach to the book,moving it from being a straight linear narrative with one person’s POV to a multi-POV in alternating chapters. As I started to write the chapter from Megan’s POV,  I found her character was severely under-developed and wanted to get more of a sense of who she was, so that when she and my main character finally meet, there would be a real guiding idea of how each would react to the other. So, instead of having her and Paxton show up in media res, I wrote a chapter that establishes the relationship between Hicks and Paxton, as well as giving us a bit of backstory on her and her old partner, Nathan Praminam. It wasn’t extensive but it did create an opportunity to expand on Megan as well as letting me teach myself a little more about her.

As a result the way I saw Megan changed; I originally saw her in a bit more….uhhh… crusty role, kinda like this:

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This is Nicola Parker, esteemed English Actress and the co-lead in “River”.

However, as much as I liked the idea of Megan as a Nicola-esque older woman, I didn’t feel 100% at ease with the way that played in the story; as the draft evolved, I saw Megan as somewhat younger, somewhat established in her career but still nearer the beginning of it than the end.

So, as I wrote and re-wrote, the image of how I was seeing Megan evolved again.

Finally, I saw her:

 

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Now, at least in my head, Megan looks more like Stefanie Lanius: Tough but still with a gentler side.

 

Decisions Decisions

 

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How to decide where to go in the story.

Right now, I’m deciding whether or not to kill off a  main character at the end of Act 1.
Unlike a lot of MC killings, this one won’t change the bulk of the book, I think.
He was going to be out of the picture for 75% of the book anyway.
It just changes the potential ending.

What’s the upside to this? Anyway just write the thing and see where it goes.
There is no need to get all bent into whatever shape by having to decide right at this moment and deciding something that doesn’t actually happen until 10 chapters or so into the book.

I think that this not an uncommon problem, though.
Authors must have to make the decision to kill off beloved characters all the time.
Often, the decision comes about in second draft or so where you see that the action just benefits from the death of a character or that there really isn’t any room for them past a certain point.
However, when you’ve spend an awful long time crafting their personality, it can be a bit of a tug on your heartstrings to type out the words that spell their demise.
However, you have to do it. If you are going to be honest to life, you will have to face and write about death.

In my book, the person dying is at the end of a pretty full, long life.
How writers summon the courage to write about the death of a child is beyond me.
Yet they do.
And one day, I’m sure, in my writing I will have to tackle that most taboo of acts.
I think the most honest thing you can do as a writer is to create characters that are multi-faceted and realistic and people that are recognizable as people.
Then don’t be afraid to kill them, because fear of killing off characters that you like is a sign that you don’t trust your instincts or skill as a writer.
It’s as if you are saying “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to create a character like this again.”
And you will. In fact, by killing off characters you give yourself permission to experiment with characterization, by saying “If this doesn’t work out, I’m not stuck with this person or situation”
In fact, and I just thought of this…..
Take a character you like…and kill them.
Take a section of whatever you are working on, a book, short story, whatever.
Kill one of the characters.
See how it affects the world around them.
You don’t have to include this in your story, unless you want to or think that it’s a direction you wish to continue in.
It’s just a writing exercise in having characters react to a death.
Be brave.
Good writing is courageous and takes chances, in the belief that the writer will learn from the experience and strengthen as a writer.

The point is to get something down and not worry about things.

The Time You Make is The Time You Take:

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One of the biggest things I’ve heard from writers just starting out is “Where do I find the time to write?”

You don’t find it
You MAKE it, just like you make time to poop, shower, eat, dress and watch Reality TV.

Speaking of which, if you watch reality TV,  but want to be a Writer….then two things…
1)Shame on you.
2)Kiss it good bye….

No more Honey Boo Boo, but hello 55 minutes of writing time.The thing I had to do…and trust me, this was hard, because Mike loves him some sleep….I get up an hour early……Which also means I go to bed earlier as well…..
This wasn’t so hard to do as I’d just been staying either watching YouTube videos of dreck or trying to write, forgetting that writing while tired never got me anywhere.So, what I’ve tried to do is get into good habits at night time and accept that I won’t be creating quality work after a certain time, so there’s no point in trying.Has it worked?
Yes and no, but I accept that it’s a work in progress and I’m not going to give up on at least trying to make it part of my writing practice.