2015: A Year of Exploring?

Last year, I half-heartedly committed to focusing my efforts on one little word.

explore

When I selected the word, I wrote that it was “about challenging myself, breaking out of my comfort zone, and immersing myself in experiences…Instead of staring at an obstacle and backtracking, it will mean finding a new route. It means breaking new ground and finding untapped reserves.”

I’m honestly not sure if I achieved that, but I think it’s partially because I didn’t commit to the One Little Word concept as much as I could have. I’m participating in the community/workshop aspect as well this year and I’m hoping I get more out of it.

I will say that I feel like I challenged myself this year, and more often than not I rose to meet those challenges head-on. I learned about the value of having a buddy system, a writing tribe, and collaborating with others. My exploration was less personal than I thought it would be, and more about expanding my relationships and letting other people in to help me navigate those new routes.

I had some lofty reading and writing goals, too.

I more than achieved my writing goals with NaNoWriMo: I let my characters breathe, and I gave up on such tight, controlled narrative outlines. I also wanted to find my voice, and not manufacture it. I know I’m on my way, and it’s come across in some of my more successful 1:1000 pieces and personal feedback I’ve gotten about my writing/blogging.

My reading goals were surprisingly unfulfilled. I haven’t run my numbers yet, but I don’t think I’ll be anywhere close to reading more diversely and exploring new genres and perspectives. If anything, I read comparatively little (I just hit my 50 book goal last night!) and mostly within my comfort zone.

I’m not sure what 2016 will bring, but I look forward to it. I may not have achieved every thing I wanted in 2015, but I’m ending the year happier, healthier, and more self-aware than I started.

How was your year? Did you participate in One Little Word?

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What I Learned About My Manuscript During NaNoWriMo

Note: I am one of those weird people that subscribes to the notion that my work-in-progress should be called a manuscript throughout the development process. During NaNoWriMo, I follow the established nomenclature of “novel,” but I’m reverting back to manuscript.

NaNoWriMo is thirty days of frenzied writing that, in many cases, involves lots of caffeine, little sleep, and forgetting your characters aren’t real people and discussing them as though they are (“Yeah, Cassandra was a little difficult last night but I finally figured out that her driving relationship can’t be a love interest.”)

I truly believe writers are conduits for their characters and should follow their intuition, exploring development arcs and narrative quirks that arise during the writing process. Having a plan and a general outline is great, but adapt — especially for the sake of your characters.

God, writing in Arizona can be the absolute worst.

God, writing in Arizona can be the absolute worst.

Going into the month, I had an outline. Probably the best thing that happened is that I saved it in another Scrivener file by mistake and couldn’t find it. I had to remember major shifts entirely from memory, which meant if I didn’t care enough (or more likely, if the development didn’t resonate enough), I forgot it happened. What resulted was genuine characters driving plot.

I ended up finding the outline on November 30th — the timing couldn’t have been more perfect — and I was surprised at how “wrong” I’d initially called it. What I crafted was a much tighter narrative, with some characters lasting much longer than I anticipated and some not even appearing (yet). The interpersonal conflicts I outlined never made it onto the page. Some of the basic tenets of the plot shifted. Here’s a brief, broad example from the first act, designed to be alternating storylines featuring two female characters and their “groups” (one family, the other…loosely defined). Strikethroughs mean that the planned plot point didn’t happen at all, italics are for items that remain in some form, though were significantly different than planned.

  • Seaside w/ C
    • Decent conditions but writing’s on wall
    • Group comes
    • C escapes with S to forest
    • C & S — > capital
  • Mountains w/ B
    • Accepting, natural
    • Training
    • Rising
    • Departure due to family issues
    • B’s family — > capital

Or: the entire first act changed shifted in focus, tone, and narrative. Also, now there are three anchoring groups, not two (and those aren’t dominated by the characters B and C). The character dynamics have shifted and those groups are somewhat loose in the sense that it’s obvious what connects them, but the ties that bind aren’t always the strongest.

I initially planned for the manuscripts to be four acts, and it seems content with that so far. However, it’s going to be long. I didn’t anticipate finishing the writing during NaNoWriMo – I thought I needed at least twice that for a solid first draft, since I usually write all character arcs and dialogue and then go back and indulge the senses with imagery and the like. Most of NaNoWriMo was dedicated to the first act – and the aforementioned character moments – so this manuscript is shaping to be 150K in first draft mode, easily. God help me.

Oh, and a general tip: always back up your files. I read enough horror stories about losing tens of thousands of words that I didn’t want to risk it. So I also learned that my laptop is almost at capacity now. Thanks, NaNoWriMo!

Thanks for reading! What did you learn from your NaNoWriMo manuscript?

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NaNoWrimo 2015: The Post-Game Analysis

You know, I fully anticipated updating my NaNoWriMo progress throughout the month — not every day, but at least once a week. That didn’t happen, and I only managed my kick-off post. I’m kind of glad, because it meant I spent the month writing and focusing the majority of my efforts on the task at hand. That focus reaped serious rewards for me:

NaNo-2015-Winner-Banner

Yep, I did it. 2015 is not the first time I’ve tried, but it’s the first time I succeeded.

I know I should be like “Woo! I did this! I achieved greatness!”…but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.

Major props to my across-the-country writing partner-in-crime Natasha. Natasha’s one of the 1:1000 editors and we texted throughout the month. Natasha ended November with 42K and the birth of her second child, and she’s my writing hero right now. I could not have kept up with writing or gotten off the struggle bus without her, and she kept me accountable throughout the month. I am 100% on board with writing buddies and support systems and writing tribes and the like.

Oh, and speaking of writing tribes — having spent the last two years writing with 1:1000, I felt more prepared in terms of crafting the story and hustling throughout the month. Normally I get stuck with character development, and while that happened a couple of times, I just jumped to another character and focused on their path until inspiration struck.

Oh, and it is hard. NaNoWriMo is a month of frenzied writing, but I didn’t write every day (which I had hoped to do). It can be draining and exhausting and some nights I just ached thinking about writing, but I made myself do it. I’m nowhere close to finishing, but I’m above 50K and that makes a massive difference.

My general tips? Create a daily routine. Be aggressive when you can (some days I wrote 5K+ because I had the time and mental capacity to do that), and adapt. Don’t let numbers get you down, and keep your characters at the forefront. It can be a personal struggle, and sometimes you have to just force yourself through that wall.

I’m not sure if I’ll do it again next year, but I know I’ll throw some support for to any 2016 participants.

Up next on the blog: The nitty gritty manuscript progress during November.

Thanks for reading! How did your NaNoWriMo attempts fare?

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NaNoWrimo 2015, Day One

Well, here we go.

I woke up having finally gotten a decent night of sleep, the first in weeks. I was also terribly congested, but I took a ClearQuil for that and a Zyrtec for my allergies. After forty-five minutes of checking Feedly and waiting for the meds to kick in, they mercifully have. So, game on NaNoWriMo! I am participating this year, working on what’s shaped into a post-apocalyptic fantasy piece that desperately needs my focus and attention.

Here are a few posts I found helpful this morning:

50K or bust!

giphy

Thanks for reading! Are you doing NaNoWriMo?

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Submissions Manager

It seems like a worthwhile time to revisit writing progress, since I have some minor updates and haven’t done a Beyond the Blog post this month!

I hear back about my Southwestern horror piece, and it wasn’t selected as one of the winning pieces. Normally I would be really upset, but after I posted about the writing experience and “hustling my own damn talent,” one of the 1:1000 editors reached out to me with interest in seeing it. Together we made some more improvements and tightened up a few areas, and it became a stronger, richer piece. I even told Scott that I kind of hoped it didn’t win, because I liked this version more. To add to that, I’ve come across another contest – seriously, wasn’t searching for it, it popped up on one of my RSS feeds from a non-writing site – and it seems like a much better fit. So, I’ll be submitting there this month. Fingers crossed!

I’ve also been working on a handful of pieces for ongoing submissions and October deadlines. I’m really drawn to flash fiction and it’s been my jam for a while now, but a couple of the ongoing sites are more micro-fiction and that intrigues me. I’ve got one submission planned that will be three linked, 500-word pieces, and I’ve been channeling Erin Morgenstern with rich, lyrical descriptions but not much else. Lots to improve there, I suppose.

There are a couple of longer pieces I’m honestly struggling with, in terms of scope and character. I have some good ideas, they just aren’t translating as well on the page as I’d like. I’ve got October earmarked as a short fiction month, because I think I’m going to try my hand at NaNoWriMo (again) this year.

Also, I designed a rudimentary submissions manager tracking spreadsheet – just something to keep me from emailing links to my stuffed inbox or toggling around tabs in my browser. It’s a simple spreadsheet with columns and basic color-coding to help me track submissions. If anyone has a better version (or tips) based on what they’ve created, I’m all ears!

Thanks for reading! What have you submitted lately?

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The Starter Manuscript

I’ve talked about starter manuscripts on the blog before, but not in much depth. I’ve seen a few other writers blog about them in passing; I figured now was a good time to dedicate a solid post to the subject.

Last week, I defined the term based on my own experience:

A starter manuscript is, effectively, the first full-length draft you write and bury somewhere. Although perhaps intended for publishing initially, it allows the writer a space he or she desperately needs: a space to write. A space to make mistakes, create shitty characters, blunder through metaphors, and construct plot holes with reckless abandon.

I think it’s that last part that I find most important. A starter manuscript is about practice. It’s honing the craft and giving the writer a format free of judgment. I may not be proud of the product, but I’m proud that I wrote a first novel of 80,000+ words. I know I’m capable of putting in the time and effort. I achieved something. I may not have medaled, placed, whatever – I showed up.

Those that have attempted a new workout regimen or athletic endeavor know where I’m coming from here. You’re not setting a new personal record (PR) every freakin’ day. Some days, all that matters is that you carved out the time to be present, active, and sweaty. It’s what sets you apart from the version of yourself that would have binge-watched Netflix, or made excuses, or simply said I can’t.

Ask any writer what matters and its that you write. Doesn’t matter where, when, how, or why, it’s that you show up and wage war against the blank page. Some days you will hate what you wrote. You will feel defeated, exhausted, and worse than when you started.

Why bother? Because throwing yourself on the mercy of your creative energy makes you a stronger writer in the long run. It may not be tomorrow. It may not be next week. But it will make you better. It’s about practice, about finding the limits of your creativity and surpassing them.

I’ve had interest in my starter manuscript, back when I went to more writing conferences and pursued literary agents. I chose not to pursue anything farther because I knew I could do better. I didn’t want to put that out into the world, to cross off options before I was ready.

I look back at some of the earlier things I self-published on this blog and I know that I have grown as a writer in the last couple of years. I did that. I did it with the assistance of others (an eternal thank you, always, to the 1:1000 team!), but I gave the time, then energy, the creative output.

When I began revising my starter manuscript, initially intent on finding representation, the voice in the back of my head said This is not your best. This is practice. Don’t settle. Push more. Work harder. Hustle your own damn talent.

Do not mistake fatigue for the finish line. Allow it to make crossing the finish line feel that much better.

readingrainbow

 

Via 99u: Don’t compare your hustle to their highlight reel. In short: writing is writing. If you compare every first draft to the seminal work(s) in that genre, you probably will get defeated. And hey, publishing is an industry that involves subjective opinions, marketing, and whole slew of other factors. Just because you think you’re a better writer than oh-she-of-50-Shades-fame doesn’t mean you’re a better author, at least as defined by XYZ publisher.

Via Chuck Wendig’s blog (with guest stars): Writing a Lot, Writing a Little, and the Power of Failure. Or: write a lot, as much as you need to, as long as you need to, and learn from it.

Thanks for reading! What are you writing, and how are you learning from your efforts (and product)?

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Writing Past Premise

In the last week I’ve finally made it through my podcast backlog, including those last few 2015 Nerdist episodes I’ve been saving. One of my favorites was with a couple of the guys from Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton. They talked a lot about television and I was struck by one of the discussions involving creativity, ownership, and premise. Here are some thoughts from Rob McElhenney to give some context:

It’s much more organic…when you’re writing your own material, writing to your own strengths, writing to the strengths of the people around you…it’s a much more organic thing…yeah, there’s that chemistry that’s built in, as opposed to writing something and then casting actors. It’s like, it’s even more difficult for the stars to align to where it works in a way that’s really, really special and unique…

The Nerdist guys then bring up trying to adapt shows for American audiences; in effect, finding a show that works very well in the UK and attempting to export it to America, but changing the actors. With shows that are built by comedy teams like Mitchell and Webb and Fry and Laurie, it’s hard to migrate that concept with actors who haven’t built a professional relationship over years and don’t have a shared sense of comedic timing. Think about Key & Peele trying to do the Flight of the Concords and vice versa.

(Although the more I think about it, the more I would absolutely watch the hell out of that.)

Anyway, Glenn continues with:

So what are we buying? Just the idea for the show. And we’re like, the idea for the show is fine, but that’s not what makes a great show. The idea for our show is five people who own a bar in Philadelphia. There’s not a great idea; Seinfeld was a show about nothing, The Simpsons is about a family in Springfield. It’s about who’s gonna execute that particular vision…you’re hopefully buying the people that create it.

Most of my favorite stories are less about plot devices and machinations than they are about great writers crafting memorable, realistic characters who shape a three-dimensional world. Premise can be broken down into a simple one-liner.

For example: A young boy goes to school and deals with the enemy who killed his family.

If you guessed Harry Potter, that’s great. But it’s also (so far, at least), a description of the Kingkiller Chronicles. Two series that both fall into the fantasy genre, but feature very different writing, young male protagonists, supporting characters, and setting.

My lovely starter manuscript was a hot mess of plot points and moving everyone from Point A to Point B, Mary Sue characters playing at progress. I was so focused on gimmicks that I couldn’t provide a concise summary. And if I as the creator can’t explain, how will that come across for the reader? If you can’t see the forest for the trees, how can you orient yourself?

I’ve talked about not getting ahead of myself before, and while there are a few things that I’ve captured so far in my drafts, what I’m ultimately writing is a survival story. Stripped to its core, it’s  about people figuring who they are and what they save when there’s nothing left.

Try boiling your latest piece down to the barest of bones. It might help you identify if you’re spending too much time focusing on plot threads. If your premise is overwrought and needs significant explanation, rein it in and revisit your characters and the world in which they live. Focus less on plot points and let your characters drive the piece. See what emerges.

Thanks for reading! How will you move past premise in your writing?

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