5 Things I Learned Doing NaNoWriMo

Now the trick is to just get it out…

It’s that time of year again. The hills are alive with the sound of little NaNoNauts, about the embark on their first–or second, or ninth–cruise through the turbulent, maddening waters of NaNoWriMo. The word-puck officially drops November the First, right after Halloween.

In case you missed them, here are some of my past profanity filled takes on NaNoWriMo:

-4 Reasons To Do NaNoWriMo

-4 Reasons To Skip NaNoWriMo

-NaNoWriMo Survival Guide: Participant’s Edition

-NaNoWriMo Survival Guide: Rubbernecker’s Edition (my personal favourite)

But there’s something I haven’t addressed yet, and it’s this: what I took from doing NaNoWriMo at various points in my writerly growth.* So here they are: all the lessons I dragged from my brain.

1) An Outline Is Not Necessary, But, Damn, Does It Ever Fucking Help. You don’t need an outline. The popular “no plan, no problem” approach is often touted for NaNo. And it can work. I’ve done NaNo with no plan. But while I finished, what I created was such an abysmal festering mess that I can barely look at it, let alone try to edit it. Plus, going at the breakneck speed of words that NaNo requires, if you don’t have a plan you’re going to write some weird-ass shit. Guaranteed. Maybe that’s what you’re going for.

2) A Writing Community Helps When Everything Tastes Like Fail. Having a group of other writers to bitch to when things aren’t going as planned is very valuable. You might find the group in one of your local meetings, or you might find it online in the forums. Wherever you track them down, they can make writing a little less fucking lonely.

3) Competition Can Help Or Hinder, But For God’s Sake Don’t Be A Dick About It. Don’t be that guy who shows up to the local meeting bragging about how far ahead he is. Or the one that goes to a write-in and pouts if he loses the word-sprint. If you want to let competition power the tiny little engine that is your soul and push you to new heights, fine. But don’t bring that drama with you to the coffee shop, hoss. Nobody likes that guy.

4) People Will Just Not Fucking Accept “No, I’m Staying In To Write” As A Valid Reason To Miss AnythingI don’t care if it’s a night at the pool hall or your cousin’s ritual slaughter of goats, you use writing as an excuse, you’re going to get some serious shade thrown your way. Find a way to be okay with it or make up another excuse. Perhaps, “My writerly growth just burst.”

5) Flailing Around Like A Drunk Wombat With A Keyboard Can Be A Great Learning Experience. Maybe you’ll learn that you need to outline, or that you can do without. Maybe you’ll learn how to pace a story. Maybe you’ll learn how to meet a deadline. Maybe you’ll learn that writing novels isn’t for you and you prefer short fiction, or poetry. Or maybe you’ll learn that you don’t like writing that much after all. The one thing I guarantee, though, is that you’ll learn something. Even if you don’t like it.

So, how about you guys? Anyone participating this year? Anyone bowing out? Tell me of your plans, word goblins.

*That sounds like a tumour. “We removed a writerly growth that was the size of a basketball!”

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Kill The Queen: Fixing Plot Holes

This may be a bigger problem than I–hey, is that China?

I found a plot hole in my story the other day.

It’s okay. I fixed it.

But fixing it led to another plot hole.

And then another.

And another.

I’m starting to think there might be a breeding colony at work somewhere. I may need a flamethrower.

But that’s the thing with rewrites: all that shit that you said you’d fix later? Well, guess what, motherfucker: it’s later. And you can’t skate past it twice.

The problem, of course, is that sometimes you don’t realize something is wrong until after it happens. Oh, you might have an inkling. A tingling in your Spider Sense*. A feeling.

Later, the feeling is stronger. Something just doesn’t seem right. You can smell it. And, by going back, you find it: a plot hole.

It is tempting, especially if you’re a no-outline writer or pantser or whatever the hell people call themselves these days, to just let it slide for now again. To fix that later as well. But I caution against this. Why? Because it’s a slippery fucking slope.

When you’re zero drafting, you can get away with that shit because you legitimately don’t know what the hell’s going to happen. You’re a wanderer in the middle of your own story, as lost as a tourist in the Thai red-light district. So those incongruities and problems…they’re a problem for Future You.

But during the rewrite…you are Future You. And Future You doesn’t have the same excuse.

There’s a world of difference between ‘this might work, I just need to think of how and I can do that later’ and ‘this doesn’t work in any incarnation of the story but I can’t be arsed to fix it’. If you know something is wrong, you should fix it before it spreads its diseased tentacles of wrongness throughout the story. One bad thing leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to six more…and before you know it, the story has gone off in entirely the wrong direction.

So, when you find them, fix the plot holes. Smooth things out. Make it as seamless as possible so that you can then focus on other stuff: the voices, the pacing, the mood, the tension. And, of course, the other plot holes that your beta readers will inevitably find.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a breeding colony to find.

*If this is not someone’s nickname for their genitals, I am very disappointed in all of you.

The Ghosts of Past Drafts: Rewriting A Manuscript

“BITCH GET BACK DOWN THERE.”: St. Michael exorcising demons with the help of of his pretty floral bonnet.

Rewriting is harder than people think. I mean, you have the story down, in one form or another. You have the characters. Now it’s just a matter of taking out the bits that don’t work and replacing them with ones that do. Easy-peasy, right?

Imagine I’m pressing the world’s largest error buzzer right now.

See, it would be easy if the pieces you don’t want were happy to go away. If they would die, quietly and peacefully somewhere out of the way, like a gerbil that crawled into the wall and was never seen again.

But they don’t. They want to live. So they claw and scramble and pester, trying to get back into the story.

This is a problem I call the Haunting. Old drafts can haunt your current one, trying to warp it back to a mirror of themselves, flaws and all. 

Most of the problem is pure authorial laziness. Cutting and pasting without really—and I mean really—examining whether that scene works? Then get your bell, book, and candle, lads, because you’re going to have to exorcise something out of it in the future. 

Rewriting is like fighting the old draft for control. 

I was trying to rewrite a scene. A pivotal one, one that had been in the story since its very conception, when it was but a story fetus. I was fine with how it started and ended in the original, but the bits in the middle didn’t work with the changes I’d made. This will be easy, I thought. After all, the end points are the same. It’s just a matter of joining them up in a new way. Simple.

But every time I tried to rewrite it, the old scene wanted to intrude. Dialogue that I liked tried to work itself in, despite the fact that none of those characters were present any more. A fight kept trying to go a certain way when it had to go differently. Even setting details kept creeping in. The ghosts of those old drafts were doing their damnedest to hang on. 

When I realized what the problem was, I closed all other windows, including the old drafts I was working from, opened a new document, set my computer to block all incoming notifications, and started rewriting that scene again. With nothing to refer back to, it went easier. Not easy, mind you. I still had to claw for every sentence. But at the end of that day, I had a scene that was no longer haunted. 

A note for those of you embarking on the journey that is the rewrite: watch out for ghosts. Because they’ll drag you back every chance they get. 

Prime Cuts: Carving Up Your First Draft

I didn’t need those paragraphs anyway. Or that chapter.

My zero drafts are a mess. Too many words, too much explaining, some really obvious character slips, the occasional monologue*…it’s not pretty.

But it doesn’t have to be. That’s why it’s a zero draft: so I can edit it and make it pretty.

Most of the energy in making the second draft–or, as I call it–the Working Draft–goes into cutting. Getting rid of the crap so I can see what I’ve actually made. Making the writing flow better so that the story comes out without the writing getting in the damn way.

If you want to picture how I edit, imagine a sentient woodchipper and Edward Scissorhands had a mechanized baby that loves red pens and slash-and-burn deforestation.

But how do I know what to get rid of? What gets tossed into my whirring mechanical maw, and what passes by, unnoticed for today?

Simple. There’s a list.

Here are my top picks for how to make your writing go down smoother than the Skittle vodka your cousin made that time.**

1) Kill the passive voice. For a refresher:

“The sundae bar was burned by the fire-breathing velociraptor.” (Passive) [edited: thanks for the catch, sucoletta!}

“The firebreathing velocipraptor burned everything in sight, including the sundae bar.” (Active)

A good hint to discern whether you’re writing passive voice is the use of ‘was’ and its confederates. Changing to active not only makes the writing smoother–less crap to get in the way–it also wastes less words. Which is important if you’re writing to spec.

2) Murder the qualifiers. Here’s a partial list:

very, kinda, sort of, massively, intensely, insanely, a small amount, a vast amount, partially, a little, a bit, a lot…

God, I could just keep going.

In 99% of cases, these add nothing to the sentence they infest like ticks on a monkey’s ass. Degrees can much more elegantly be conveyed if they’re necessary. Leaving you with nothing but clean, useful monkey ass.

However, I’m not from the school of thought that says you should never have adjectives. But only use the ones you need. “Glanced quickly” is not only redundant, it’s wasteful. CUT.

3) Suffocate your desire to explain everything. Go back and read Wednesday’s post (bonus: contains strippers) and remember: showing is generally better than telling. And explaining, whether it’s done by the narrative or by a character, is boring. Not to say that you shouldn’t explain anything, but do so with a light hand.

Note: this doesn’t just apply to the alternative world stuff you’ve made that your are very proud of. Think twice before having characters explain their motivations. One, it should be evident already. Two, no one likes to listen to a bunch of self-justifying crap.

This is the biggest one for me. In the zero draft, I’m generally working out the reasons for things as I go, and they end up coming out of some character’s mouth. On the next pass, I edit that crap out. After all, I already know it, and, for the most part, the reader doesn’t need to. And what they do need to know can be presented in a far more subtle way.

I’m always looking for that new edge, so: what are your tricks? What do you cut out of your zero draft?

*I’ve started leaving a line from The Incredibles as my editing comment: “You caught me monologuing!”

**Taste the rainbow. The burning, chemical rainbow.

 

Breaking Out The Hard Stuff: Writing The Parts You Really Don’t Want To

No one ever promised you ‘easy’.

It’s a myth that writing always feels good. Sometimes it’s hard, for a variety of reasons. The most obvious of these is of course not knowing what to write next, or not knowing how. But I’m here today to address the lesser-known but still powerful type of hard: emotionally difficult.

Case in point: the other day I was working on a scene that honestly made me uncomfortable. It was about a rapist justifying his own actions to himself. The whole thing left me feeling like I’d just taken a running leap into an open sewage pit.

I didn’t want to write it. I don’t even know if that particular scene will make it into the final cut. But I needed to know how he would see it, because of course very few people ever see themselves as the Bad Guy*, so that I knew how he would act later. Because how he acts later is instrumental to how the main character sees him, and makes a decision regarding him. There are serious consequences to his action, and I needed to know how he would accept—or, in this case, not accept—these consequences.

Still, that was a hard 1,000 words. It took me damn near all afternoon, when normally I’d crank out that many words in an hour and then get a cookie. I wanted to stop, not because the words weren’t coming, but because when they were I didn’t want them to. I spent half the afternoon writing a couple of sentences, getting weirded out, and walking away for ten minutes or so before coming back. Because, distasteful as I found it, it needed to be written.

So I wrote it, and felt dirty all over when I was done.

But yesterday I opened it up again and read it over, and it turns out that scene is exactly what it needs to be. Anyone else reading it will come away feeling the same way I did. Which, considering what we’re discussing, is the idea.

This comes back to that old Stephen King quotation that I bandy about every now and then:

“[S]topping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”

You can’t leave the hard stuff out and write only the pieces you want. Because there’s gold in them there hills, if you’ve got the guts to make the climb and dig it out. It won’t be nice, and it won’t be easy. But whoever said art has to be either was a fucking liar.

*Though he is. No worries about that.

Bathroom Break: Life Details In Fiction

Thank you, Poop Writer, for inspiring this post. At least you did something right.

I once read a story in which every characters’ bowel movements were graphically described.*

It wasn’t a very long story—maybe ten pages, max. But, of those ten, about three were devoted to detailing the process and product of taking a dump. And those pages were so detailed that I can barely remember the plot of the story. Everything else has been eclipsed by the endless descriptions of shit. I’m not squeamish by any stretch of the imagination, but at a certain point even I was all, Enough, dude. What’s the point of this?

When I read the afterword—yes, it was one of those publications that has afterwords for short stories, presumably to give the authors a chance to explain what the hell they just did to you—the author discussed how s/he** was striving for more realistic stories. S/he felt that most stories didn’t accurately represent the actual human experience, as far as conversation, thought processes, and, of course, sitting on the porcelain throne.

To which I say: well, duh.

Had Poop Writer been in my home at that time, I likely would have pointed out that fiction doesn’t need to be a perfect representation of daily life, with all its dead ends and wanderings and everyday boring errands, physical or otherwise. We already have something that does that. We call it life.

Fiction*** is an idealized representation of reality. It’s streamlined. It has to be, because fiction has something life doesn’t: plot. There’s a story being told in there somewhere, and all things are in service to it. Even ‘reality’ television knows this rule, which is why story lines and villains and drama emerge in every season. Someone out there is carefully cutting those scenes together and making a story out of them instead of the random, chaotic mess that is real life.

Which means I damn well don’t want to read about your characters musing on their digestive tract health unless it is key to the story.

It’s not just bathroom breaks; I’ve read things that had the occasional detour into What The Hell Land many times. Unreasonably long sections about running errands. The minutia of hair styling. And, on one memorable occasion, an entire chapter devoted to deer hunting and the preparation of the skins for wearing. It’s not that these things can’t be interesting, or even useful to the story. But in these cases, they weren’t. They were just…filler. Or the author showing off how much they knew.

When writing fiction, children, remember this: if it doesn’t serve the plot or illustrate character—preferably both—leave it on the killing floor. If it does one or both of those things, it’s probably a keeper.

Even if it’s about poop.

*I typed that sentence one-handed because I was drinking coffee at the same time. My right hand skipped most of the letters on the left side of the keyboard. Presumably because it thought the left hand was on that. Muscle memory is weird. Anyway. Back to the post.
**Can no longer remember the author’s gender. Or name. They will forever and always be known to my brain as The Poop Writer.
***Usual caveats apply. Surrealist fiction is, of course, a horse of a completely different colour with seven legs.

The One-Day Stand: Cheating On My Manuscript

I knew that story was trouble the second it walked through my door.

Confession time: I’m taking a day off from my manuscript.*

Not because it’s not going well. Actually, aside from a few surprises—where did that guy come from? Why does she keep flirting with her? What the hell happened to that guy’s head?—it’s chugging along like a well-run train filled with liars, killers, and the occasional standup guy who’s wondering how he got there.*** Things are coming together.

But the day off is neither congratulatory nor a desperate attempt to break free of the project before it destroys me. It’s necessary.

This is a trick I learned from some writing book a long time ago. I can’t remember which one, though I’m tempted to say it was something by James Scott Bell. I can’t check, though, because a couple of those books got lost in one of the many, many moves in which I’ve participated. I tried Googling, but either my Google-fu is weak today or it’s just not out there.

The advice is this: when you reach a certain point in a manuscript, take a break. One day away. Step back from that relentless forward momentum. Then, after that day, look at what you’ve done. Is it living up to your expectations? Is it following the path you laid out in the outline, or the re-outline? Is it shaping up, or is it just plodding along?

And of course the big question: what’s wrong with it?

I find that a good place to take that break—at least the first time—is right around the time when the first act ends. That’s usually at somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 words. If you’re familiar with Joseph Campbell and the monomyth, it happens when the characters leave the old world behind and enter the new. It is the tipping point. And as such it suits the needs of this break very well.

I reached that point the other day—27,000 words, for anyone who’s interested—so I’m taking the break to review what’s happened so far. Do I need to make a new outline? Do I want to keep this character that just kind of popped up last week? Should I make those world-building changes I was thinking about yesterday? And so on.

This is why I distinguish between the zero draft and the real first draft. The zero is all about forward motion; never look back because you don’t know what might be gaining. The first draft, when you go over the path you made before and make it something worth following, benefits from a little backwards gazing. You can check to see if others can follow. You can make sure the right elements are introduced. If anything strange comes up in the first draft, you can decide if you want to carry it through to the end or kill now before it has a chance to breed.

And once that planning is done, you can move on with confidence.

*”Day off” in this context meaning “day where I work on a different project like the no-good, roundheels** bitch that I am”.
**I was made aware the other day that no one else has used this word on a regular basis since 1956. That’s what I get for reading all that pulp noir fiction.
***HAHA I PUT YOU THERE. SUCK IT.