Monday, November 7, 2011

My November Writing Goals, Tips, and Roadblocks

While I didn't officially join National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo, I've been trying to set active daily goals and a larger monthly goal so I too can benefit from the creative energy that my fellow writers put out into the universe during November. In other words, I'm a member of the NaNoWriMo Cheaters Club. I'm not following the rules of NaNo, but I'm trying to use that same sense of motivation to get myself into a new project. Suzanne Lazear wrote a great post about making NaNo work for you that pretty much sums up why I'm doing what I'm doing and she also is running a huge month long contest for all you guys with November goals, so check that out. I did sign up there and I've also been posting my goals regularly on facebook, twitter, and doing my best to cheer on those who respond. A group of friends of mine from high school are keeping each other motivated and checking in together as well. Oooh and I have a new office, freshly painted by my husband, perfectly arranged by me, but still in the process of being decorated so no pictures for you yet. Anyway, I feel like I have all kinds of good writing juju going on and that I could do this NaNoWriMo thing--or my version of it at least.

I suppose I should tell you what that version is and explain my goals for the month.

A week ago I sat down with two YA ideas that I couldn't decide between. I had roughly 30 pages written on each as well as general outline. My indecision and pages already written were what stopped me from officially signing up for NaNo, not to mention the fact that in the past word count goals that make me write fast and furious have not worked well for me. They go against my nature to write slowly and thoughtfully at least until I get into a groove. They also pushed me wayyyyy off track with the Bartender Book. So I wasn't ready to commit to 50K words in a month. I decided that 30K was more my speed and I thought I would alternate back and forth between my two book ideas until I picked one.

Day one I worked on the book idea I've had the longest. I've been toying with it in some fashion since the spring of 2008 and spent all summer hashing out what the problems with my older versions of the idea were with some critique partners and coming up with a general synopsis, some characters and these muses that I blogged about back in August. Yeah, that's right, August. I've been struggling with it ever since then, mainly because I see the very beginning of the book and I see the last third or so and I know what has to happen to get me there, but I can't see it unfolding. And normally the way I work on a book is that I have a character, a general theme, and I see a really compelling scene so I write it. Then I write the next scene and the next and so on. I don't usually even outline or plan until I'm a ways in, sometimes not even until I'm stuck. This book is not happening in my usual way. It made me think it was either a good candidate for NaNo-style writing because it would force me to write fast and push past the parts where I was having trouble and make discoveries or it was a terrible candidate because even though I think the idea is brilliant, I am not capable of carrying it out. Day one went well though. I had only limited time and I still managed to pound out 1710 words. They were awful and ugly but the story was moving forward.

Day two, I started work on YA idea #2. It's a shiny new idea as far as my ideas go, meaning I've only been playing with it since spring. It's been flowing like my ideas usually do. I had a character, a general theme or concept and I saw a really powerful scene and just started writing. It was unfolding pretty brilliantly except I had the nagging feeling that it was missing something, the big something that would make the structure work and define the spirit of the story, like the notebook of "ballads" in Ballads. It might still be too new, I worried, but I told myself it could be perfect for NaNo style writing since it was unfolding pretty well in my head. I found out pretty immediately that it wasn't. I did 861 words in the amount of time it had taken me to do 1710 on YA idea #1. I was wondering if it was a sign. Then my agent called. That was definitely a sign.

My agent told me how much she adored YA idea #1. She liked #2 as well, but she felt like #1 was so me and had so much potential and she reassured me that even though it was huge and scary I could totally pull it off. We figured out one of the things that had been stumping me and I told her I would do it, I would commit to YA idea #1. I had a couple of hours before I had to go work so I dove in and wrote as much as I could on YA idea #1 so I would have a decent word count on it for the day. I got 974 words on that project, bringing my total for the day to 1835.

I was revved by all of this, my inspiring talk with my agent and surpassing my own 1K goal to acheive real NaNo-size word counts for the first two days. I forged ahead and got 1722 words on day 3, but then things started to go downhill. Friday and Saturday are my busy days of the week and generally I don't write on those days. I view writing as my full-time job (even though I have a couple of part-time jobs on top of it that actually pay the bills) so usually I take Friday and Saturdays "off" and run errands or on some rare occasions, I socialize. Friday I actually had a ton of errands and staff meeting for my teaching job, so I only had half an hour to write, but I managed 655 words. Saturday I had a good couple of hours but only wrote 714 words. Sunday is usually a writing day for me, and though I am generally worn out from working til 3 am at my bar job on Saturday nights, I have a writing meet-up with one of my best friends that keeps me pretty productive. I did squeeze out 1013 words, but they were abysmal. Then yesterday, Monday, which is usually my best writing day of the week because I don't work the night before *and* I'm not going to either my teaching or bartending job at night so I don't feel the pressure to get done at an exact time, I wrote a terrible 741 words.

What is happening here? I think it's a couple things:

1. I'm stuck. As I mentioned before, I'm not seeing scenes for this part of book. I was hoping I could speed my way through and stumble on something but

2. while it got me over an initial hump, writing fast is not satisfying. I need to develop the voice of this book, it's texture, it's imagery and when I speedrace through, I'm not taking enough time to do that.

Nova Ren Suma wrote a great post about taking her writing slowly and rewriting as she goes and that is something I feel more comfortable with. But at the same time, I hate the fact that I write so slowly and I hate first drafts so I kind of want to get the rough draft done fast so I can get to the good bit: the rewriting!

Clearly what I need is to find some sort of balance where I take my time on some bits to develop voice and imagery and all that good stuff, but I don't worry about getting every scene perfect. However, time management is a huge issue for me. As I mentioned before, I only write 5 days a week, but I feel like this month, I should try to squeeze in even half an hour every day. I'm also trying to figure out how to deal with my life so I actually accomplish all I need to accomplish in one day and am not up at 12:42 am when I want to be in bed reading AMPLIFIED (have you seen the Women Who Rock Wednesday interview on that? Go read it and enter the contest.) but instead I have to finish the blog entry I meant to write at 5 pm and couldn't because I got behind on my teaching stuff and my freelance stuff and ended up totally neglecting my husband yet again. I know that for a lot of my friends who do NaNo, it's a way to fit writing into their hectic lives. Writing is already in my hectic life, but ever since I added teaching and writing for ROOKIE into the mix this fall, I haven't figured out how to get all I want done in a day. Anyway, that is probably a whole separate and personal issue (though I'd love to take time management tips if you have them as long as they don't involved get up ass early since I am a bartender and work til 2 or 3 am), but my point is I think I rush to reach word count because I have limited time to write fiction, and then even on days like yesterday (which is still today as I type this because I'm up too late) when I have plenty of time, I get these anxiety about building up words for days like today where I'll have limited time. But I need to start thinking about quality as well as quantity. I don't want to move at a snail's pace, but I don't want to throw words on the page just for the sake of a number. Of course this is easier said than done for the girl who is very clear concise goal oriented.

Also the larger problem is this "not seeing the scenes I need to be writing" thing. I'm really not sure how to remedy that. I did write my first book non-linearly by just "going to the moment that takes your attention" as I was coached to do in my MFA program, but since I wrote my last two books linearly, I'm a little freaked out about doing this, especially since in this case I'm seeing the very last part of the book and it seems just wrong to write that first.

I'm really hoping that slowing down and really lushly describing the places or the backstory or whatever might help. Part of me honestly wants to make a moodboard for the story. This is ROOKIE's influence on me. You can see the monthly moodboard for our latest issue here as an example and Tavi shows off her moodboard for the month here. I don't know if this moodboard thing is like a fashion world thing or what, but I think it is rad as hell. I also think I should have done it to prep for this month and now maybe it's just procrastinating. In my defense, I didn't have time to prepare. I finished revisions, I caught up on everything I put off while doing revisions and then I dove back into this thing. Maybe I need some muse time...

Though I would rather try to find the muse while writing. Last week one of my friends was struggling and I told her about some exercises that I teach. I'm going to share them here in case they are useful to you, too. I also may take my own advice and try a couple of them. Or jump ahead. Or slow down. Or perhaps one each day this week til I get it right. However I would also love any writing exercises or tricks you may try when you know the basic plot but aren't seeing the scenes unfold.

Here are my tools:

1. The Hands exercise: In the first paragraph, describe the space, the room the character is in which may be significant to them. In the second paragraph, describe the character's hands. That's right, skip over their face and other features we usually go to and describe their hands. You can tell a lot by hands: age, job, past through scars and tattoos, do they bite or manicure their nails. Next paragraph describe what they are doing with their hands: rolling a cigarette, lighting a fire, putting on lip gloss. Then bring another character into the scene and have them interact.

2. The photo exercise: Look for a photo that reminds you of your story in some way. Write a scene about it in which there is CONFLICT. Could be internal conflict but actual interaction is better. (NOTE: Ooooh this gives me an excuse to look for moodboard stuff....)

3. The flow exercise: See your character in their flow, meaning doing an activity they love so much they lose themselves completely in it. Like playing music, a sport, cooking, painting, etc. Describe how they do it, how it makes them feel, make it really visceral. But again, move it toward a conflict. The example scenes I read my class were from Firelight by Sophie Jordan, where the main character a draki (part dragon, part human) sneaks out to fly, a thing she loves, but she gets caught. Also from Graffiti Girl by Kelly Parra where a girl experiments with graffiti art for the first time to bring her own art to the next level, but then she sneaks back into the house and her mom is pissed. And last but not least from Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly where a girl with Aspergers who has always played music on her own, meets two other people and starts to write a song with them and realizes the experience is so much better that she has to get past her own blocks about other people and form a band with them.

4. Draw your plot on a giant piece of paper. Whatever shape it forms, however it best suits you. Use lots of colors, collage if you want. (AGAIN: MOODBOARD POSSIBILITIES!) You can also list your conflicts, assign them a 1-10 rating for conflict and graph them to see how the book flows.

5. Those were admittedly all exercises that I learned from another teacher and modified a bit, but I also have my own. The Ballads exercise. Yep, like my characters in BALLADS OF SUBURBIA. Take the character you are struggling with and write their ballad. Let them put a song quote up top and the dive into their inner darkness, and let them write as it says in the BALLADS back cover copy, "heartbreakingly honest confessions of the moments that defined and shattered their young lives."

Those are my main tools, but as you can see most are character-based because I'm a really character-driven writer. Maybe #2 and #4 would help me, but #4 doesn't involve putting words on the page and #2, well, I could totally waste hours looking for that picture. So if you have good tips for when you are stuck discovering plot and scene, please let me know!


PKJ said...

I meant to tell you that the hand exercise was very helpful for me- I think it helped me find my flow! So that you for that.
I plan on trying the flow exercise soon.

One thing that helped me too was making lots of "world notes" which you probably already have, and then realizing ways I could work them into the story. That helps a lot with the middle because my story (and maybe yours too?) is a process of discovering there's another layer of reality and then a long process of figuring out what the rules are and if they can be broken.

anyway, cheers and thank you and all that.

Katherine said...

I always start at the beginning (first scene or maybe even chapter) but then I cannot proceed further until I write the end. I may change it around later and I always end up refining and adding details, but unless I can see that last scene written down, I can't press forward. It works really well.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Polly, I am glad the hands exercise helped you and hope that the flow exercise did too. I ended up following your advice and making more world notes and basically writing this huge summary. I'm totally counting it as words because I'm a NaNo cheater anyway ;) So thank you for your help!

Katherine, I'm glad to know how you write the end right away, that actually helped give me permission to do so. Since using the summary worked for now, I am writing linearly, but I'm going to give myself permission to jump to the end if I'm stuck, thanks!