Category Archives: NaNoWriMo

NaNo Playlist Block

My first week of NaNoWriMo has been a bit of a drag. Compared to the previous years (and their successful 100k written in November), it feels weird to fall behind on the daily progress towards 50k. I know why that is, though: this is the first year I use NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to rewrite an existing project.

The original draft of The Phoenix’s Wake has quite a few problems, which is why I’m rewriting it from scratch. But there are also things in there that I love, and these things that I want to preserve held me back from just pushing ahead with the new draft. Without realizing it at first, I held myself at a ridiculously high standard for a draft: it had to be better than the original, but not too different.

That’s nuts. I can’t walk that line and write 1,667 words a day. And the truth is: I shouldn’t even attempt it. The Phoenix’s Wake needs a new voice and identity. That’s why I’m rewriting it instead of editing it.

I figured that I should put together a soundtrack to help me steer myself into a new mind space for this story.

And I hit Playlist Block.

Wanna help?

I posted this of Saturday, and a couple of people have participated by joining the discussion in some way or adding songs to the Spotify playlist. I figured I would take the time to give a bit more context for the story here, in case other people want to help give The Phoenix’s Wake its new flavor.

The Phoenix’s Wake is an urban fantasy mystery that deals with themes of grief, independence/self-identity and racial segregation.

Drea Cente is the main character. She passes for Latina, but she’s actually Mayan. Since she’s a Gorgon, she looks and acts like a 30-ish year-old even though she’s 149, and she morphs from human to snake woman and can turn people into stone. She’s a bit of a hothead, fiercely loyal, and relying on others to keep organized. Without going into her personal history too much, she was born in 1866, went through a war and circus slavery until 1929, then enjoyed a few good years with Ramses. 1943 to 1963 was hell on her, and she basically quit human society. She has led a normal-ish life since then, and is now a detective with the Wilmington Myth Police. At the start of the story, she has lost Ramses and gets stuck with an untrained human on an oddly familiar case.

Keith Russo is said human and is as red-blooded American as they come. He has experience in human homicide, but has never worked with Myths before which causes him to have dangerous assumptions about how to interact with his new team. He’s stuck between doing what his superintendent wants (observe the Myths and learn better ways to control them) and what he knows to be right (protect and serve.) Drea tries her best to teach him the rope, but he tends to get in his own way (and she’s not the best teacher.) He’s 34, hyper organized and has two kids with his wife.

Ramses Cairo is an egg. I’m serious; he’s a Phoenix in the process of being reborn. Before that, he was Drea’s adoptive father and work partner. He rescued her in 1929 and took her under his wing until he spontaneously combusted in 1943. After being reborn in a Phoenix sanctuary, he exited the sanctuary, a 20 year-old version of himself with half the memories of his previous life, and rejoined with Drea (1963.) He combusted again the night before the beginning of the story, and Drea fears that he may forget her this time. She’s grieving, but trying to keep it together without him. He was the one with wisdom and social skills.

The world they live in is an alternate version of today. Since everyone started having a good quality camera in their pocket a few years ago, an increasing number of myths got photographed or recorded and posted on social media. Five years ago, the Grand Reveal happened; Myths announced their existence. Humans didn’t react very well. By now, all Myth politicians have been voted out of office, except for the governor of Delaware because the state has a high concentration of Myths. Human-on-myth violence is fairly under control, but the human public services won’t support them. Myths have their own lawyers, medical services, police, etc. but there aren’t enough of them to organize the way human services are.

Okay, I think I’ve said enough. If you want to add music to the Spotify playlist, I would recommend that you start adding tracks without checking out what others put in. This way, you won’t be influenced in your decisions, and I’ll have different takes on what my characters sound like to people. 😉

And what about you guys? Are you NaNo-ing? How is it going?

Lessons From the NaNoWriMo Trenches

We have now entered the last week of November and, like every other year, I’m amazed by the amount of work fellow NaNos and I have produced, and the intoxicating community of writers surrounding this event. From the daily support of fellow WriMos to the pep talks from professionals, this is an amazing experience. I’d like to extend a heartfelt thank you to the non-profit coordinating this crazy venture (simply named National Novel Writing Month, formerly known as The Office of Letters and Light) and the Municipal Liaisons (volunteers who organize local writing events throughout November)  for their time and dedication.

I’ve seen a few negatives reactions about NaNo around the web, people complaining about the number of encouragement/bragging on social media or arguing that writing 50k in a month will only produce drivel. Sure, we get a little word count obsessed and some people only write random stuff for the fun of it and don’t care about the outcome, but that’s not true for everyone.

Fair enough, I concede on both arguments anyway.

However –you knew that one was coming, didn’t you?– by dismissing the whole event, detractors are missing out on some valuable writing lessons learned in the blazing trenches of NaNoWriMo. Because of the incentive to produce and the fast pace of the challenge, we learn a lot about ourselves and reflexes that can make us better writers. So, without further ado, I’ll present my top three lessons learned during NaNo, how to capitalize on them and why they work in favor of a first draft.

I’m stuck! – Kill Someone!

On the course of the month, it’ll happen quite often that someone’s shoulder will slump before he/she says: “I’m stuck.” Without missing a beat, someone else will recommend, “Kill someone!” or, alternatively, “Take their clothes off!”

There is a reason why this is one of the top advices heard during NaNo: drama keeps the story moving forward. When we find ourselves unable to write a scene, there’s likely a lack of conflict. If it is supposed to be a high-octane scene and yet the words don’t flow, the stakes aren’t high enough.

The “kill someone” advice causes us to ask ourselves what would be a huge wrench that derails our plot and gets us excited to write the next couple of chapters. That wrench needs to be in our story, not just for NaNo’s sake, but for the reader’s sake too.

Questioning the amount of tension when we get stuck is a reflex worth developing to avoid trudging through a bad scene, exhaust ourselves and hit writer’s block. It forces us to clarify the stakes and motivations which solidifies the plot. I’ve found that editing is much easier if the draft nails the core of the drama, even if it’s clunky.

So when you hit a wall, ask yourself: What are the stakes? Where is the drama? How can I crank them up? If this is a transition scene, how can I build in nods at the stakes and drama to make it interesting?

Slow Writing = Slow Reading

After a few days of NaNoWriMo, we ramp up to a cruising speed and such a routine makes dips in productivity unmistakeable. Every time writing is like pulling teeth, I ask myself if I’m tired, sick of writing in general or if the scene is especially tricky; these are valid productivity hindrances. If the answer to these questions is “no” yet the last thousand words took me twice the usual time to write, I make a note for myself and keep writing.

These notes come into play when I start editing: my first pass of edits on a NaNo novel is to read it while paying special attention to the marked section and questioning their relevance. Some of them are good and were just written on an “off day”, but most of them need some serious TLC or an axe in the forehead. The marked scenes fall flat, either because they lack drama (see previous point) or because, when I look hard enough, they’re useless.

I wouldn’t notice as many slowdowns without the imperative to produce.

[Insert Cool Science Thingy]

Research may very well be the number one source of procrastination for writers, and WriMos simply can’t afford to spend a couple of days researching the mating rituals of squids in captivity to write one 500-word scene.

In my experience, doing too much research while writing a draft caused me to get hung up on the details and overshadow the conflict with complex information that, in the end, isn’t necessary. I can fix it in editing, but I’d much rather be not spend energy on writing it in the first place.

Several WriMos use the [Insert blood pattern description that indicate a slashed throat] method to isolate the research that needs to be done for the scene. This enables us to pin point what we need for the plot and keep writing. We’ll do targeted research and fill in the blanks during the edits.

Yes, sometimes the research feeds the plot, so it may be needed, but the pace of NaNo forces us to question the relevance of stopping for that. Most of the time, we’ll keep writing.

It’s important to not get bugged down in the first draft and this technique can also be used to [add transition] and skip ahead to the next plot point. Once the core of the story is out, we’re more informed to make these transitions interesting during editing. 😉

Closing Words

NaNoWrimo makes us sit down and write a good amount every day, whether we feel like it or not. That’s already a good habit for a writer. The pace of productivity can also strengthen our first draft process, if we care to use the challenge to our advantage. Fellow WriMos are there for support and may become trusted critique partners for the rest of the year. The pace also helps us get to know ourselves as writers: how much outlining makes us more productive? Which time of day works best to churn out words? Coffee, tea or jelly bellies?

I encourage every aspiring writers to get through NaNoWriMo. You’ll grow, even if you only do it once.

Fellow WriMos, what is your top lesson learned from NaNo?

How I Write – Evolving Outline

We’re now a bit past the middle of this crazy month of November. A lot has changed in the course of eighteen days. For one, I went from zero words on a story to over 50k, passing the midway mark to my 100k objective on November 14th (a day ahead of schedule, yay!) I thought it would be a good time to give you a bit more insight into the way I write and tackle a challenge like writing a complete first draft of a novel in a month.

Do you remember the post-its outline I showed you in October? Here’s a refresh in case you need it.

Seventeen chapters planned. Order, content and number may change.

Seventeen chapters planned October 30th. (click to magnify)

In the original post, I mentioned that one of the reasons why I like using post-its is because they give me great flexibility. As I write the story and uncover new things about the characters, I take post-its out, throw them away, replace them, switch the order; whatever is needed for my outline to reflect the new needs of the story. That’s why the original outline doesn’t have chapter numbers on the post-its. I want to feel like it’s okay to go off road and let the story wander away from the initial plan –because it is okay, needed, even. Most of the time, the plot still heads in the same general direction, and when it doesn’t, that’s alright, too.

Sometimes, I’ll adjust the post-its before I write the related chapter. Sometimes, I’ll write the chapter once, discover something new, throw it out and rewrite it right away, strong with my new understanding of what the characters and/or story needs. In this NaNo, I wrote chapter 4 twice, and chapters 5 to 7 three times. I just kept rolling with the punches and revising the outline until my story had a solid enough plot to keep me writing through the end. The chapters still have big issues –it’s important not to obsess over perfection for the first draft—but the intrigue isn’t going face first into a wall anymore.

Some writers are fine with ignoring broken chapters and skipping ahead. They’ll fix them in revisions. Personally, I get demotivated if the continuity is broken, so I need to figure at least that much out in the first draft. The rest, I’ll fix in revisions. 😉

This is what my outline looks like now:

Now twenty-one chapters and moving toward the middle of the first draft. May still change before the end.

Now twenty-one chapters and moving toward the middle of the first draft. May still change before the end. (click to magnify)

I’ve added chapter numbers on the chapters that are written, which serves as an additional burn-down chart of my progress. I’m about done with chapter 9 and will number it with great joy sometime today.

Motivation & Small Accomplishments

If you’ve been reading motivational advice around the Internet, you’ve probably come across the classic “break objectives down into small achievable chunks” or “focus on manageable short-term goals”. By all means, do this for your second week of NaNo. Just like we’ve all broken down the 50k into daily goals, break down the 1,667 words a day into three 556 sprints or even smaller.

Most importantly, give yourself opportunities to celebrate yourself.

Reached 556 words? Make yourself a cup of your favorite beverage. Reached 1,112? Have your favorite snack. Blasted through your 1,667 goal? Pat yourself on the back and brag a little.

Do not – and let me insist on this: do not!—skimp on the little rewards. They serve two very important purposes in keeping you productive:

  1. They make you take a break which gives rhythm to your writing and resting time to your brain and fingers.
  2. They remind you that you can do this and that NaNo is a fun, satisfying experience, which helps fight the occasional feeling of “this is a gruelling pace”.

Since I’m between jobs (visa for Australia submitted yesterday! Yay!), I can afford to give myself bigger rewards, like catching up on a TV show, because my writing hours are numerous. My small goals are also bigger since I’m reaching for 100k by the end of the month. Find a split of goals and a type of reward that works for your schedule.

You can also supplement this with other writerly accomplishments and celebration. Post your favorite sentences on the NaNoWriMo forums or share them of social media. Hell, share your NaNoisms too and have a good laugh. This’ll remind you that you can do this.

I’m lucky enough that I have other sources of small accomplishments to boost my confidence when I hit a creative wall. I have this blog and WordPress is nice enough to track a few stats for me. A few days ago, someone from Hungary read the entirety of my first blog novel, Unforeseen Dives, in two days straight. Today, someone from Norway started blasting through chapters of Killing Time OST, my second serialized novel.

These are old stories, written at a fast pace and basically posted as I went, and yet, people are seemingly still enjoying them. They’re not legion, but they’re enough to tell me that I can do this.

And I celebrate that small accomplishment.

And it keeps me striving toward better writing and that 100k.

So thanks, Stranger One and Stranger Two!

Now, not every WriMo reading this is lucky enough to have a Stranger One and Stranger Two to boost their morale, so in honor of the middle of the Dreaded Second Week, I offer to be your Stranger. Reach out to me in the comment section, on Twitter or with a NaNoMail and let me know your NaNo username. I’ll write you a NaNoMail motivational/celebratory message. If your profile and novel information are filled or if you let me know about your current hurdle or accomplishment in your message, I’ll personalize your message as best as I can.

I pledge to do this for 10 NaNo, at least. I invite any other NaNo who wants to make a similar pledge to do so.

Let’s celebrate our small and big accomplishments and reach our NaNo goals like champions!

Creativity Tip – Speculation

The dreaded second week of NaNoWriMo is here and several of the participating writers are having trouble keeping up the pace. It’s normal. We were all excited the first week. We may have pushed ourselves a little bit more than we should have because of that excitement. By now, we’ve caught our feet in a couple of plot challenges and one of them was bound to trip us over at some point.

Like some of my other Creativity Tips (especially the one about brainstorming alone and the value of a tarot deck), this post can help you get over your hurdle and keep the word count going.

First piece of advice today: Don’t get frustrated with your NaNo. Sometimes, it’ll refuse to come out, especially as the month goes on. And yes, that’s annoying. Unfortunately, our brain works in such a way that when we’re focusing on the negative, we go down a solution-less spiral. When I feel the first tendrils of desire to curse at my novel, I CTRL+S and close it.

You see, despite what the fast pace of NaNoWriMo drills us to do, taking a break is sometimes the best thing we can do for our word count. Even a short break to brew some tea or walk around the block can be helpful, and the fear of falling behind shouldn’t stop you from taking a deep breath. Sometimes, a short break isn’t enough to replenish the creativity, though, and this where my tip comes in.

Do a session of stream-of-consciousness speculation.

There are several ways to get this started: sources of writing prompts are legion and some come attached to official NaNoWriMo word sprints. However, I’ve found that following someone else’s prompt or schedule feels like too much of a constraint when I’m struggling to write. Instead, I let my mind wonder until I find something intriguing, something that makes me ask myself several questions.

Yesterday, as it turned out, I thought about how many characters I had had to name for my NaNo and how refreshing it would be to write a story about That Guy. Who is That Guy? What does he do? How is he “that guy”?

I opened a new document and started typing, following That Guy where ever he may lead me. Speculation, speculation. 1,200 words later, I’m still not sure whether my narrator is a man or woman, or what That Guy does. The story looks like a romantic comedy. The narrator had a mental breakdown when That Guy revealed that his name was Greg. The narrator finds it harder to speculate about Greg than about That Guy.

Your random story doesn’t need to be long, but you’ll find that if you pick an idea that sparks a lot of questions —that pushes you to speculate— the words will come by themselves. Some parts of the story will be stream-of-consciousness moments, others may be more structured fiction.

It’s fine. Unbridled creativity shouldn’t be judged. Give your brain free reign to follow any random thread. It’s refreshing after working hard to but down words within the constraints of a specific project.

Do that for a day. Don’t look at your main project at all. Just revenge-write something else. Don’t feel compelled to finish the story of random speculations; it’s a one night stand, no strings attached. You got your steady novel for the serious stuff.

In fact, I think I would recommend that you don’t try to push that story too far at all or else you’ll be back in the too-many-plot-hurdles funk, associate that feeling to both projects and be stifled all over again.

Get yourself high on creativity, then head back to your main project the next day.

When you return, read the last couple of paragraphs you wrote. No judging! You just want to get yourself back in the project. You’ll find that if you really committed to the random speculation story the day before, you’ll have a new outlook on your main project. In my case, this one day break is enough to overcome the hurdle —which suddenly doesn’t seem so bad— and be productive again.

If you’re stuck, give this a try. You’re not losing a day because the speculation you wrote counts towards your 50k, and chances are you’ll be a lot more productive after this. You may even be surprised by the result (I may post an excerpt from the story about That Guy to support this point.) 😉

Happy second week!

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