When is it time?

From the moment the days start to shrink each September, I look forward to winter’s darkness. Like Andrew Wyeth, I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it; the whole structure doesn’t show.

To me, winter is the season of mystery and wonder, ideal starting points for any story.

Maybe this is why NaNoWriMo is such a successful annual event: as days shorten and shadows lengthen, we are reminded of nature shutting down. Plants die. Birds disappear from the garden. Food becomes scarce for the animals that do stay around. Imminent death is always an excellent theme for fiction.

In February, when the days stretch again and the first flowers of the year start to struggle out of the ground, the increased sunlight will energize me with new ideas. I’ll decide that spring is my season and let the vigorous growth inspire me. When the darling buds of May have blossomed into summer’s beautiful flowers, I’ll probably be persuaded that summer is the very best season to write. By the time autumn creeps in on the morning air in September I’ll be reminded just how much I love the fall and I’ll take long walks in the forest to enjoy the rich smells of the trees shutting down for the year.

However now it’s winter and I’m convinced this is the best season of them all. I loved the snow this week and I’m enjoying the long nights. During the day I look out at the barren garden and imagine what is going on just beyond the limits of my hearing and sight. There is a story brewing out there, I can sense it.

Do you have a favourite season for writing? Or can you sit down any time and work the words?

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Picture from Wikimedia Commons: High Park Toronto by paul (dex) bica

What's your view?

From where I sit, peering down through the thick evergreens on the side of Mt. Fromme, the cruise ships that slip in and out of Vancouver’s harbour look like toy boats on a glassy pond. They move, sleek and quiet, on the waters of Burrard Inlet.

Then I ride the SeaBus into town. When I’m at water level next to the huge liners, my perception of size changes dramatically. Even the small cruise ships are huge. The big cruise ships are the size of small countries. They are like floating, vertical islands.

Word count: 395                                                      Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Every time I start writing a novel it seems a small task: the simple telling of story. I’m sitting at an elevation of 1,100 feet, watching a story unfold on the harbour below. My last three novels, drafted during consecutive NaNoWriMo’s, took less than thirty days each.

In that short period I invented new worlds, populated them with fresh characters and manned the deck while big adventures rose, reached climaxes, and came to resolution. Pushing the small boat around the pond was light work compared to what came next.

I’m talking about revision of course. Of draft numbers one, two, three and beyond. That’s when the toy boat morphs into something much larger. With every pass, the story deepens, characters fill out and tension tightens. The challenge gets bigger and bigger.

Perhaps that’s why emerging writers need to look to proven authors for help and inspiration. Success provides lessons on what to do when tugboats turn into freighters and they’re no longer as agile and easy to turn as they once were.

  • Brian Beker recommends Clean [your writing] up and make it interesting. This involves rewriting until you feel like you need a bone marrow transplant.
  • Jane Austen hinted at the same tenacity with, I am not at all in a humour for writing; I must write on until I am.
  • And if it all seems to be taking too long, don’t worry about it. Definitely do not rush it. Especially do not rush to self publish. Try to remember Moliére’s words: The trees are slow to grow bear the sweetest fruit.

Where is your writing now? Are you pushing a small boat around a pond? Or are you standing at the helm of an aircraft carrier wondering how you are going to get it into dock? 

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Picture from Wikimedia Commons: Disney Wonder by Shorelander

Across the line

Word count: 258        Reading time: 1-2 mins 

I typed the last word into my NaNoWriMo document a week ago. Once I was in the habit of writing 2,000 words a day, it surprised me (yet again) how easy that exercise was. In fact it was very much like physical exercise: much easier when done on a regular basis. Also like physical exercise, one day’s finish line was the next day’s starting block.  

Around the middle of November I saw a tweet from a literary agent cautioning writers against querying her with their new novels in December. I laughed at the idea that the final period in my manuscript might signal anything like a finished work. During NaNoWriMo, I follow Tara Moss’s rule: Don’t write it right, just write it—and then make it right later.

In November I wrote. Later I’ll right. The NaNo effort has been buried in my electronic crypt. Now I’m revising something different, which is a fresh start  - and much more fun in its own way. Rose Tremain explains: The process of rewriting is enjoyable, because you’re not in that existential panic when you don’t have a novel at all.

Last week’s dash across the finish line left me perfectly poised for this week’s race. Practice makes the whole thing easier.

Did you finish a first draft recently, what Anne Lamott calls a SFD? Do you need the distance of time before you can start the process of ruthless self-editing? Or are you able to type ‘the end’ one week and revise the next?

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Keep on shovelling

Word count: 442               Reading time: 1-2 minutes

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 to do is shovel shit from a sitting position.Stephen King.

This year, like the other years I’ve done NaNoWriMo, the feeling that King described has haunted me on a regular basis. There are times when my story seems mired in cliché and dead ends and I’m tempted to throw it in and work on something else. Then I remind myself of Neil Gaiman’s thoughts on writing: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It's that easy, and that hard. So I get back to work and a little glimmer of light shines through the darkness. For a while it’s easy again: the characters come alive on the screen, I can smell the mountain air, and see the next plot twist clearly. Margaret Atwood is right. A word after a word after a word is power. It’s the power of finishing the first draft, digging up the gems along the way, and the power of pushing through to completion.

The end of my novel is in sight. It’s just around the next corner. As I clear the last hurdle, I’ll keep Robin McKinley’s advice in mind: One of the biggest, and possibly the biggest, obstacle to becoming a writer... is learning to live with the fact that the wonderful story in your head is infinitely better, truer, more moving, more fascinating, more perceptive, than anything you're going to manage to get down on paper. (And if you ever think otherwise, then you've turned into an arrogant self-satisfied prat, and should look for another job or another avocation or another weekend activity.) So you have to learn to live with the fact that you're never going to write well enough. Of course that's what keeps you trying – trying as hard as you can – which is a good thing.” Even after I type ‘The End’ for the first time, I’ll keep working on this novel. I’ll keep trying to improve it, to make sure that the right words follow each other in the best possible order.

What keeps you shovelling when you’d rather do anything than attempt to write? Do you have inspirational quotes taped to the top of your computer screen? Do you bribe yourself with a treat to get through the next 1,000 words? Once you break through a barrier and your characters are really talking to each other, do you work through the night to capture them before they vanish with the rising sun?

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Image by: mspraveen

Time out

 Word count: 242  Reading time: 1 min.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Jack Torrance, that creepy character in The Shining, was onto something with this thinking. He wasn’t the only one who thought that way. Sir John Lubbock said, “Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.”

Today I topped 34,500 words in my NaNoWriMo novel and I felt just a little depleted. So I did the obvious: I took a break. The sun was shining, bald eagles were congregating by Harrison River (this weekend is Eagle Fest), and the open road beckoned. While I may not have added to my word count during the long drive and brisk walks around different parks, I came home with a notebook full of scribbled thoughts. Tomorrow morning I will open the novel, refreshed and playful. If there was a better way to spend this fine autumn day, I can’t think what it might have been.

What have you done to revitalize your writing recently? Do you take a break? Go to a play or maybe just watch a good movie?

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Noon: Rest From Work by Vincent Van Gogh

Oh the places you'll go

Word count: 391                          Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Week One of NaNoWriMo has come and gone. To me this month is always like a wild journey. I think I know where I’m headed when I write my one sentence outline: This is a book about ________ who wants ________ but ___________ gets in the way. But I usually end up somewhere quite different than I first visualize.

This November 1st, I filled in those blanks and launched myself into the work. To help me navigate the course, I armed myself with some ground rules:

  • Do it. Just sit down and write. Or, in the words of Louis L’Amour: The first essential is just to write. You have to turn the faucet on before the water starts to flow.
  • Don’t let perfectionism kill the story. Remind yourself of Natalie’s Goldberg’s golden rule: give yourself permission to write crap.
  • Stay organized. Within reason. This is not the month to tidy the tax file, repaint the living room, or arrange the bookshelves alphabetically according to genre. But it is the month to clear off your desk so that only things that help with the novel catch your eye. Push everything else into a drawer.
  • Remember to laugh. To help you do this, Debbit Ridpath Ohi and Errol Elumir have created a NaNoWriMo cartoon-a-day website.
  • Go to local events. Last week the City of North Vancouver Library hosted five YA writers. These wonderful women gave generously of their time and I was well rewarded for carving out three hours for their workshops. I came back to the keyboard with a better direction and clearer sense of purpose. Thank you, Eileen Cook, Denise Jaden, Catherine Knutsson, Mindi Scott, and Joelle Anthony.
  • Don’t forget the music. My novel is moving to a dystopian kind of place so I’ve had Godspeed You! Black Emperor playing Mladic in the background. It’s music of impending dread, like something dark looming on the horizon. Perfect.
  • Take care of yourself. Do all those boring things like eat well, get enough sleep, and squeeze in a walk around block if you can. It helps to be fit when you’re wrestling demons.

Have you done NaNoWriMo before? What is helping you with it this year? Is the story unfolding according to your plan? Or will your destination be some place you couldn't quite see when you set out?

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Photo by: Bibigon

Magic Time

Word count: 478                  Reading time: 2 minutes

5:00 PM on Halloween afternoon I looked at the two pumpkins sitting on the kitchen counter. Should we bother to carve them? The weather was foul, not Hurricane-Sandy foul, but heavy-rain-warning-in-the-Pacific-rainforest foul. And rain it did. The downpour drowned the stereo and pounded loudly enough to suspend conversation. No trick or treaters were going to come out in this mess.

But still. Miss this holiday and it would be gone forever. So we rolled up our sleeves. When we were done, we set the two jack-o-lanterns on the front steps. Twenty minutes later our first and only callers of the night arrived: three young girls in garbage can costumes with big plastic lids for hats. I admired their tenacity and determination to celebrate one of the most fun holidays of the year. I also knew that two shining lanterns had drawn the kids to our house.

The next morning, November 1, marked the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and I thought of many reasons not to participate this year:

  • I only have a story idea. It’s not fleshed out. There is no timeline or well-defined story arc. It’s just a fragment.
  • NaNo is hard. It takes a lot of effort and sacrifice even to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It means saying no to many things. Christmas fairs start in November. And I love Christmas fairs.
  • All I’ll have at the end of will be a SFD, the start of a work, not a finished product.
  • I can’t do it. It’s just not possible.

All of this, of course, is ridiculous. I’ve done NaNo for the past two years. It is a productive, intense experience. So many reasons to participate:

  • All stories start with a single idea; they have to be told to find out where they are going. NaNo is the chance to capture what Anne Lamott calls the ‘down draft’, the getting down of the story. The ‘up draft’ – when the story is fixed up – comes later.
  • Anything worth having is usually hard work and normally involves sacrifice.
  • At the end of the process I’ll have another SFD, the important starting point for another novel.
  • I can do it. I’ve done it twice before. In fact, my 2010 NaNo novel is currently under contract to Great Plains Publications. There are lots of published NaNo books.

Like Halloween, NaNoWriMo only comes once a year. A thirty day commitment isn’t forever. And if I miss it this year, I’ll have to wait twelve months to participate again. If I roll up my sleeves and finish a glowing jack-o-lantern for the front porch, who knows what fun characters might show up at the door.

How do you keep moving forward even when your psyche throws up the stop signs? How do you keep the prize of finished work in clear view?

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Photo by: Alan Bolitho, LM

 

Don't Look Back

 Word count: 297                                Reading time: 2 mins

Years ago my friend Valerio, who was a bit of a petrolhead, used to joke, “I don’t need a rear view mirror because it doesn’t matter who’s behind me.”

 When I write, I look back often to see how I arrived at where I am. Sometimes this is a pitfall that stops me from advancing the story. Maybe that’s why other writers, probably all of whom finish NaNoWriMo in five days, don’t touch their work until it has reached SFD status.  

 Editing is just another part of writing so it’s a non-issue, right? Maybe not. Some people will revise a scene five or ten times while major parts of the book hang like a giant blank canvas. Editing allows them to avoid the steep hills in the road: advancing the story, pulling together the threads of the plot, and developing a compelling denouement.

Still I can’t imagine starting the next part of a novel without reading some of what I wrote the day before. This practice invariably sparks some tinkering and often proves that editing, when done properly, can take more effort than writing. When my rolling revisions stop the work dead, I know it’s time to consider ways to start it again.

At the 2010 Surrey International Writers’ Conference, the marvellous performance artist Ivan Coyote led a session called Writing Boot Camp for Procrastinators. One of her suggestions was to either cover the screen as you type or to change the font colour to white so you can’t actually see what you’re laying down. Her point was that creative potential shines strongest when it’s unfettered, particularly when it's unfiltered by fear.

Do you throw away your rear view mirror and ignore what you’ve already done? How do you push through to the end of your story?

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Photo: Drew Hadley

Keep on plugging

Word count: 307                                         Reading time: 2 mins.

The NaNoWriMo week-2-slump is right in front of me. I can feel it. It’s like when I’m hiking and I think I’ve bagged the worst part of the hill only to turn a corner and find a bigger, uncharted rise in front of me. This happened to me recently and if I’d been alone I would have gone around it. I believe in the path of least resistance.  

On that hike my three friends were navigating the fallen timber and thick bush like it was a walk in the park. Super-fit people really irritate me, especially when they’re fifty feet ahead on a steep hill. Still, sometimes the hard way is the only way to get there.

Next week is the NaNoWriMo sharp rise. So far I’ve been walking small undulations. The first 21,000 words have flown off my fingers. Only now one character has had a stroke. What do I know about strokes? Not much. Her daughter is shop-lifting to supplement the family income. More research needed.

I decided to send myself a greeting card for encouragement. I found an $8 one, wrapped in a cellophane envelope. Printed on heavy stock paper was this quote: With ordinary talent and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable. (Thomas Foxwell Buxton) I didn’t buy the card because I could remember what it said. Is that a form of shop-lifting? Hmm maybe that was a research trip after all.

So I’ll take those words to heart and keep pushing along. When I’ve reached my daily goal today I think I’ll take a walk, somewhere long and flat.

How do you keep the story moving forward when faced with the side of a mountain? Do you start up the side of it or do you work around it, on the parts that are less challenging? 

Photo: Aidan Cassie

Remember, remember - have fun in November

Word count: 197               Reading Time: 1 min.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Have you started the challenge of producing an entire, 50,000 word novel in a single month?  

I got an idea for the 2011 NaNoWriMo just last week. I was poking it with a stick when a tweet from Writer’s Digest delivered three essential questions: What is going to happen? What does the main character want? What are the turning points? Once I knew I could answer these, I took my lump of clay and waited for the starting gun.

Last year I discovered that finishing a first draft in thirty days was satisfying. However, reaching one milestone took me to another starting point. My NaNoWriMo 2010 draft took months to move to an almost-satisfactory state. I think it’s there now but I’m giving it a rest.

Am I daunted by the prospect that this novel might need the same reshaping as last year’s? A bit. Will I add thousands of new words while deleting thousands of existing ones? Definitely. Will I have fun? Absolutely. To be sure, I’ll keep Steven Pressfield’s thoughts on the fun of writing close at hand.

What’s on your potter’s wheel? Is it fun to watch it take shape?

Photo: Richard Rudisill

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National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) http://nanowrimo.org/en

Writer’s Digest – How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo http://bit.ly/rIrGX3

Steven Pressfield – Is Writing Fun? http://tinyurl.com/244jpag