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?


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?


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?


Photo by: Alan Bolitho, LM


What I meant to say was...


Word count: 428                         Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I’ve been told – and found it on the internet so it must be true – that the best way to wash a car is to do it twice. I don’t have a lot of patience with cars so mine’s lucky if it gets a single wash every couple of months. I’m like that with a lot of jobs. I’ll never create a dessert so beautiful that guests won’t want to eat it. I’ll never produce an awesome needlepoint or restore an old piece of furniture. I know. I’ve tried. These are all endeavours where the that-will-do-factor cuts in really early.

But writing? A different story: the more I do it, the greater my patience is for rewriting and the easier I accept other people’s input. So I  understand what Bernard Malamud meant when he said, “I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times--once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.”

When writers forget this essential part of the writing process and rush to bring their work to the world by way of poorly-edited self-pubbed books they risk terrible remorse down the road as discussed by Suw Charman-Anderson of Forbes. They risk alienating readers who might have enjoyed their work if they had just given it a little more patience.

I'm sure there are writers whose flawless first drafts are ready for global release but John Irving’s words resonated with me: “More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn't say I have a talent that's special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina. I can rewrite sentences over and over again, and I do. . . . And I think what I've always recognized about writing is that I don't put much value in so-called inspiration. The value is in how many times you can redo something.”

I’d be delighted if I only had to write things three times like Malamud or was even close to Irving’s talent. But still, I do have the stamina to rewrite often, very often. And I hope, at the end of the process, whatever I offer the world shines like it’s been washed twice and well polished.

How do you feel about rewriting? Have you written your story at least three times? Does it finally say what it must?


Photos:      Junkyard Car by Melissa M. Morris

                 Old Truck by Ron Hilton


 Word count: 220    Reading time: 1 min

As NaNoWriMo draws to a close, I’ve almost finished ploughing the field of my next YA novel. That’s right: I almost have a 50,000 word starting point. Or to borrow from Anne Lamott’s wonderful book Bird by Bird, I almost have a shitty first draft, a SFD. Emphasis on S.

That’s okay because I know the field needs more than ploughing. It needs harrowing and levelling as well. Revision is the harrowing and levelling of writing and I won’t start that for at least a month. What I will do is let it lie fallow so I can come back with a fresh perspective that allows me to see the plot lumps and the character weeds. Then I’ll read the whole thing, cover to cover, and try to sustain an attitude of confident optimism as I splash the pages with red ink. 

Before then, I have another field that needs attention. From January to October this year I rewrote last year’s NaNoWriMo effort many times. A YA novel, Lockdown takes place in Vancouver during a natural disaster. I believe it’s almost ready for harvesting.  

What’s growing in your paddocks? Are you working several crops at once? Do you rest your work? Or are you the mythical being who can produce a flawless tale in a single writing?

Photo by: Anna Fredriccsson