Does writing a world in 30 days make me one-tenth God?

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Eight years out of practice, a disorganized, gleefully introverted gal is planning to write a novel… in 30 days.  It’s a neglected passion that never quite got the chance to grow into a talent.  Will it accept her back into its embrace, or reject her for the thirty year old normal she’s almost become?  What is the role of world-building for a character-driven author?  Does that shelf of dog-eared writing guidebooks prove valuable or pretentious?  Will her writing be poignant, or smutty?  Can it be both?  What will happen if her creation disappoints her?

Even more scarily, she asks herself, what if it doesn’t?

Digging Out of the Rubble

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I always wondered what would happen if I gave myself a heavy project with an iron-clad deadline.  I similarly wondered if I’d actually keep up with a blog if I started it.  I’ve recently tested both factors!  The NaNoWriMo project, at month’s end, was 30,000 words.

NaNoWriMo, as an experience, was rewarding in all kinds of ways.  None of these were the rewards I thought I would gain.  Not only did I not write a novel, I also did not even write anything particularly useful or worthy of refinement.  I did not achieve the length defined for the contest, and I did not overcome my hesitation to write “imperfectly”.

Here are some things that the project did teach me, and why I think it’s a useful exercise even to those who do not complete the contest’s terms.

Lesson 1: I wrote more in one month than I have in my life.  

I acquired the practice of moving quickly through the writing, especially in scenes for which I did not  yet have strong feelings.  It’s in my nature to write ridiculously slowly, wording and rewording each sentence like an object of meditation until it reached nirvana.  I realized that I LOVE writing slowly, during those scenes for which I’m most excited, and I should not deny myself that languorous pace for the “good parts”.  The parts I fall asleep visualizing over and over.

However, there’s a lot of content to be written between the good parts.  I typically torture myself trying to find a way to invest the same passion in these scenes.  The truth is, if I’m not feeling passionate yet, then for me, the scene isn’t ready to be written.  But my process still demands content, a temporary fix to transition between the ‘brilliant’ bits until I figure out just how to tie it together.  I have never, until this project, learned how to accept a more efficient and half-baked approach to these transitional parts of the plot.  By putting something down and not worrying whether it’s perfect, I was able to stay productive and avoid any of the stall-outs I typically experience.  This is an extremely important new skill for me, to be able to write at two different paces and understand which works for me when.

Lesson 2:  I made writing part of my life.

I did not stick to my lofty schedule as I hoped.  I did not write consistent amounts each day.  Hell, I didn’t even finish the project.  I did take 6 days off work in a month.  I did schedule time for myself to be a writer.  I even scheduled a retreat in another setting for a weekend.  I acknowledged that writing was part of my identity and a heavy priority, not just to myself but to my boss and family.  I essentially stood up and said to my loved ones, “I’m a writer”.  Not “I write sometimes” or “I’m dabbling”.  I said in clear terms, “I’m writing a novel this month.”  It got people’s attention.  Completing the novel was never the point.  For a month, I told the world “I am a writer” and the world acknowledged this.  How cool is that?

Lesson 3: I figured out the quantity versus quality thing

Everything is about balance.  From a lifetime of following the philosophy that there’s no point in putting it down if it’s not perfect, I took on a contest that bases success exclusively on volume.  I expected this to contradict my values, and it did.  I let myself enjoy the experiment.  I engaged in regional “word battle” nights where I competed with other writers to see who could spew the most words onto a page in a 15 minute segment.  I gave it a shot, wondering if anything would be worth keeping when the dust settled.

Most of it wasn’t.  In a heightened state, I spent a month creating sixty pages of mediocre fantasy, and I expect the only 5 pages I would truly want to keep in my next draft are the first five that I wrote “my” way, before the contest started.  However, this was a great way to explore characters, see if the idea had potential, see if I really wanted to invest the time and emotion into rewriting each scene I’d created.

I put in a lot of hours in my characters’ heads, and decided that this plot won’t do them justice.  I need to make changes.  I need a whole different setting.  I need more character focus and a lot more reader engagement.

In short, I am still a writer.  I have a novel to start.  And my NaNoWriMo project is the most useful pile of shit I’ve ever written.

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For those interested, here is an excerpt that I’m likely to keep as I re-envision my second draft:

It rained.  Fingers of candlelight choked the room, and not even his anger could keep out the smell of damp.  The velvet armchair opposed him from the far wall and dared him to resist.  He didn’t.   He limped across the room, his smooth gait marred at the point of each step, and dropped into the rich, bruised fabric.  Long fingers danced and shuddered as they unlidded a jeweled flask on the bookstool to his right.

His skull pitched angrily, scratching at him from inside in case he’d forgotten it.  He twitched, and the flask spilled its contents across the table.  Pride and rage were all that stopped him from whimpering as the precious metal fell wasted to the carpet.   That said, he was not above foregoing the crystal tink dish and resting his now-shaking hand directly into the beading liquid.

Silver veins threaded along his skin, burning blue with power as they mixed with his lifeblood.  He tolerated the spots in his vision.  Even the humiliating heat between his legs was worthwhile as the ragged flesh of his torn ribs and mangled leg knitted back into something whole.  He raised an arm and inspected the new skin along his flank, which gleamed a healthy silver-grey through his ruined clothes.

Wretched asses, the lot of them.  His brain spun nauseously with the new misery he knew he’d soon pay for his relief.  A flick of his hand latched the door on the other side of the room.  They could break through if they chose, in the state he was in, but there was little that could make his situation worse at the moment.  He eased himself down to the silk-embroidered carpetry, to save himself the trouble of falling to it.  One by one, his nerves collapsed, the blue light behind his eyes budding into agony.   He ground his forehead against the floor and snarled, all of him shuddering against himself.

He did not scream.  It cost him more than he would admit.  When the spasms wore themselves out, he breathed deep of the damp room and finally let his fury ebb into a slow clarity as quiet and devastating as the rain outside.

A soft knock came at his outer door, but not even the kid was welcome in his chambers this night.  He was not ready to be needed.  He was not ready to think.

He was empty.  He was a ghost in this place, sifted apart and poured together again until his real bits had all threaded loose and gone lost.  The worried knocking, the futile probing at his mindlock on the door, were a distant and pointless parade of nonsense.  There were a mere handful, at most, in all of Scrivan who could undo what he’d done to that door.  Did it matter?  Wasn’t it possible that nothing mattered?

A tug of despair clawed at his stomach.  Didn’t things have to matter?  He was at the edge of something dark, he knew.  Something his mind would not return from if he dove through it.  How very small it all was.  In the scheme of things, why not cross that line?  Fuck matter.  Angry and hopeless and past being willing to care, he suddenly felt ready to see the boy.  Why not?  If he had the stamina to think nonsense like this, he could damn well pry himself off the floor.    His mind stretched out and touched the lock, wanting anything else but what was.  Needing and hating, searching and blocking.  Any place, anything else.

“Uncle!” the boy gasped as he tumbled abruptly through the unlocked door.  He sprawled over the carpet and grabbed a bookcase, upsetting a tall stack of well-eared volumes.  “I’m sorry, gods!  I’ll put them all just as they were!” he squeaked in terror, throwing his hands up in anticipation of a strike.

None came.  The boy slowly dropped his soft hands and scanned the empty room, the overturned flask, the claw-ripped carpet.  “Uncle?”

Synopsis – it’s like doing pilates in a Smartcar

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Explaining a novel in a matter of sentences is something I’ve never tried before.  I think the only experience I can compare it to is trying to pee in a wedding dress.  Awkward, frustrating and just not natural.

Brevity has never been a talent of mine.  When I went to “announce” my novel on the NaNoWriMo site, and it expected me to put down a synopsis, I was taken off guard.  Nearly offended.  I signed up because I like making big wordy things, and now they ask for a small wordy thing, and people who write big wordy things shouldn’t also be expected to make small wordy things.  That’s just improper.

Anyway, I suffered through the indignity of it all and created a synopsis.  Any feedback about which part, if any, pulls your attention would be highly welcome!  I’d also be happy to return the favor.  As I make changes, I’ll track them below in case the edit process is helpful to anyone else.

Oh, and there’s a cover now and everything!  Gasp!

Shipmeet

Synopsis:

Maika’s not exactly equipped for continental life.  Still, when her ship colony stops at port in one of the largest remaining landmasses in the world, she can’t resist getting off to explore the first city she’s seen in years.

Pirthe is a proud kingdom, as old as the rainstones that protect it.  Alive with culture and music, it is controlled by those skilled enough to dominate the fiercely beautiful living weapons known as the Jin.  Maika just has one problem.  She’s kinda, sorta accidentally stolen one.

Stranded and on the run in an unfamiliar world, she’s now stuck with a brooding superweapon for company and a variety of monarchs, rogues, and philosophers out to control her connection with the Jin.  Choosing a side proves to be her one chance to reunite with her people.  But will the world, and her humanity, survive the process?  Choosing a side may be her one chance to reunite with her people, but what… and who… is she willing to sacrifice?

Beta Readers

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Broken healthcare concept image of plaster on egg

I was dining with a group of creative colleagues, and the topic of beta reading came up.  To go straight to the point, beta insight is absolutely vital to an author creating a story.  However, it can also take on a patently inhumane effect under the wrong conditions.  I’ve been the recipient of horrible beta experiences, but I’m even more aware of the times when my feedback has not had the desired supportive effect on the authors for whom I beta.

For those of you who are committing to NaNoWriMo, we’re approaching a high-pressure, fast paced project during which we’ll be in a heightened emotional state.  The process of giving and receiving feedback will be on warp speed, as well.  Hits will bruise us harder than normal, and positivity will be crucial.  We won’t have days or weeks to let our egos scab over after they’ve been wounded.  This makes it all the more important to think about beta process now, while we’re still in big-picture mode.

1. What kind of feedback do you need?

Not “what will make you happiest” or “what do you wish to hear?”  What type of feedback will make you most successful?  If you aren’t sure, draft a list of areas you are most concerned about or challenged by as an author.  Plot, character development, theme, pacing, worldbuilding, description, showing versus telling.  What do you want to know about?  Specifically.

2. What kind of feedback don’t you need?

If you know that you’re unwilling to compromise on a plot point, character, or unique aspect of your style, acknowledge it to yourself now.  If there’s a certain tone of criticism that cripples or upsets you, do some hard thinking about when and why you experience that feeling.  You want to get feedback that helps you succeed.  Suggestions that are meant well can fall flat if your beta doesn’t understand where you are emotionally.  Be straight about your insecurities or apprehensions so your reader knows which buttons not to press.

Many who are highly creative are also fairly sensitive, and understandably invested in their creations.  While learning to take non-constructive feedback better may be a personal goal for you, the developmental phase of your novel is not the time to try out these new skills.  If you respect someone as an author, but you know they’re going to chip your bark every time they review you, save that reader for a later draft.

3. Who is your beta, and Why?

An unfinished story is extremely fragile.  Don’t hand yours to just anybody.  Think seriously about who you can trust to be your cheerleader and critic in one package.  Ideally, your beta reader is someone who:

  • Shares your tastes in writing and regularly consumes your genre
  • Responds favorably to your story premise
  • Is expressive and detailed when sharing opinions, without vagueness or generalization.
  • Gives feedback in a way you can emotionally handle.

These may sound obvious, but often, the people clamoring to see “that book you’re writing” will not necessarily be the ideal beta readers.  Your mom, for instance, may love you to death, but if she’s never read a fantasy novel and hates violent movies, your conflict-ridden high-fantasy adventure will not impress her.  Your colleague may support you, but is she ready for that sex scene in chapter 6?  If you can already imagine yourself censoring what you want to write about for the sake of your beta, put on the brakes.  It’s also all too easy to become disenfranchised with your ideas when someone who means the world to you just isn’t ‘getting’ it.  Save the personal fans for a more stable phase of your creative process, and focus for now on someone who is part of your target audience.

4. Give your reader some structure.

Give your reader structure.  This is not the time to passively hope they say something about character A or plot twist B.  Tell your reader what you are focused on.  Ask questions that you need to know.

  • How are they feeling about character A right now?
  • What do they think the King’s general is really up to?
  • What do they wish would happen next?
  • What do they want to know more about?
  • What are they most enjoying?
  • What is most distracting?
  • How does the pacing feel at this part?

If you do not provide examples of what you’re looking for, don’t be surprised if they come back with suggestions or ideas that frustrate you, that are off the table, or that you weren’t planning to deal with until later.  If you want to know how your story feels to the reader and he or she thinks you want proofreading, you risk wasting each other’s time.

What do you look for in your beta readers?  How do you make the process effective?  Share your advice in the comments.

Beginnings

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One of my writing guides, of which I own far too many, points out that you can’t write the perfect beginning until you know how the story ends.  It frames your story and the themes it will share in a way you can’t possibly achieve without seeing where the writing process dumps you after it drags you by your ankles through the woods.  I guess that makes the first post of a writing process blog a rather tricky thing to create.  I think that’s what excites me most about this journey I’m starting in a few weeks with National Novel Writing Month.  I truly have no idea how this will end.  No amount of plotting and preparing will show me the exact route I’ll take to that ending, and that’s terrifying and awesome.  Life’s badass like that.

So this blog is one part writer’s process journal, one part self-degrading fun, and one part venue for the ideas and prose that bring me to the final destination at the end of November.  You should read this blog if you like to write, or are thinking about writing and terrified of it, or are participating in NaNoWriMo and aren’t sure what that means to you yet.

You should read this blog if you’d like to share a bit of your own dreamscape with someone else, and see your ideas lend clarity to mine and create something that otherwise couldn’t be born.

You should read this blog if you have a passionate dream you’ve put off for so long that you’re not sure you’re worthy of it anymore.

I suppose you should read this blog if you want to know the beginning I’ll write when I finally get to the end.  The true beginning that future-me will create when I’m able to look back on this project and see myself as a character in my own story.