Down the Chute

Even though I’m not doing it this year–just too much going on–I participated in NaNoWriMo last year, and boy am I glad I did. I learned a lot about the writing process and about myself. One of the more significant lessons I learned is embodied in the quote above.

Sometimes when I have a story idea I think the thing to death. I sift through all the possible flaws in it, trying to construct every conceivable aspect of a fictional world in my mind before committing any of it to paper. It sounds like a terribly thoughtful, deep approach to writing, but it’s not. You know why? Because when I do that, I don’t get around to actually writing anything.

A voice in my head tries to convince me I’m not quite ready–that the details aren’t ironed out enough. And they probably aren’t, but if I wait until I have every element of a story defined before writing anything, I’ll never write another story. That’s a horrible approach to writing. I mean, it’s fine if you have a plan for where the story’s going to go, but if there are a lot of questions still in your head, that’s fine, too.

During NaNoWriMo, I didn’t have the option of waiting until I had everything solidified. I had to get my words in. Every day. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t meet the 50K goal by the end of the month. So a lot of things that would have given me pause before…didn’t. I just wrote, and some of the pell-mell stuff that came out of it was shit, while some of it was gold. The story took twists and turns I would have never planned, but it’s stronger for them. More organic.

Writing can (and in my opinion, should) be a fluid thing. Don’t over-think it. Dive in. Go down the chute. Write.

You can sort through what worked and what didn’t during the editing process.

On WritingAccountability works best when there are at least two people involved. Granted, I’ve got Vye to hold me accountable, but she’s not really a people. She’s a muse, and they see things their own way. Her method of holding me accountable is to sulk quietly and then, when I’m not looking, slip out the back and refuse to return until she feels like it.

Don’t get me wrong. When she does that, message received. But it doesn’t do much to push me toward action when I’m slogging through my day-to-day not as on task as I should be.

So, accountability. Vye isn’t going to give it to me. And I try to do it, myself, but that’s tough. If I’m the one not churning out the word count I should be, I’m not a good candidate for kicking my own ass into gear. I end up just telling myself I suck. Again, this gets the message across (ie, “You should be doing something!”), but isn’t effective motivation.

One thing I learned from NaNoWriMo is that I am perfectly capable of writing a shit-ton of words a day. On my writing days, I didn’t have a single day of less than 4K. My word count since NaNoWriMo ended? Um, yeah. Not as impressive.

Writers can hold one another accountable, and sometimes that works, but sometimes (I suspect more often) it doesn’t. If someone who’s churning out words at break-neck speed tried to encourage me on a 12 word day, I’m afraid I would feel a considerably stronger urge to strangle them with their laptop cord than to run back to the blank page and type.

What is a writer to do, then? Practice, I think, and be okay with failure. Set goals and track them. It’s irritating, but telling. Experiment. What environment works best for you? What music? What time of day? What days of the week?

And then, rinse and repeat.

I’ve always liked that people who do yoga call it “practicing” yoga. Really, that’s what writers do, too. We practice. Sometimes all the stars align and our efforts are wildly successful. More often, we struggle through, hopefully meeting our goals more often than we don’t. The great challenge is just to keep writing. There are going to be times when you won’t want to and there will always be good reasons not to.

But words don’t write themselves. Writers do. Fallen, ego-driven, lazy, unorganized, undisciplined writers. Push through your faults, lay aside your ego, stop being lazy, find some way to organize your thoughts and, for God’s sake, embrace discipline no matter how prickly it feels. It’s the only way.

And if you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life who will hold you accountable in a way that doesn’t make you feel like shit, use that, too. Use anything you can to keep writing. That’s the hard part.

On WritingNaNoWriMo has been over for more than a week, and in its wake I’ve had plenty of time to think about the experience. I completed more than 50K words, making me a NaNoWriMo winner, and I learned a good bit about fiction writing in the process. The only real way to complete so much in so little time is to write with abandon, refraining from self-editing along the way. The natural result is that some of what you write will be too wild and unruly. It’ll have to be tamed in the second draft.

But something else will happen, too–some of what you write, things that you might have shied away from otherwise, will end up being delightfully (and surprisingly) valuable. It’s a fun experience, seeing that happen.

In the few days immediately following December 1, I saw several friends on Facebook and Twitter make comments about their NaNoWriMo efforts. More than once, someone commented that they had not completed the 50,000 word goal, but that they felt they’d made some good progress. (That’s a good attitude, I think.) However, several went one step further, using the same turn of phrase. They said they counted the experience “a win for me” even though they hadn’t succeeded in finishing.

I have a couple of thoughts about that. First, 50K words is a lot and I agree completely that doing something is better than doing nothing. Any number of words is an accomplishment. However, “win” in conjunction with NaNoWriMo means something specific: completing the goal. Calling anything less than that a “win” is short-changing two parties.

One, it shortchanges the other NaNoWriMo participants who met the goal. I have one friend who finished only minutes before midnight on November 30, writing right up to the deadline in order to get done. She’s a rockstar in my eyes. That’s dedication. That’s impressive. And while it’s good (and admirable) to have written 30K or 20K or even 10K words, that’s not winning. That’s not completing the task at hand.

Yeah, I know–life gets in the way and some of us are crazy busy and it sounds like I’m being a hard-ass about this whole winning thing, but I’m really not trying to be. I just feel that it somehow waters down the accomplishments of folks who pushed all the way through to call anything less than that a completion of the challenge. If you didn’t complete it, that doesn’t make you a loser. That just means you didn’t make it all the way this time. Take the experience (and the completed words), learn from it, and give it a go again next year.

You don’t have to succeed in every goal you set. In fact, I can guarantee you won’t. If you don’t, cop to it and learn from it. Don’t deny it.

Two, I think a person shortchanges themselves when they call less than 50K a win “for me”. What, you need a reduced target in order to win? You’re really comfortable grading yourself on a curve that implies you can’t compete at the same level as everyone else?

Hold yourself in higher esteem. Understand that you can complete the goal. You just didn’t this time. Again, no biggie. Just accept it and acknowledge it. There’s strength in that. Don’t lower the bar for yourself.

Listen, I’ve been saying I was going to write a book for years. Years, people. This year, I’ve completed two (not yet ready for publication, though) and am (thanks to NaNoWriMo) well on my way to completing a third. But I’ve failed to meet my own goals for a long, long time.

And I’m okay with that. My worth is not tied to my success or failure. I’d rather deal with my shortcomings and grow than tell myself that there’s no lesson to be learned.

One last time: if you didn’t complete NaNoWriMo, that’s okay. You don’t suck. Just face the fact that you set a goal you didn’t hold to. Analyze where you went offtrack and use that information the next time you set a goal.

And to those who completed NaNoWriMo, as well as everyone who participated, well done. Be proud of what you accomplished, however far you made it, and keep on writing.

Back to the 500 Club for this lighthearted holiday story. Nothing dark or sinister. No horror. No magic–well, not much. No villains, ghosts, monsters or demons lurking in the shadows. Just something nice, even silly, for your Thanksgiving Day reading pleasure.

Here’s the prompt:

Write a scene from the POV of the friend of [a] character…who has just discovered he or she has a super power. Is the friend excited? Jealous? Does the character with the super power know the friend knows? This one could get complicated…and fun. Only one rule: don’t make it cliché.

More NaNoWriMo updates to follow next week. I’m still on track to finish all 50K words on time.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! 

the dignity of squirrels

Anne rolled her eyes at Barrett. “That’s not a superpower.”

“What would you call it then?”

“A mildly creative lie.”

“Mildly creative?” Barrett said. “I’m hurt.”

“You lose points for originality,” she said with a shrug. “But it is a lie, and it isn’t a superpower.”

“I can prove it,” Barrett said. He smiled like he’d just thrown his first curve ball.

Anne was many things, but generously gullible was not one of them. She stared down Barrett’s bleeding enthusiasm with a pragmatic, well-practiced indifference. “Of course you can, Barrett. Of course you can.”

“I’m not kidding,” he defended. “Seriously, I can prove it. Here, here–call Dixie.”

“Not gonna work,” she replied. “Next you’ll try to convince me that ‘gullible’ isn’t in the dictionary.”

“What? You think I taught her a new trick? That dog can’t even shake.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Fine, come outside.”

Anne followed Barrett out into the yard. He stood in the mid-afternoon sun squinting into nearby trees and bushes. After two minutes of searching, he found what he was looking for. Slowly, he made his way to the large maple tree on the north edge of the yard. He was talking as he walked.

Anne stayed back by the house. His dedication to this practical joke is impressive, she thought. Normally, he would have giving up by now. But as she watched, he advanced on the tree, his hands out to his sides with his palms exposed and his voice quiet as a whisper. She strained but could not hear what he said.

Shortly, a small squirrel appeared through the leaves of a low-hanging branch. He chittered excitedly at Barrett who continued to move forward, talking all the while. The squirrel cocked his head to the side, considering his human visitor.

More chittering.

A longer response from Barrett.

A final chitter.

Barrett nodded.

The squirrel hopped from his perch into Barrett’s waiting hand and then jumped to his shoulder, his tail fanning out around him as he settled in by Barrett’s right ear.

Back by the house, Anne’s mouth dropped open. A trained squirrel? she asked herself. Is that possible? No, no, no. But how then?

Barrett strode toward his friend with the arrogant swagger of someone about to feed another crow. The squirrel watched Anne, his tiny forepaws crossed before his chest. He sniffed in her direction with a look of contempt. Was he…judging her?

“I think you offended him,” Barrett said. “I mean, first you don’t speak his language and then you call his new friend a liar.”

“I don’t understand,” Anne said. “How did you…? What’s going on? Did you have food in your pocket or something?”

Barrett whispered something to the squirrel who hmph-ed at Anne and flicked his tail. “I told you,” Barrett said, “I can talk to animals.”

Anne was speechless.

The squirrel chittered excitedly. “Oh, and translate for them,” Barrett continued. “Though I think I’ll censor some of his language. You have no idea how crude squirrels can be…”

NaNoWriMo is in full swing and I’m happy to announce that I’ve written 36,456 words so far. At my current pace, I’ll easily finish on time, but my book is almost certainly going to exceed the 50,000 word minimum goal by a good bit. The story is growing as I write, and I know when I’m done I’ll have nothing more than a foundation–a ‘shitty first draft‘–that I’ll have to rework and finesse if it’s to become a publishable novel. 

Still, I’m happy with the progress, as is Vye. It’s a wild ride, writing at this pace, but it’s fun.

For this week’s flash fiction, I’ve returned to a prompt from the 500 Club. The story is a simple one and I’m hardly the first to tell it, but I think it turned out well. Please feel free to give me your thoughts in the comments.

Here is the prompt:

Sometimes the best laid plans lay in ruin due to one simple mistake or happenstance. Write 500 words about that little mistake or happenstance.

Best of luck to all my fellow NaNoWriMo writers. I hope you’re enjoying the journey as much as I am. 

brother’s keeper

The rock dropped from his hand.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, he thought.

The sun was low in the afternoon sky. Around him stalks swayed in the breeze, the breath of God rolling over the land. He could smell the earth–the plants, the soil, the cedar trees at the edges of the field. This was his place. This had always been his place. Suddenly, it felt alien and a deep sadness gripped his heart.

At his feet lay the body. It wasn’t moving. He could see blood pooling around the head, the eyes rolled back. The tongue hung out of the mouth, lifeless. He had no word for what he was looking at. No way to categorize the sight. The wound was grievous. It didn’t surprise him that the body lay still, but questions hung about him in the air.

Would he wake? Would he heal? Would this be like so many other scrapes, cuts and bruises? Maybe he was only sleeping. Had it not been for the way his eyelids remained open he might have been able to believe that.

But the chest didn’t rise and fall. Without breath, he began to draw a terrible conclusion. Is it even possible, he asked himself, to destroy a person? To steal life? To undo what God had done?

From a few feet away, his dog whined. She watched him, and he realized she was afraid. He was afraid, too. He could not hide this, no matter how much he wanted to. In his mind, a desperation took seed and he wished it all away. The last day. The shame of embarrassment. The craving he’d felt for validation and acceptance. The jealousy. The anger that gave birth to rage.

He’d only wanted to talk. Between the two of them, he had hoped they could come to an understanding. There needn’t be a good one and a bad one. They were equals, or so they had always thought of themselves, even though he was older. He’d wanted to reaffirm that and restore his place.

His fingers curled into a fist as another wave of enmity washed over him. Silently, he cursed himself, the sky, the day, the field. A still, small voice in his head spoke then: This is what caused it, the voice said. Your own rage. 

Pain overcame wrath, and his fist fell open as the first tears dropped from his eyes.

“What have I done?” he asked the empty field. The stalks waved back and forth in response, like so many heads slowly shaking. He could feel their judgment. All of creation would mark him for what he was. The agony he felt in his heart threatened to unravel his mind and rob him of what sanity he had left.

“Come,” he said to the dog.

Turning from Abel’s body, Cain walked into the woods, hoping that God wouldn’t see his trail as he made his way into the shadows. But he knew he could not hide.

I have an outline and a rough idea of the story I’m telling in my NaNoWriMo book, but I intentionally left a lot of the details vague. I like character-driven stories, so I wanted any plans I made ahead of time to allow for a lot of room for character-driven plot points. I’ve been curious, as a result, as to what the first unexpected development in the story would be.

Today I found out.

The wild thing about writing this fast is that you can’t slow down enough to debate the next plot point. You have to make a decision, allow for action and go with it. Today’s surprise plot point was a good one, and it made for an exciting day of writing. I’m sure it’s only the first of many surprises for me, and I look forward to the next.

So far, NaNoWriMo is going well. I’m shooting for 4,000 words a day in the hopes that I won’t have to write a ton the week of Thanksgiving. It’s a lofty goal, but I’ve managed it for two days. If I can keep it up, I’ll finish well ahead of schedule.

It’s a new experience, not editing as I go, but it does allow the story to develop in a chaotically organic way. I’m curious to see how it plays out. Even today, I had to resist the temptation to go back to what I wrote yesterday and tweak it.

Best of luck to my fellow NaNoWriMo writers!