Objects at rest stay at rest. Objects in motion stay in motion. This seems to be what’s happening with my writing/publishing activities at the moment. For a long time in my life I was “at rest.” Not in a bad way – it was a necessary season. I was raising and homeschooling kids, my husband and I were growing and running a business, and those things took all my time and creativity. And that was OK… That was the season.
Back in 2008, I took a workshop on creativity, and that’s what primed the pump. I’d like to say that it was a “BAM” moment, but it wasn’t. I slowly rediscovered painting, and found out that watercolor painting wouldn’t kill me (what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and all that…). Then in March of 2011 I bought Chris Baty’s book “No Plot, No Problem.” (Some of you know Chris as the founder and mastermind of NaNoWriMo, obviously an out-of-the-box thinker!)
When I bought that book I’d never heard of NaNoWriMo, and since the book was written in the early years of it, had no idea how big an event it was from reading the book. But after I read it, the method appealed to me – 50,000 words in 30 days with no inner editor hanging around. My husband was working on ghost writing a book for someone at the time (political non-fiction) so we decided to do a NaNo-esque non-fiction challenge in May of 2011, reporting our word counts to each other and making fun rewards and incentives. We both “won” that challenge, and that was my first completed book.
By then I’d discovered NaNoWriMo online, and decided to sign up for November. (See why NaNo works for project-oriented people like me here.) I thought I was crazy, I thought I’d end up with 50,000 words of crap, but I thought, “what the hell?” I mean, how bad could it be? I could always burn it, I didn’t have to show it to anyone, and even the word validator at the end of November wouldn’t judge me, it would just count. And here is where the snowball started.
I’d never thought of myself (well, not since childhood) as a particularly creative person. I’d tried to think of novel ideas before, and always hit a wall. So in October, I had two thoughts, both adventure treasure hunt type things: a YA set in Beaufort, NC, using the legend of Blackbeard, etc; and an around-the-world adult thing. The latter definitely excited me more, but I was clueless about basically the whole thing – who, why, what, where, how. Pretty much I had no idea whatsoever.
And HERE is where I found my own process. And it’s not what I’d been taught (it’s not even what I had taught kids in creative writing classes!) although I’m sure the traditional way of coming up with plots or characters first works for a lot of people. Some cool story or plot idea that sparks a little flame, and then you fill in the blanks. Here’s what I knew from past experience – that absolutely doesn’t work for me. I peter out in less than 3000 words, with nowhere to go.
But as I was reading through World History for Dummies (true story), what DID appeal to me, what DID get that spark going, was places. Cool places I’d never heard of. I made a list and started to research the history of those places. That led me to make a list of interesting locations. Then I determined what would link those locations together (the Portuguese Spice Route, as it turned out). Then I tried to figure out why a person in the 1680s would travel this route, and came up with a Jesuit. Then I tried to figure out what kind of modern day people (non-governmental) would have the funds and the information and the desire to search for a treasure along that route (an international art leasing company). THEN I started sketching out people, and came up with the identity of the treasure (the throne of King Solomon, which did, indeed disappear). For most people, this is totally backwards, but for me, it made everything hum in my brain.
So, long story short, I wrote 88,651 in my first NaNo in November, 2011. When I finished my editing, I had about 93k words. It was a huge hit with the beta readers. And it will come out as my first indie book around August 1, 2012. (How exciting is that?!)
The snowball picked up steam, and I wrote 67k words of a sequel to Solomon’s Throne in Feb/March, putting it aside to write a dystopian drama screenplay for ScriptFrenzy in April (written in 16 days, it’s also gotten great reviews). I was in Uganda most of May, came home, did some quick research on the Civil War, and wrote a Christian historical romance for June Camp NaNo, ending with 88, 370 words. This one has gotten the best reviews yet, and I will be starting to edit that around the 23rd of this month.
I’m finishing the WIP I stopped for ScriptFrenzy, called The Hoard of the Doges, and should be done in 5-7 days. It is slated for publication around September 1, 2012. I will be editing that one while I am writing my August Camp NaNo book, a YA fantasy dystopian drama. I’ve gotten that one mostly plotted out over the last few days between the 3 hr drive to the beach and some walking along the waves. After that, I’ll probably take a writing break (OK, I say that… but maybe not!) until November and the “real” NaNoWriMo, at which time I will do either a mystery I’ve had on the back burner awhile, or another Christian historical romance.
See what I mean about the snowball? I do realize that I write really fast, and I write really clean first drafts, which helps get them out to beta readers, get feedback, and then a word-by-word edit done in about 2 months start to finish. (Who am I to complain?? That means I can easily write 4-5 books a year!) And there’s no sign that my brain (or fingers) are slowing down. If anything, I’m having more ideas the more I do.
All of this is to say that, at whatever speed your snowball travels, the snowball effect of success can work for you. The secret to writing?
WRITE. Seriously. You aren’t a writer until you write. Thinking about it doesn’t count.
SET GOALS. Achievable ones, not impossible ones. Don’t say you’ll write 3,000 words a day if the most you’ve ever written was 1,000. That’s not doable, and you’ll get discouraged and quit. For me, the monthly goal is always to finish the book or screenplay in that month. For commercial fiction novels, that’s in the 80-100,000 word range. For romance, the same. For the YA in August, that can be more in the 50-60,000 word range. A screenplay is about 120 pages (Laid Waste is 130, at the very edge of acceptable in film making land), which is only about 10-15,000 words. So those are my goals, and how I set them.
KEEP TRACK. In business, the saying is “you’re only good at what you track.” The same is true of writing. I have a Stickie Note app on my desktop, and each project has a note. Each day I write the date, then my goal (I just add X amount of words to yesterday’s goal, so for a 90,000 word book, I add 3,000). After I’m done writing, I write my actual word count based on Scrivener’s total (or, for a screenplay, the number of pages), then I put the day’s total, positive or negative. I don’t make up any deficits the next day, I just add the goal again. Most days I write over the goal, whether just 100 words or a couple of thousand. So there’s no need to make up a deficit or a day off. It all averages out (more than averages, actually – I’ve always finished early).
TAKE TIME OFF. I know a lot of WriMos don’t take any days off in the month. Personally, I find I need at least one day off every about 6-7 days. Sometimes there’s something scheduled prior to starting – for instance, as the mom in my household, I don’t even pretend I’m going to write on Thanksgiving day. Sometimes stuff comes up or I just don’t feel like it. As long as I’m meeting my goals on a consistent basis (or exceeding, without many deficits), I don’t worry about it. I take the day, completely guilt free. Writing so much so fast, and staying creative, is tiring. Your brain needs time to regroup. I always come back refreshed and ready to write.
KISS YOUR INNER EDITOR GOODBYE. On the first draft, anyway. Don’t read anything you’ve written until you’re done. Period. Don’t go back and add a scene. If you realize you really need one to handle a plot point, put it in where you are, and make a note of where it goes. I literally only read the last paragraph or two I wrote to see where I left off before starting again. The payoff is, when I go back and read it for the quick-fix first edit, it’s like reading something written by someone else!
USE BETA READERS. It is invaluable to have a group of people who will read your work and comment. Because I write really clean first drafts (no idea why, it just happens that way), I do what I call a “quick-fix” edit, fixing typos, missing words, changed names, or other obvious mistakes. That’s it. I then ask a dozen or so people (or put it out on FB) if they can read it by a certain date, and do so only looking for the following things:
*Does the plot hang together?
*Are the characters believable?
*Is the dialogue natural?
That’s it. No grammar. No spelling. No typos. Nothing but that. The reason? I don’t want to spend a lot of time on a word-by-word edit (which catches the grammar, spelling and typos) until I know I don’t have to delete or severely edit/change anything. Because if I do, I don’t want to have spent a couple of hours editing, only to delete the whole section. I don’t have that much extra time!
Please note that some people simply can’t bear to do this. No matter how many times you ask them not to, they will point out every grammatical error (even when it’s purposeful within dialogue), typo, and spelling error in the whole manuscript. I have two suggestions – thank them sincerely for reading your work, then put the manuscript with all the red pen marks away in a big envelope and forget it; and don’t ask them again. This is, actually, not super helpful at the beta reader stage, and can get you bogged down in minute details when you should be focusing on the big picture. Later (if you want, or if grammar isn’t your strong suit) you can get it out. Later.
EDIT FOR POLISH. I can do this myself. I am a homeschool mom, was a class shy of being a double major with English, and have read literally thousands of books in my life. I am objective. I can edit my own stuff. My husband can’t. He doesn’t notice missing commas, or when words would work better transposed, and he disables spellcheck because he doesn’t like all those lines all over his document. When he writes articles, if there’s time before it has to be submitted, I edit for him. For his upcoming book, he’s hiring a professional editor. And that’s ok. He’s not good at it and doesn’t want to waste the time. So whatever works for you is fine – but please, don’t skip this step, whether you are self-publishing or querying for an agent/publisher. This is the word-by-word edit, and takes time, but it will make a HUGE difference in your finished work.
And that’s it! The snowball’s flying down the hill now! Shampoo, rinse, repeat. Just do it! But mostly – have some serious fun.