End of the Month/Camp NaNoWriMo Report

Well, July 2014 has now come and gone. How did it go for writing?

Well, I dedicated myself to participating in Camp NaNoWriMo and writing 50,000 words of fiction in July.

What was my total for July? 19,872. (Average 595 a day.)

Verdict: Crash and burn!

So what happened? I’m a writer who has done 60,000 words in a month before (2000+/day) and it’s not like I haven’t finished a novel. (I’ve finished two, so far.) I should have been able to pull this one off handily, right?

Well, I made a few mistakes, so let’s go over them.

  1. I stopped a novel I was already working on to start a new one for Camp NaNoWriMo. Officially, you should be doing a new project for NaNoWriMo (although many of my fellow campers just finished old projects) and so I decided that I’d put my current book #3 on hold to try and whip off Book #4 over July before going back to it. Big mistake! My passion and mental energy was already in Book #3, so shifting gears to Book #4 took a lot of time and all it did was take time and energy away from Book #3.
  2. I tried writing in a completely new genre with Book #4 that I have never written in before and don’t normally read in. I tried to write a fair-play modern mystery novel thinking I’d seen my fair share of episodes of Murder She Wrote, and read more than my fair share of Historical Mysteries. (I love historically set mysteries.) You would think my experience reading Historical Mysteries would translate to writing a modern one, but it didn’t at all. You see, Historicals use the mystery as a device to explore a historical setting and culture like Ancient Japan or Tang Dynasty China, which give them a very different flow and style. Modern Mysteries, on the other hand, are all about the mystery and characters, and often about the troubled dramatic lives of the central character, which is something I’m not used to writing about. (I’m more of a plot/idea/adventure type writer.) So, I went in to a speed-writing competition already hobbled by not knowing my new genre, and not realizing that I didn’t know my new genre well enough. End result was a mess!
  3. Speaking of plot- despite all my talk about preparation and plotting techniques in June, I ended up deciding to just Pants my NaNoWriMo novel. I actually did plot out the mystery side of the story, so I knew what happened and whodunnit, but I didn’t plot anything out about the main character’s journey or the dramatic twists that would happen in the story. I also didn’t think deeply about the characters, as I thought I’d create and explore them as I went. While this was a reasonable approach in theory, in reality it meant that 8000 words in I hit a wall so hard I gave my bruises bruises. The tone was off, things weren’t going anywhere I wanted to go, and every day I spent trying to fix it meant I was falling behind on my word count. Going in without a fairly solid plan of some kind for the overall story was a disaster, and I paid the price for it.

So, the end result of all this was that at 8000 words in, I hit a creative wall and got so frustrated fixing it (and falling behind in word count) I eventually just gave up on the whole thing and quit. Instead, I went back to Novel #3, and found that I was still in love with and it that it flowed much better than Novel #4 ever did. It’s not a modern mystery (it’s a Young Adult Fantasy Novel), but it is something that I feel natural and comfortable writing because it suits me and my style. (As a result, I’ve added almost 12,000 words to it in the last two weeks.)

And I think that’s the key really. If you’re going to do a NaNoWriMo competition:

  1. Write a book you’re passionate about at that time.
  2. Write a story that feels natural for you and your style as a writer.
  3. Plot and plan as much as you can.
  4. Know your characters and their place the in the story beforehand.
  5. Don’t try writing in a genre unless you know it (very) well.

One last thing I discovered about myself is that I’m more of a “little piece at a time” writer, where I write best when I’m slowly working at something a little bit each day. Speed-writing just doesn’t suit me for some reason, at least not at the moment, and I find large writing targets more of a distraction than a benefit. As a result, I don’t think I’ll try NaNoWriMo again, but will instead keep writing in my own way at my own pace. That said, it was totally worth a try, and I would strongly recommend any writer or want-to-be writer give it a go. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and your writing whether you succeed or fail- I know I did!

Phasing, a Unique Story Plotting Technique

As a writer, I’m always on the lookout for innovative plotting techniques that might improve my output or help me put together a story faster. Recently, I’ve been especially focused on how people structure their books, since that’s one of my weaker areas and I want to see if it can work for me. I’m not a natural plotter, but I think it can give my work a level of structure that can improve it and also prevent me from starting novels that I don’t finish-both of which are worth trying for.

I really did think I knew most of the techniques out there, and surveyed a bunch of them in my recent Prepping Your Novel post. Almost all of them are based on the concept of beats, acts, or breaking your story down into scenes, and I had pretty much settled on the idea that all plotting methods were variants of the beat/act/scene approach.

Then yesterday, I found something that blew my mind- another way.

The Phase Method is a method pioneered by Lazette Gifford, and she explains it on her website like this:

Phases are written out as key phrases that will bring the next set of lines — the next action — into focus. This is not a scene-by-scene outline, but something worked out in much shorter sections.  A phase can be clues to dialogue, if that’s what the section’s focus is centered around, or it might be a little bit of description, or a set of actions… anything that will make the story move another few hundred words.  Usually a ‘phase’ will only run from twenty to fifty words in the outline.

In simplest terms, what she’s doing is turning the story into a series of small chunks with each phase representing a series of key ideas,images,words and thoughts that would take up about 200 words of the actual text (or more, depending on the length of the work). That might be a scene, or it might just be a piece of a scene, but it’s reduced to a point-form item that almost sounds like stream-of-consciousness thought. She gives the following examples:

1. Tristan in the room aboard the ship, resting, thinking about going home, feeling the world changing.  It feels like traveling between realities, without any of the work. (28 words)
196. Voices call him back.  Mother — What the hell is that?  Get your bows ready!  Praise Gods for her.  She never wavered, never panicked.  Kills the creature.  Lehan?  Open the door. Takes a moment, and then the door flies open and he is knocked back. (46 words)
197. Wounded!  Not bad.  Bad enough to put you down!  You knocked me down.  Didn’t have to kick the door open. What was that?  Anyone know?  No one does.  Others take bows and torches to scout the trail near the village, but not far before light. (46 words)

So, as you can see, it’s really abstract, but at the same time captures the essence of what she thinks will happen during that phase. (See what she turned each of these phases into on her website above to compare.) These are almost like micro-story-beats, or (forgive me) story heartbeats! With each phase capturing the essence of a single pulse of the story. Using this method, she also claims to have managed to bang out 10,000 words/day, because the essence of each scene is already finished.

You can read the rest of the details on her website, but I have to say this is an innovative approach to the story outlining process and one I intend to experiment with. I love using point-form lists (which this is structured around) for planning and organizing, and its both abstract and concrete at the same time in a way which I think might work with my own style. It’s definitely not an approach for everyone, but I think it could be quiet helpful for people who tend to think in more image-based or dialog-based terms.

Plus, to me, it looks like a kind of raw story poetry. Which has a beauty all its own.


Writing Chinese Style, or how to Crank Out 50,001 Words in a Day.

Not everyone knows this, but Chinese and European chefs actually take a radically different approach to cooking.

In the European style (which we naturally follow in North America), the focus is on short preparation times and long cooking times. This likely came from the nature of European vegetables (lots of tough starches) and the style of pots and ovens they used to cook with. In any case, the key to European style cooking is all about the cooking process itself, and not so much about the preparation that goes with it.

Chinese style is the complete opposite. A typical Chinese dish is almost completely prepared before the Wok is even fired up. They were usually just working with one fire and one cooking surface, so anything fancy had to be done during the preparation stage, because they only had one shot at it.

So, what does any of this have to do with writing?

Well, generally there are considered to be two polar opposites when it comes to approaching writing. One side, referred to as Pantsers (as in “Fly by the seat of your pants!”) are people who come up with an idea and just start writing the story,  developing it as they go. The focus for Pantsers is exploratory writing, as they’re basically telling themselves the story when they write their rough draft.

Being a Pantser is a lot like being a European chef, as the focus isn’t so much on the prep as the actual cooking itself. Of course, there’s the opposite pole as well- Plotters, who are like Chinese chefs. For them, it’s all about the preparation, and at an extreme you get writers who write 60-100 page (or more) outlines before ever typing a single word of dialogue. (That’s like writing a book to write a book!)

Of course, most authors fall somewhere in between these two extremes, using some hybrid method of Pantsing and Plotting- whether it be loose outlines, or a plotter who never looks at the plan while writing. There is no right way to write, and you have to go with whatever works for you.

That said, there are more efficient ways to write if your goal is churn out your rough drafts as fast as you possibly can. And, the truth is, they pretty much all involve using the “Chinese” approach of plotting the hell out of your book first, so that the actual writing of the book turns into an exercise in detail and letting your creativity flow instead of worrying about what goes where. Essentially, you do the creative heavy lifting first, so that the the writing itself turns into a long jog in the park instead of running a marathon through the Alps.

On a recent episode of the Rocking Self Publishing Podcast (an episode every author should listen to no matter what their writing style), writer Matt Ahlschlager outlined how he managed to finish Nanowrimo’s 50,000 words/month goal in a single day!

How did he accomplish this goal?

I’ll spoil it for you and tell you the answer was:

  1. The software Write or Die
  2. Planning. Planning. Planning.

He always knew where he was going, so he never had to stop and think about it, and could just keep writing. (Which is good, because Write or Die is a merciless little piece of software that will punish you in nasty ways if you stop writing!) Two weeks of planning based on Mary Robinette Kowal’s method of outlining put him in a position to know who all his characters were, what the story was, and where all the scenes went. After that, writing became the easy part! No wonder he could crank out 50,001 words of a novel in a single twenty-four hour period, have time for social media updates, and still finish with a half-hour to spare.

Naturally, there were a few other tricks and techniques involved (you can read a list of most of them if you click on the RSP episode link and also check out the file marked “Fast Drafting Guide”) but it pretty much all came down to planning ahead.

Of course, Matt isn’t claiming to pull off a ready-to-publish novel in those 24 hours (he even turned off spell check), just an extremely rough draft which can later be edited into something that might be worth publishing. He puts a lot of work into the editing and revision when he writes (he plans to publish 8 novels this year, and already makes a living with his writing), but that may be the better way to go for some writers. Editing can be a lot easier than writing it the first time, and even if you have to do a total re-write, it will still be easier than trying to get it perfect the first time for most writers.

As Nora Roberts once put it- “You can’t edit a blank page.”

So, should you give up Pantsing and turn yourself into a Plotter?

Not necessarily. There are a few Pantsers out there who churn out a novel a month, and they seem to do fine without a map. Also, if your goal is quality over quantity, maybe you do want to pick every word with tweezers and take the time to let your muse slowly guide you on a wonderful journey of discovery.

The only problem is that in the Self-Publishing World, Quantity = Money, because the more you write, the more likely you’ll write something that people enjoy reading, and the more you get your name out there and build a loyal readership. You need to write lots, and write often, and anything that can give you an advantage can make a big difference if you plan to make a living as a writer.

Also, I should note that there are degrees of plotting as well. Author Rachel Aaron is famous for being a 10,000 word a day writer, but she only plans a few chapters ahead before she puts her words on the page. And the speed can vary, Matt himself has only done the 50,000 words in a day thing once as a challenge, and has yet to actually publish that particular book. He normally writes at a fast (for most writers) pace, but nothing close to 50,000 words in a day.

So, like anything, it’s about finding what works for you and getting your butt in that chair to write. Even if you’re a Pantser, it might be worth experimenting with new plotting strategies in order to see if they help up your output. After all, the more you write, the better you will naturally get, and the faster too.

Just like most European chefs at least try cooking Asian cuisine to boost their skills at some point, taking a cue from the Chinese way of cooking might boost your writing as well!