NaNoWriMo 2017: Week two and I’m still not panicking

The last time I did NaNoWriMo I was panicking at this point (and enjoying myself hugely). We’re halfway through the month, take a day, and I’m 30K words in. I’m ahead: if I continue like this, I’ll reach 50K on November 24th. I still feel chill.

Working on the bus: the things we do to write

As I write this, I’m on the bus. It’s a one-hour bus ride to the place I’m working. Cutting two hours off my daily allotment of free time removes a lot of options from my life and it puts stress on the weekend, turning it into my main writing time. The thing is, there are other things to do on the weekend, like sleep, spend time with my partner, run errands.

I’m not a morning person so getting up early to write isn’t an option. Staying up late is, but then I’d probably oversleep and miss the bus. There is only one bus. (Luckily, not a metaphor.)

I’ve been trying to use the time. First, to edit. It’s not the easiest thing in the world (the drivers are out to kill us, the tablet keyboard is tiny and I press mostly the wrong keys) but with practice I think it will become easier. Saying that, it took me six journeys to do what I thought would be a two-hour edit.

Next, I tried writing. First version writing: chuck it all in and see what comes out. At the moment, putting words in seems easier than refining them. That worked quite well and I now have a small handful of short stories to edit.

Next week, I’m editing again. This time, I’m not editing directly. Instead, I’ll read one or two chapters a day, mark them up and make the changes when I get home (or at the weekend if they are too extensive). I’m hoping to get through the first edit of one of my resting projects this way. It’s been waiting for my attention for a few months and with Anna I in fresh memory, now I a good time to work on it again.

If this approach works, I’ll have a proper first draft of Anna II in six weeks. If it doesn’t, it’ll take a lot longer. I’m curious to find out which it will be.

 

You write, you edit, you submit, you file the rejection

It was pretty much what I thought would happen: my first full novel submission was rejected.

In one way it was worse than I had expected. Temporarily convinced of my own genius (if I wasn’t, just for a moment, I wouldn’t send anything, ever) I hoped, crossing fingers and toes, that they’d want to read the whole thing. They didn’t.

Life-long learning: food and forensic psychology

This time next week, I’ll be in a classroom.

I’m having a lot of free time this summer and want to use it well. As well as setting deadlines and tasks for myself, I’ve signed up for a course in forensic psychology at University of Edinburgh, and an online course on science and cooking with Harvard. They’re very different types of courses, and I’m doing them for very different reasons.

When I’m not writing instructions or fiction, I write for Edinburgh Foody. I love food and am interested in its production as well as its consumption. Science & Cooking combines my professional and blogging interests rather neatly in what is essentially an introduction to chemistry and physics, as applied to food. I’ve read both subjects before but it was a while ago and I have forgotten most of it – including basic calculus – so this is a great way to re-acquaint myself with subjects, concepts and skills I have neglected. So far, so good. I’m learning a lot, both about chemistry and how online training works. I’m enjoying the experience. (I’ve never eaten so many eggs in my life.)

Education is never just for fun so there’s a purpose behind taking An Introduction to Forensic Psychology too. I’m hoping to learn things I can use when writing crime stories (and getting a great reading list with resources that I can turn to). No doubt, some of my colleagues will have similar ideas. The course should also, finger’s crossed, re-ignite my interest in the project in my drawer, the one I abandoned in favour of the project I just finished transcribing. Last week was the big read-through, you see. I had 100K words of drawer-project that I hadn’t looked at for over a year. Reading through it was interesting, and somewhat depressing. A new topic to learn about and give me ideas is just the thing to distract my brain enough that I don’t shred the thing.

Don’t let me shred the thing. Please.

This is my summer of learning. At the back of my mind, I’m playing with food and chemistry-based storylines. Next week, I’m hoping to add psychology to the mix and then we’ll see what starts brewing. A glorious mess?

Sunday’s the deadline

Deadlines are very helpful. They motivate me to get things done. That is, if they’re external. Deadlines I set for myself – ones that I can miss without anyone noticing – I find it difficult to hit. When the only one looking over my shoulder is me, I don’t honour the agreement. This is a problem when you’re trying to finish a novel no one has asked for.

Last year,  I set a September deadline for finishing my current project. I missed it, that’s how well that went. I had very good reasons for missing it, of course: stuff happened, and then there was that thing. But stuff always happens. Every year is a landslide of stuff, this year is no different.

So, I decided to set myself another deadline and stick to it, come hell or high water.

It’s a tight deadline. Challenging. I set it on Monday, and this is what I’ve agreed with myself: By the end of this week, I will have finished the toilet-paper draft of the current project.

It’s not going to be easy, but I’ve got all I need to succeed: a fresh new note book, pens, a list of scenes I’ve forgotten to write, a map of where I’m going. I have time. It’s not that far to go. By Sunday, it’ll be done.

My hand hurts from writing. It’s a nice feeling.

The keyboard and the pen – writing by hand

A while back, I wrote about why I write using a keyboard instead of a pen. Since I wrote that, things have changed. I still write a lot fingertip to keyboard – this blog post, for example – but I’ve started writing fiction by hand.

Why? I think it was because I needed to do something to change my habits of non-writing to try to get back to writing. Last year wasn’t very productive and I had a novel (Just the one? Why, now that you ask, no.) that I wanted to finish. To finish a novel one has to write it. It’s an absolute causal relationship.

Writing by hand is supposed to give you a better first draft. It’s something about the direct connection between brain and hand. Disclaimer: I’m not sure I believe in that without research to support it and I’m not going looking for the research. I am still hoping to get a slightly better draft by writing by hand for several reasons.

Cafés are convenient spaces when there are no libraries nearby.
Cafés are convenient spaces when there are no libraries nearby.

Firstly, I write slower by hand which means that I have more time to think. My hope is that slowing down allows me to construct better sentences and to figure out what comes next so that I can write for longer without having to stop. I can type fairly quickly and if I charge ahead on the keyboard, I sometimes type myself into a wall because I write down what’s in my head and don’t have time to think about the plot.

The second important reason I write by hand is that it stops me from eternal editing. There’s only so many changes you can do on a page of paper before the text becomes completely illegible. Which is why I write in ink*, not pencil.

The third reason for hand writing is that the transcription process allows me a first edit. It doesn’t count as a draft at all until al the text is on file, you see. Transcription is, basically, a soft re-write.

There’s a fourth reason for writing by hand that I’ve found after starting this process. Pen and paper is easier to carry around than a laptop. It’s faster to boot up. When I was working in an office, I went to a local café at lunchtime to write for half an hour. I might not have written much, but I wrote a little every day and something’s much better than nothing. The barrier to writing is lower when all you need is pen and paper.

Transcription. Now that’s dull.

When I’ve finished the first draft, I will let it rest for a month or so before doing a first read-through. That’s when I’ll find out whether writing slowly has made my first draft better than I believe it would have been otherwise.

Science doesn’t have a look-in. The important thing here is to continue writing. Anything that keeps me doing that is OK with me**.

 

* Recently, I’ve been writing with glitter gel pens. The first one was just a test, but I was charmed by the ridiculous sparkles, the cheerful colours and the smooth ink flow. Especially the smooth ink flow.

** Glitter gel pens.

Reading your own work: cringing and grinning

I read one of my own stories the other day. I was editing the Read Me page and saw a link to a Christmas story I didn’t remember writing. So I read it.

At first, there was cringing. I know it was a fast, unedited write, but there were problems that made me want to smack myself. At the end, however, I giggled. Not because of awfulness, but because I liked the twist.

It feels self-obsessed to enjoy your own writing, but that giggle gave me more pleasure than I can say. The reason I write is that I love reading: I want to create stories for others like the ones that transport and fascinate me. For a split second, I transported (or at least entertained) myself. That’s very reassuring. If I can’t stand my output, why would anyone else? Next year, I hope the writer in me write more messages to the reader in me, reminding her of what it’s all about.

Merry Christmas! I hope there are lots of books beneath your tree.

The joy of learning and the sadness of analysis

Neil Gaiman’s one of my favourite writers. I’m also rather in awe of his ability to tell a story and manage an audience. Put him on a stage and let him go – there’s an event, right there. Gaiman’s brilliant with kids and takes their questions seriously even when the adults around them want to groan. (Gaiman’s Edinburgh kids events are usually full of adult fans. I know: I’ve been one of them.)

I saw Gaiman when he was in Edinburgh earlier this year, at The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountain. I really enjoyed the story, Gaiman’s reading, FourPlay’s music and Eddie Campbell’s art. (The marketing annoyed me a little: I wouldn’t call what is essentially a magic lantern show “a revolutionary new concept of synchronised multi-media storytelling“. But there you go.) It was a good show.

Writing: where do you start?

‘I’m not sure where to start’ said a friend of mine who, after a long hiatus, is getting back into writing. Like me, she wrote as a teenager but stopped when she went to university. There was so much writing to do, so much serious stuff to read and think about. Telling stories for your own pleasure suddenly seemed frivolous. And anyway, with writers like Shakespeare, Austen and Hemingway – never mind the alive ones – who does she think she is that she can tell a story anyone would care a fig for? What could she add?

But she misses the pleasure of writing and wants to tell stories again. But where to start? How do you know what length of story, or what shape of story to write?

How indeed. There’s no point in sitting at your keyboard, or with a pad and pen, waiting for inspiration. It might never come.

Fiction is play and as hard-working, serious adults, we need to learn to play again (well, I did). Stories come from imagination and imagination has to be nurtured. It seems to me that much of the training that goes into becoming an adult involves closing down the channels of our imaginations that are least likely to help us pay the rent. It’s hard work getting creative juices to flow is blocked-off channels but it can be done. The way to do it? Start writing, start playing with ideas, and other ideas will come. No, really, they will.

…if you reward your imagination by writing down your ideas and exploring them, even the slightest little fragment, your imagination will reward you with a more or less continuous stream of ideas. If you turn off or blunt the enthusiasm of your subconscious for engaging in creative play, the stream can dry up.
Jeff Vandermeer, Wonderbook

Find sites that offer prompts, like 101Fiction, or the Scottish Book Trust’s 50 word writing competition, and write on the prompts. Prompts, particularly ones with word counts attached, give you parameters to work within. You don’t have to come up with everything from length to topic to genre, ‘just’ the words. Very short stories are a great place to start because you can write several and see where they take you. Working with someone else’s ideas help you start having your own.

There are books that fill a similar function, like Bonnie Neubauer’s The Write Brain Workbook, which has 366 exercises to get you thinking and writing. Below are a few sites: a web search will find more.

Find Prompts and Themes

Sometimes you have to dig around to find old prompts, but it won’t take you that long to find them.  Some magazines publish their themes several months in advance, giving you several options to look at.

  • Liars’ League – accepts stories between 800 and 2,000 words. Use that limitation to keep the word-count down. (Remember: you don’t have to send the story you write, you’re just trying to get the idea machine running.)
  • Penumbra – takes stories up to 3,500 words but you can set yourself a lower word count to get going and have fun with the themes.
  • Creative Writing Prompts – short, to the point, prompts.
  • Writer’s Digest Writing Prompts – prompt and a bit of background.
  • Writing Prompts – a site of writing prompts that Luke Neff, a teacher, uses in his classes.