Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Who Are You Writing For? Nanowrimo Week 4

I hope the answer is that you’re writing for yourself.
Because unlike the rest of the year, for one entire glorious month Nanowrimo gives us permission to abandon thinking about “the market.” Instead of worrying about query letter techniques or whether Aunt Edna will be offended when we use bad words in our manuscript or whether vampires are still “in” or if anybody is reading family sagas these days, we can let go and write what we darn well please. Nanowrimo is your free pass to find out what you and only you love to write about.

The other night when I was struggling to bring my word count to a reasonable level before getting too far behind, my husband asked me if I “really needed another manuscript.” Well, of course I don’t. I’ve got manuscripts coming out of my ears, closets, and overstuffed filing cabinets. Having another manuscript at this stage of my writing life isn’t the point. What I do need to learn and be reminded of is that I have the self-discipline and desire to write at all. With Nanowrimo I have the opportunity to fall in love with writing all over again because in many ways it is the writing closest to my heart.

One thing I am certain of is that if and when I reach the required 50K mark to “win” Nanowrimo this year, my story will be far from finished. I don’t just mean that it will need a complete revision and ruthless editing; I mean I won’t be writing the words “The End” at the close of November 30. The main reason for this is it has taken me most of the month to discover and learn what the heck I am doing when I sit down for my daily writing sessions. When I started this crazy Nano journey, I had a rough vision that my plot would involve the theme of symbolic life doorways and the passing of time and what it means to live a life worth living.

With the best of intentions I dutifully picked up my pen and began writing on November 1 about a character named Robert Moreno and his family’s love of tamales. Don’t ask why—it just happened that way. Maybe because there was a Mexican restaurant in the airport where I was writing at the time. From there I followed Robert until for some bizarre reason I ended up at a convent and nuns doing laundry. The manuscript got sillier and sillier, more like a comic farce than the literary masterpiece I was aiming for. But then out of the blue I started following the thread of a story about one of the young novices and my original blueprint came back to me. Everything started falling into place as I began to explore in depth what it means for a young girl to go against her parents, society, and to break away from everything she has been raised to respect and believe in. Finally, at Week Four I can say I am engaged with both my manuscript and my characters and yes, I do need them very, very much.

2010 is going to be a crazy year for me as I suspect it might be for you too. I have a new book scheduled for publication in the summer and two manuscripts I want to get into serious shape for submission. But sneaking in through the back of these plans I know I will also be working on finishing Ghazal at the same time. I’m excited that this story came into my life. Even if I don’t reach my 50K, I’ll have gained much more than I could have imagined. I’ll have gained Robert Moreno and Hillary Stuart and the kind of insights into life and love that can only be gained by writing about them.

So to those of you still pounding away at your keyboards or refilling your fountain pens, I salute you. And to those who have perhaps drifted away because you have become a little fearful or tired or bored or feeling defeated, come on—back to work! The goal is still in sight, and believe me, it’s not the 50K. It’s that wonderful story that only you could write and it’s hungry for your attention.

Tip of the day: No matter where you are in your word count, don’t give up. Your story needs you and you need your story. It just takes one word at a time and I know you can do it. Let’s go!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Crossing the Himalayas; Nanowrimo Week 3

Week Three of Nanowrimo is to me at least, a little bit like crossing the Himalayas with a big purple handbag and a paper umbrella. Not that I’ve ever attempted any such thing of course, not even with the right equipment, but I can imagine the cold, the fear, the exhilaration of simply surviving without a safety net. And survival is the key word for our third week.

By now some of you may be either loving or hating your stories. I’m somewhere in the middle. One good thing is that I had a breakthrough last week when I finally got my random characters to meet up with each other. A whole new plot development much more in keeping with my original intention of working with the theme of “doorways” appeared and I’ve been much happier with the way things are moving.

In case you’re currently stuck in the “hating the manuscript” stage, here are some tricks that under normal circumstances would make an editor want to strangle you but can also save your sanity until you reach the 50,000 mark:

* Go off on tangents. If you can think it, then write it. It doesn’t matter if your sudden fascination with the history of gloves or crystal healing therapies has nothing to do with what you had hoped the story would cover. Seize every wild idea and get it down on paper. There’s a reason why you want this new direction; respect it.

* Transitions. If you’re having trouble figuring out how to get your characters off the mountain or out of New York, don’t stop to worry about the “how.” The “drop down” (four spaces between paragraphs) is your best friend here. In the writing classes I teach, I often warn people away from the overuse of the drop down because it can look lazy or choppy on the page, but during Nanowrimo the only rule is whatever it takes to keep those pens or keyboards moving.

* Alternatively, you can go very, very sloooow. Record each pebble and Sherpa coming down the mountainside. Describe the ponies; give them names, genealogies; take five whole pages to comment on the snowflakes and get to the next outcropping of rock. Words, people! It’s all about words! You can cut and revise next month. And you might be very, very glad you know the names of those ponies.

* “It was all a dream!” Yes, this is one time you can do this guilt-free. If your story is truly driving you nuts have someone wake up, shake his head, and then start the real story.

* Hallucinations. Like dreams, your characters may have been just imagining they were in your Nanowrimo effort. Give them a quick antidote to whatever poison was in their veins, and send them off to a fresh plot. (And think of all those words you don’t have to write. They’re done, behind you.)

* If your MC is boring you to tears, turn him or her into the villain. Likewise, try turning your villain into the sympathetic lead.

* It’s suddenly the end of the world! Run for the hills! How will your characters cope? Go for it.

* Declare war—on something. If your characters are becoming weak and lifeless, give them a cause. It can be politics, the environment, sick animals, or anything that suddenly gives your characters some passion about something worth fighting for.

* Kill your MC’s best friend. Cruel but sometimes necessary to plumb emotional depths (or lack of them).

* Burn the house down. Give your characters entirely new surroundings and belongings. Use magazine cut-outs to refurnish and describe their new homes.

* Amnesia. Take a cue from the soaps. If your MC can’t remember what’s happened in the first half of your manuscript, great. You can forget all about it too. Now what was it you really wanted to write?

Tip of the day: Whether you’re writing for Nanowrimo or simply working on a new journal entry, your only commitment to a first draft is to write what makes you happy and keeps you inspired. If you don’t like what you’re writing, stop! Take a deep breath and start over. You can still keep your word count and best of all, you’re now free to find what it is that truly interests you.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Riding Wild Horses; Nanowrimo Week 2

Here we are into week two of Nanowrimo and I have to tell you I have no idea what my story is about. None. I’m up to over 12,000 words of the required 50,000 and I have a manuscript so rambly and full of unrelated characters galloping around like crazy herds of wild horses I defy anyone to make sense of it, not to mention all my run-on sentences. The good news is, I don’t really care!

And to me, that’s what Nano is all about: breaking free of set-in-stone plot lines or worrying about “making sense.” For the entire month of November, Nanowrimo grants us the creative license to write non-sense, and with that comes, I believe, some of our greatest work. The sudden revelation, the bizarre foray, the unexpected character, the impossible location: they all come together somehow and by the end of the month they truly do gel. I’ve been through this process three times already (four times if you count the year I took part in Scriptfrenzy) and if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s this: trust your gut and just let it happen. If your heart says, “Write it,” obey.

In between the madness, though, there are certainly times when I’ve exhausted my ready-to-go writing prompts and have found myself lagging behind on my daily word count quota. To get things moving again (and to get those wiley words on paper) I’ve come up with a list of pen movers:

* Closets. List what’s inside. I’ve found lost documents, old shoes, lockets, and prison records. Each of these has made great starting points for the next 1000 word burst of inspiration.

* Memories. Forget everything you’ve ever heard about tightening or deleting back story. For one month at least, back story reigns supreme. Even if most of it has to go in the bin when you revise, you will know your characters better than you ever would if you’d followed the rules and left out these very important histories. Choose any timeframe you want: a birthday, a holiday, the first day of school, or just spilling a cup of coffee at work ten minutes ago.

* What’s cooking? What does your character love to eat? Have him or her make it, preferably with another character in the room to add some conflict or subtext.

* Dreams. These are doozies and can use up a lot of words.

* Write about your characters’ great-grandparents. Why are they important to the story?

* Describe your character’s best friend.

* Followed by their worst enemy. With any luck this person could turn into the story villain.

* Your character just received a mysterious parcel. What is it, where did it come from, and why is it the worst thing to happen this year?

* Where did your character go on vacation last year and what terrible thing happened there that they still can’t get over?

* Describe your characters’ dysfunctional workplaces.

* Write letters, e-mails, tweets from your characters to each other. Their quirks, problems, and complaints can take up pages and pages of writing.

Tip of the day: Even if you’re not participating in Nanowrimo, it’s always helpful to have a list of writing tricks and prompts ready to go. Feel free to use any or all of the ideas above. At the same time, try making a specific list of your own that fits whatever project you’re working on now. The key is to do whatever it takes to keep you writing. Like the little boy said when handed a shovel and faced with a pile of manure: “There’s just got to be a pony in here somewhere!”