Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Surviving NaNoWriMo

So in the early morning hours of today, I pounded out the last few words of my efforts for National Novel Writing Month.

It's a bit odd to see how controversial the thing seemed to be this year. There were dismissive articles about NaNoWriMo and, unsurprisingly, a number of people leaped to its defense in response. Some of the criticisms seemed to be along the lines of Stop Having Fun, Guys and a curious and unproven allegation that the slush piles of December are glutted with NaNovels.

But there was also the concern, and I think it one that needed to be addressed, that people who fall short on NaNoWriMo wind up getting mauled by their internal gremlins, the ones who threw everything at them to get them to stop and then turned around and kicked them for not succeeding. (Nasty buggers, those gremlins. Every word I write for the world to read is a tiny victory against them.)

This year I almost didn't make it. Part of it was perhaps simple overconfidence--I'd done it five years running, surely I know how to handle this, right? There was also the fact that I spent the month doing some time-consuming online work in order to keep my mortgage paid and my lights on, since my unemployment insurance has completely run out. I never hit the purple this-is-where-you-should-be-by-now line on the NaNo Stats page until the very last day. And yet I persisted, in part out of stubborn pride but also because, honestly, as unpublishable and useless a mess as I ended up with, I wound up enjoying the time I was spending with these characters and wanting to see how it worked out for them.

There are undoubtedly quite a few souls out there who didn't make it to the finish line, who got overwhelmed, who fell so far behind they saw no way of making it in time and didn't see the point of persisting. Some people throw their hands up and say "Ah, well, maybe next year" but others wind up feeling that if they can't even squeeze out fifty thousand words of crap by the deadline, what the hell good are they?

Falling short on NaNoWriMo does not make you a failure as a writer. It might just mean that you had other priorities, that the story wasn't holding your interest or, more than likely, that the thirty-day-deadline method doesn't work for you as a writer.

There are two ways you can do the math, when you look at your final wordcount.

Take 50,000.
Subtract your wordcount.
This is the number you fell short.

This is the way most people are inclined to do it, even as it makes them miserable.

Consider this equation:

Take your wordcount.
Subtract zero.
This is the number you came out ahead of where you would have been otherwise.

I much prefer the latter to the former.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The War of Art eBook

Steven Pressfield's The War of Art is one of my personal creative scriptures.

The eBook is available for purchase and if you buy it between now and Thursday, October 21, 2010, it will be a mere $1.99.

Buy it. Now. Even if you don't have an e-reader, you can grab it as a PDF. You can thank me later.

Friday, October 15, 2010

What Sam and Charlie Taught Me

I first signed up for NaNoWriMo in the year 2004, and started a novel called Sam and Charlie Go On A Roadtrip, which was about two girls, Samantha (Sam) and Charlotte (Charlie) who took a roadtrip down to Florida.

I stalled out at 8,881 words.

My usual line is that I got my characters as far as Florida and got stuck. I've been told that Florida has a reputation for that sort of thing, but there were other factors involved.

1. Not actually having a plot in mind. The novel was written as alternating diary entries and I figured that just rambling about travel from place to place would be an easy way to rack up words. Wrong. That's not even what we read novels for, anyway--we pick up books and keep reading them because we want to know what happens next. If there's no tension, no conflict and no potential gain or loss, there's nothing to drive things forward.

I almost made the same mistake in 2005, starting on a fantasy story that was supposed to be somebody dictating her memoirs to the court historian, but I realized that I had very little idea where it was going, so I tore it up and started a new story about ten days into the month. It was one of the most basic plots in the world--the Cinderella story, effectively--and I wound up crossing the finish line for the first time.

2. Setting it somewhere that needed too much research. For reasons I'll not get into, I thought it would be a great idea to set Sam and Charlie in the year 1990. This was, in fact, a really bad idea because then I had to make sure I wasn't inserting any anachronisms like having them listen to albums that hadn't been released yet. I found myself constantly second-guessing things as I went and was hesitant to go into certain details because then I'd have to fire up the internets and make sure they were accurate.

Again, 2005 almost fell to the same mistake, because I was setting it in a pre-gunpowder setting and was still determining the world it was set in. The story I started after I tore that one up was set on a space station in the far future, so I could pull any damn thing out that I wanted and potentially get away with it.

3. Trying too hard to be cool. By hampering myself to keep things cynical and realistic, I cut myself off from a great deal of passion and excitement.

In 2005, the novel I did finish was a mushy, shameless love story and I held nothing back. (Indeed, I enjoyed hanging out with those two characters so much that they showed up again in 2008 and 2009 and I told the stories of their happily-ever-after.)

While it would have been nice to have a unbroken record of complete success from 2004 on, I am actually glad for my first spectacular failure because it taught me exactly what didn't work, so I've been able to complete NaNoWriMo successfully for every single year ever since.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Countdown to NaNoWriMo...

National Novel Writing Month is less than a month away. The good news is, last night I just got clobbered over the head with an idea that should work very easily within the demands of that particular event. The better news is, I've got a month to ponder the possibilities before committing anything to the page, so I should be ready to hit it as soon at November 1 rolls around.

The, um, not so good news is that I'm still logjammed at about 23,000 words on my current project and I'm not sure I'll be able to wrap it up by the end of this month. I think I may just do what I can in the remaining time and then shelve it while I plow through NaNo and then return to it in December. (One of the luxuries of being as-yet-unpublished is that I can do things like this without sending editors into cold sweats. Though, speaking of, I do need to get my other manuscript packed up and sent out again. Two rejections is hardly enough to prove the thing useless.)

I am encouraged by the fact that when I described the first scene of my NaNo idea to someone, his response was "That's kinda creepy." "I know!" I said cheerfully, "But you want to find out what happens next, don't you?"

Heck, I know I do. The annoying part is, even as I can plot out the generalities in advance, I'll have to wait until November to find out exactly how it unfolds.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Few Drops at a Time

The words are still coming with some reluctance but the books stacked on my table are looking like a reward instead of a duty, so I think I'll roll things in that direction.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Going Back Over

One of the disadvantages of going at the slow crawl I'm going now is that I wind up losing track of things that happened only a couple of pages ago.

For example, I did a quick reread of the scene I'm working on and realized oh, wait, they're still naked, aren't they? Hell of a thing to forget.

My brain is still in ravenous devouring mode, so I checked some books out of the library to feed it with--a book about alchemy and a couple of volumes of the collected works of Carl Jung. Yes, really.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Breathing In

I'm not sure if this is true for other people, but I find that my brain tends to go in a kind of cycle between craving input and spewing forth output.

On the "Input" part of the cycle, I plow my way through books, go out exploring new places and spend perhaps a little too much time on the Internet. I am ravenous for new sensations and new experiences. On the "Output" part of the cycle, I fill pages upon pages, scribble my attempts at artwork and find myself overflowing with ideas, though I may also want to retreat to more stable routines instead of taking in anything else.

The problem with the "Input" cycle is that the words don't come easily, even if I need to produce them. (But I can catch up on my reading like crazy, let me tell ya.)

Every indication is that I'm currently in an "Input" cycle. Instead of beating myself up for it, I figure I'll just stuff myself until I'm satiated and see if that helps any.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

247 words today

Still chiseling it out, it seems, but part of the issue is that my time and energies are being taken up with other matters, so what little bits I get in are better than rationalizing that I'll get back to writing when these things blow over.

I stopped at the question "Are you all right?" so it should be easy enough to pick up when I return to it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

There are days . . .

. . . when a mere forty-three words feels like a victory.

Today, apparently, is one of them.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Think They Call This The Hard Part

Two submissions, two rejections. Yes, I know, it's what's supposed to happen.

Labor Day weekend was spent at Dragon*Con, where I was able to talk with all kinds of smart people and get different kinds of writerly advice from various writerly types. I also had a few people ask to read the novel, so I'll be gathering email addresses and sending out PDFs to them soon.

I'm also 21,000 words into another book and STUCK AS HELL on it. I think I need to grab a looseleaf notebook and do some free writing to get through the logjam.

Thanks to a link on the Absolute Write forums, I came across Query Shark, which has been enormously helpful for giving me ideas on how to tighten and refine my query letter. It does help to learn from other people's mistakes. I've just put my own query on the block and we'll see if I get a response on it, but I'm not going to let that be an excuse to keep me from sending the thing out anyway. I've fallen for that trap before and I'm not eager to repeat it.

I'll probably be resuming the habit of excuse notes to keep me moving on the new book. My excuse note for today is as follows:

Please excuse Sheila from working on her novel today as she was working on the query letter for her previous novel and that took up most of her writing time. Thank you.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Just To Let Y'all Know . . .

The spam from China has been coming thick and fast enough that I have to switch on comment moderation. Sorry about that. The notifications go to an email address that I check pretty regularly, though, so comments from actual human beings who are reading and responding to the entry and not planting links at random will show up soon enough.

The new book is coming along by degrees, and I've taken everything I've learned from NaNoWriMo about forgiving imperfections and applying it to this draft. It's a mess at this point, but it's a start, and as I've said elsewhere, there's no way to sharpen a blade before it's been forged.

Monday, July 26, 2010

And It's Been Sent . . .

Took me all morning to muster up the nerve, but there you are. Soft Places has been submitted to an agency and I will keep myself occupied with my next book while waiting for a reply.

Oh, yeah, by the way, I started writing another book. I'll probably resume the habit of excuse notes here until I've at least gotten the first draft hashed out.

That is all.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Almost There . . .

I think I'm finished with the final pass of revisions on the manuscript and I'm getting it ready for submission to an agent.


Friday, March 5, 2010

The Dunning-Kruger Threshold, or, Congratulations, You Suck

The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
--Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

In December of 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning published a paper entitled Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. In it, they described what has since become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

If you’ve ever seen a craptastic poet who thinks he’s some kind of genius, you’ve seen the Dunning-Kruger effect. If you’ve ever seen a brilliant artist fret over the tiny flaws in her work, you’ve also seen the Dunning-Kruger effect. The gist of the paper, as the title indicates, is that the worse you are at something, the worse you are at determining just how bad you are at it. The flip side of this is that the more skilled you become, the better you get at assessing your ability.

In the course of the original research, Kruger and Dunning also found that as people improved their skills, their ability to self-assess improved as well. What the research doesn’t mention, but many people can tell you, is how discouraging this process can be. The Dunning-Kruger Threshold is my term for the point at which you become competent enough to see just how incompetent you’ve been. You can also call it the Oh My God I Suck Moment.

Anybody who has flinched when confronted with their earlier work will know what I mean, whether it’s the cheesy spy stories you wrote after seeing that James Bond movie when you were a kid or the angsty poetry you wrote as a teenager or that first try at a novel you wrote in college. I also suspect that a certain baseline of metacognitive ability can be absorbed through the osmosis of appreciation. For example, I’ve listened to enough music to know what a guitar is supposed to sound like and that what comes out when I pick the thing up is definitely not it.

So what do you do when you’re good enough at something to realize just how bad you are? (And I mean genuinely gut-level aware, not just deliberately self-effacing in the hopes of a pat on the head and reassurance that you’re not that bad, really.) As painful as it can be, it’s an encouraging sign. It means you can see more clearly what needs to be fixed and work on advancing your abilities in order to fix it.

And if you think that everything you create is unmitigated brilliance? Be very, very worried, because that means you still have quite a long way to go.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Random Observation About The Writing Process

. . . which probably isn't news to anybody who has written anything, but struck me as a bit amusing.

Sometimes the work bears a remarkable resemblance to doing nothing at all. Anybody who observed me over the past half hour or so would have seen me staring out the window, occasionally pulling at my hair and drinking my orange juice. Those were my physical actions. Internally, I was mulling over the possibility that an abandoned short story idea of mine may well be the seed of another novel. It's something like watching a Polaroid picture develop from hazy shapes into a detailed photograph.

I've come up with a few becauses for the whys that I've raised. I have the place figured out but I still need to determine the time, since setting it in the present day would create a very different story than setting it in the time period that the idea originally sprang from.

Maybe another NaNo, maybe something else. We'll see.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Why I've Given Up On Amazon.com

I just canceled my Amazon Prime membership.

First off, I'm not sure if the money on shipping that I was saving was that much more than what I paid for the yearly membership. It came in handy when getting birthday and Christmas presents shipped to my nieces (which is pretty much what I've been using Amazon for) but I'm still too broke to do much book shopping for myself, and I have this thing for browsing in physical bookstores anyway.

The main reason, though, is that Amazon has been acting like the 900-pound gorilla of book sales and doesn't seem to realize that it's not the only gorilla in the jungle anymore.

The standoff between Amazon and Macmillan has been documented in more detail elsewhere. John Scalzi has provided the snarkiest coverage (and is where I was first made aware of the issue) and Tobias Buckell perhaps the most detailed. Short answer for those who don't feel like clicking on links--Amazon has stopped selling Macmillan titles because Macmillan doesn't want to sell ebooks at the loss-leading price of $9.99 anymore. At last word, they had supposedly backed down from this, but the Buy Now links on Macmillan titles are still mysteriously absent.

It's possible I might feel more sympathy for Amazon versus the Big Bad Publisher if Amazon hadn't screwed up so royally previously, when they abruptly reclassified all gay-related titles as "adult" and thus excluded them from sales rankings. They did at least correct that mistake, but waved it off as a mere 'glitch' and I mentally filed Amazon under "corporations not to be trusted an inch further than they can be thrown." Now with this debacle, I think it's time to find other nice places to get my book fix. There's no rational reason to wait for Strike Three.

IndieBound is a marvelous site devoted to helping people find Real, Live, Independent Bookstores in their neighborhoods.

The Book Depository is based in the UK, but ships all over the world for free. I think I'll be hitting them up should I need a book shipped to me in future.