A Decade of NaNo

This year will be my tenth time taking on the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a single month. I’ve won in my previous nine attempts, so I don’t feel worried about winning this year. Today I thought I would recap my last nine NaNo’s. This is mostly so I have all this information in one place, but who knows maybe someone will find it useful.

Before I started – 2006
I first heard about NaNoWriMo in November of 2006. I thought it was interesting, but it was already November 5th, and the idea of catching up was overwhelming. I decided I would put the concept aside and think about it again next year.

Year 1 – 2007
October of 2007 was rough. We got some bad news, and I wrapped up a health issue on Halloween. When November 1st hit, I decided I needed to do something to keep my mind off of everything. I completed my first NaNo on the 30th of the month. It was a YA. Basic plot: women can only have one child before they become infertile.

Year 2 – 2008
My second year I convinced my best friend to join me for the challenge. We spent a fair amount of time writing together. We wrote on her living room floor, in coffee shops, and at my dinning room table. I finished on the first day of validation, which at the time was the 25th. She finished on the 29-30th. My novel was a NA fantasy. Basic plot: woman leaves a society of vampire hunters when she discovers not all vamps are evil.

Year 3 – 2009
My son was six months old during my third NaNo. I thought this would make it harder, but in the end I wasn’t working and he had just discovered how much fun crawling and getting into stuff was. I would set up a bin of toys about ten feet away from him, then write for 30 minutes while he crawled to the bin, tipped it over, and played with everything he found. This year I was on my own for NaNo again. I had my fastest finish ever (the 11th). The novel was a YA (superhero). Basic plot: a high school filled with the kids of super heroes and super villains.

Year 4 – 2010
This year a bunch of people from my knitting group decided to give NaNo a go. I think there was only one other winner, but we had a few writing nights and I started getting to know some of my favourite writing people. I finished on the 14th with a NA alternate history. Basic plot: Women hold the titles. An unknown daughter claims her dutchess title when her mother dies.

Year 5 – 2011
For year five I decided to do something a little different. I made a goal of getting 75k instead of the usual 50k. I figured if I could finish in 14 days, then I would have 14 days at a regular NaNo pace to carry me through to the end of the month. In the end I made it was 80k on the 30th. This was the first year I really felt like I had a NaNo support network. My writing friends had become some of my best friends, and NaNo included weekly writing nights, online word wars, and a lot of laughs. The novel was a NA sci fi. Basic plot: an old earth colony requires mandatory military service. The colony is attacked and forced into war.

Year 6 – 2012
This was the year the group that had started as a bunch of writing knitters broke off and formed our own group. We wrote together online and in person regularly. It was so nice to have people to write with. I finished on the 24th and wrote the YA portal fantasy that went on to win the 2015 YA Atlantic Writers Competition. Basic plot: A girl opens a door and brings her friends to a new world.

Year 7 – 2013
I had the idea for this NaNo while walking to another writers house over the summer. Without that early flash of inspiration I’m not sure how this year would have gone. I was starting to tire of NaNo just a little bit. Not enough to stop. After all, I had a lot of friends that did NaNo together by this point, and that was half the fun. I finished on the 23rd with this NA fantasy. Basic plot: NA murder mystery, a female detective gets assigned to a full moon murder on pack land.

Year 8 – 2014
This was my hardest NaNo ever. I’d won NaNo seven times and wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue, or take a break. I decided to push through because I was so close to year ten. I figured if I won year eight, nine would be a breeze, and ten would be a great accomplishment. I finished on the 20th, thanks to a good friend and my competitive spirit. I wrote a YA Urban Fantasy. Basic plot: Time travel is possible by reincarnation if you have one of the swords.

Year 9 – 2015
This year was our first NaNo writing retreat! That experience alone made NaNo worth it. I won our first night at the cottage (the 20th). We had quiet hours, good food, and an amazing time. My novel didn’t inspire me, but it got to the job done. It was a YA Urban Fantasy. Basic plot: a girl is supposed to get the power to save the world. Something goes wrong and her friend gets the power instead.

This year is Year 10 and my novel is a YA space opera. Basic plot: a girl finds out she is on a prison colony, and if she doesn’t get back home soon she will lose her crown.

What does your NaNo history look like?

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How (not) to Begin a Story

There is a lot of advice on how not to begin a story. Don’t start with your main character waking up and getting out of bed. Don’t start with a slow scene. Don’t open with dialogue. Don’t be vague.

For me writing the opening scene of a novel is probably the hardest part. It isn’t because I don’t know the story. It’s because I get caught up in all those don’ts. For me there is an easy fix. I don’t stress about it … at least not in the first draft. If the only way I can think of to start my story is to have an alarm clock wake up my character, then I do it. If I need to write a few pages (or more) of filler to get in the groove, then I go for it.

When it comes to the first draft, the most important thing you can do is write it. Make all the mistakes you want. It might mean more editing later, but at least you’ll have something to edit. In my experience the first scene always needs to be rewritten anyway. It often has the wrong tone, is in the wrong place, or gives away too much of the story or background.

In the first draft of my YA Portal Fantasy the novel stars with my main character waking up and doing some morning push ups. In that original draft it took 11,000 words to get to the other world. In the most recent draft it takes 6,000 words to get to the other world, and the story starts as the characters walk into the school. I didn’t have to just rewrite the first scene to make the beginning work, I had to rewrite the first four chapters.

My advice on how to start a story is simple: Start typing.  If it is a first draft, and you are a linear writer: start it however you want. Use the first few scenes to get a feel for the story and your characters. Find your voice and play around a little bit. If you’re anything like me, getting the writing time is far more important than anything else you can do right now.

Do you usually have to rewrite your opening scene? Are you a linear writer or do you jump around?

Plans for February

My Goals for January were:

  1. Have the first meeting of our new writing critique group. Done! Our first review meeting will be next month, but we met to sort everything out.
  2. Read through the YA Portal Fantasy and make a final edits list. Nope. Big fail on this one.
  3. Write 5,000 words on my MG Sci-Fi. Nope. Ya, not a good writing month in general.

I would say January was a failure. Time to pick myself up again. I need to write more!

My Goals for February are:

  1. Use the Word Count spreadsheet I developed to track my writing progress. My spreadsheet is similar to the chart used by NaNoWriMo to track your progress over a month, but it runs over a calendar year and can cover multiple projects.
  2. Get chapter 2 of the YA Portal Fantasy ready for the critique group.
  3. Read through the YA Portal Fantasy and make a final edits list.
  4. Write at least 3k on something. It can be on one thing or a mix of things. I really hope I write a lot more than this, but I am about to sink into edits on a few things so writing won’t be my primary focus.

Was your January more successful than mine? What big projects do you have coming up.

Writing Critique Group

My friend @CateReads and I have started a writing critique group. We both decided that this is the year we need to focus on more than just writing stories. We need to spend time working on the craft of writing stories. Over the years we have both done various things to improve craft, but exchanging writing has been something we only played with a few times.

This year we pulled together some of our favourite local writers and convinced them to join us in a critique adventure. Everyone in the group already has multiple time commitments. The usual things like jobs, families, time to write, and other hobbies. To that end we are taking things slowly. To start we will review two pieces a month. At our current group size that means getting a review every two-three months. Somehow I ended up sharing in the first round. I will be sending out the first 3k of my Portal Fantasy before bed tonight.

I am always amazed at how hard it can be to hit the send button on a email that contains a piece of my writing. I shared an earlier draft of my YA Portal Fantasy with my mother early last year. It was (and I expect will be for  a while) the hardest bit of my writing to send out. While hitting send is getting easier over time it still isn’t easy.

This time I am sending to another group of writers. The scary part isn’t sharing exactly. It is that they are going to tell me what they think. These are all people who will have no problem telling me what they enjoyed as well as what need works, but hearing that something you wrote kind of sucks (or more likely one part or aspect sucks) is still hard. Knowing that it is going to improve your writing overtime doesn’t make it that much easier. I am trying to look at it as both a good way to grow as a writer, and as a way to develop the thick skin everyone says you need if you ever want to publish anything.

Do you have a critique group? Is sending your writing out to other people intimidating or is that just me?

Monsters with Easy Clean Up

A lot of TV shows feature monsters with easy clean up. For example in Buffy when the vampires are staked they disappear in a cloud of dust. In Sailor Moon disbanded monsters turn into a cloud of dust that is taken away on the wind. People shot with a phaser in Star Trek often disappear in a flash of orange.

In Sailor Moon, for example, I am sure the tactic is used to keep the violence less in your face. A bloody corpse isn’t going to encourage parents to let their kids watch the show. For the most part though I’m sure it’s a convenience thing. If the enemy disappears it saves a lot of clean up time and explanation.

I never truly appreciated this trope until I was writing my NaNo novel this November. It was the first time I had bodies in the story that the characters had to deal with. In my Murder Mystery the body needs to stick around. Without it the story never gets off the ground. In my YA Portal Fantasy the few bodies are left in an abandoned motel or swept down a river before the characters can do anything about them.

This November my characters killed several demon like creatures and had to deal with the corpses left behind. It was different and exciting to write about handling the first body or two. After that I realized why so many TV shows take the easy (and often dusty) way out.

How do you handle monsters in your stories? Do the corpses stick around or do they turn to dust?

Plans for January

My updated goals for December were:

  1. Read a book I didn’t write. – Done! Deceptions by Kelley Armstrong (among others).
  2. Write the first four 500 words posts. – 2/4 done. I have started the next two, but I don’t think they are ready to post yet.
  3. Make plans for a new-ish writing group in the new year. – Done! We are finalizing plans now.
  4. Clean the house before the holidays. – Done. I got some cleaning, sorting, and de-cluttering accomplished. The house continues to be a work in progress though.

December total: 3.5/4 I would say December was a success.

My Goals for January are:

  1. Have the first meeting of our new writing critique group.
  2. Read through the YA Portal Fantasy and make a final edits list.
  3. Write 5,000 words on my MG Sci-Fi.

I haven’t decided if I am making goals for the new year or not. Sometimes making goals at the beginning of the year is motivating, but sometimes life is too unpredictable to try and plan that far out.

What are your goals for this month or year? How did you do on your goals for last year/month?

How to Develop Characters

Learning a new skill takes practice. For the last few years I have been focusing a lot of my writing practice on improving my grammar. It has improved to the point where I no longer think it is my weakest writing link. (I can’t believe I just wrote that!) Also I just need a break and working on something else will give that to me.

Last year, a few days before submitting my YA Portal Fantasy to a writing competition, I realized how flat my characters were. The main character was decently fleshed out but was bland. The two main male characters had somehow been blurred along the edges until they were difficult to tell apart. My characters were definitely not coming alive.

Having identified the weakness I set out to figure out how to fix it. Here are a few things I’ve learned for character development and resources I’ve used:

Get to know your character
There are a number of ways to do this. 1) Take online quizzes as your character to try and feel out how they would answer random questions. 2) Fill out one of the many character questionnaires or cheat sheets available on the web. 3) Pretend to interview your character or have a friend interview your character. 4) Write a few diary entries from your characters perspective. Write about an average day, and about some of the special events in their life (marriage, first day in a new town, the day they discovered they could fly).

Write about Dragons
This is a series of lectures taken from Brandon Sanderson‘s writing course. Lecture three is all about character development. I ended up watching some parts of this lecture twice just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. The concepts are simple but eye opening. I’m only halfway through the lectures, but I have learned a lot.

All characters need positive and negative traits
I sometimes forget to give my ‘good’ characters flaws. In the same way I will sometimes forget to give my villains any redeeming qualities. No one is 100% good or 100% evil. A good rule of thumb is to aim for something closer to a 40-60 ratio, with the 60 being the piece that determines if a character is ‘good’ or ‘evil’. There are plenty of character trait lists online to help pick traits from both side. A ‘bad’ character trait doesn’t have to be extreme. Your character could procrastinate or be lazy.

Go out people watching
If you are on a bus, or in a coffee shop, watch the people around you. See how people act on their own, in small groups, or in large groups.. Think about if you are an introvert or an extrovert and how you react in different situations. Consider your friends and family members and why they sometimes do the things they do. The more you understand people, the better you will understand why your characters do or don’t feel alive to you.

Do you find it easy to develop a realistic character, or is it something you struggle with? What writing skills are you working on right now?

The Best Laid Plans

I am a planner. I like to set goals, draw up timelines, and make to do lists. I like order, numbers, and facts. Sometimes I also like to dream big.

When it comes to writing I have two goal lists. One is my to the moon and back list. It is the kind of list that includes ‘become a New York Times Bestselling author’ on it. The other is the list of things I am actually working toward. It has things like ‘publish a novel’ on it. For the most part to get to the to the moon and back list I need to go through the other list first. It’s hard to believe how much work lies ahead to achieve even a few of the things on that little piece of paper.

My timeline from now to the middle of next year is fairly simple. I want to work on the MG Sci-Fi until Jan. Then I will switch over to the YA Portal Fantasy. In November I will take a break for at least two weeks to get my butt through a 50k rough draft for NaNoWriMo. I only have the thinnest threads of a story for NaNo this year. I love NaNo for the ability to let loose, play with new ideas, and not feel constrained. Once that 50k is done though I need to buckle down for the MG Sci-Fi again.

Lastly my to do list. It is simple. Only one line. Stick to the timeline! I need to fall in line and get the work done. I need to push past the scenes that are tripping me up and get words on the page. I need to reread my notes and edit the heck out of two of my novels. I need to get to a finished project I feel proud of.

Are you a list, timeline, and numbers person? Do you usually stick to your plans or are you always falling behind (like me)?

Reading from my Manuscript

In two days I will be reading a short segment from my YA Portal Fantasy. Part of my prize from the writing competition I won is getting to do a reading at Word on the Street. I had to pick a five-six minute section to read… out loud… in front of PEOPLE! As you might have noticed I’m a bit nervous about the whole thing.

My biggest worry for the reading was that I would read too fast. I am naturally a quick speaker. If you get me excited or nervous I speak even faster. While I knew the right reading speed should feel slow, I wasn’t sure HOW slow. I did the only thing a logically minded person could do. I googled it. By chance I stumbled across a great little fact. The target speed for an audio book is 150 words per minute. Perfect! I now knew I needed a section about 750 words long.

In my day job I don’t do a lot of public speaking and, like many people, actively avoid it when I can. I know the basics: Don’t fidget, avoid the word um, stand up straight, and speak clearly. It all sounds so easy when you talk about it. In real life I tend to have sweaty palms, shaky hands, and if I am really unlucky a wobbly voice. Google (the great and mighty google to the rescue again) tells me all will be well if I practice, try to look up at least a few times, and enjoy the moment. I’m not too sure about that last one, but I will try.

Breaking out of a Writing Slump

I submitted my YA Portal Fantasy to the Atlantic Writing Competition in early February. It was a somewhat last minute decision. In the three months before the competition I put in a lot of writing and editing time. I spent evenings, lunch hours, and bus trips either making notes or fixing plot holes. After submitting I gave myself permission to take a little break. I’d earned it.

The end of my little break came and went and I had trouble settling on what to write. I didn’t want to work on the Portal Fantasy until I had the comments back from the readers, I wasn’t feeling the Murder Mystery, and I couldn’t seem to make progress on the MG Sci-fi. I didn’t want to start another new project. I didn’t have any good plot bunnies even if I did want to start a new project.

In early June I was chatting with my friend @catereads about how little writing I had managed in the last several months. She wasn’t having as much luck as she would like either. Sometime in the middle of June in another conversation an old Letter Game I had done came up. By the end of June we had hatched a plan and the first letter had been sent.

Our letter game is now at almost 30k and going strong. My writing slump isn’t completely banished, but it is a big step up. I am thinking like a writer again, putting fingers to the keyboard, and most importantly I’m enjoying writing again.

How do you break out of a writing dry spell? Have you ever co-written a story?