The Book Birth Plan

 

Keep Calm and Write On

If you read my last post, it was all about birthing a book. And since NaNoWriMo loometh, it’s time to talk about book birth plans.

Oh, she means outlines, you might think.

But no, in fact, I don’t.

Outlines are key for writing non-fiction manuscripts, in which the author needs to present information in an organized format, but fiction is a whole different animal.

In my novel-writing experience, outlines kill creativity. I’ve written a couple novels that stuck right to the outlines I prepared for them. I would write a scene, then have to look and see what to write next. I didn’t write anything without consulting the outline first because I was afraid of messing up what I wanted to happen later in the plot, but the result was that they read like someone dragging the novels along against their wills. Those novels are now collecting virtual dust because I haven’t touched them in years.

There is a time to tidy up your mess of a novel, and it’s the next stage: editing. When writing, it’s good to have bullet points, things that you know need to happen over the course of the story, but I am here to say that some of the scenes I thought were the most important at the start of a book ended up on the cutting room floor.

If you’re querying and have to provide an outline, you should create it from a book you’ve already written, not the other way around. But that’s not to say that I think books—especially serial novels—should be written without any direction whatsoever. This is where the book birth plan comes in.

If you’ve ever had a baby and tried to have a birth plan, you’re probably laughing. From experience, I can tell you that birth plans are often tossed out with the bath water (just not with the baby). It’s more about comforting the soon-to-be parents by letting them think they have control than actually checking off every box on the list.

So if you’re gearing up to start your novel on November first, what would your “birth plan” look like? How will you know you’re ready to tackle this huge task?

I have a file for “notes” for every one of my NaNoWriMo novels. For my first, I didn’t even decide to participate until late October, so there was no time to plan at all. I had a few scenes in my head and just let the story flow with a vague idea of what I wanted to happen. Once I started writing, I wrote notes, like a quick reference guide, so I wouldn’t have to scroll through the entire document to remember something like a character’s birthday.

The next two years, I had notes already written before I started, so I had a general idea of where the books were going, but like having a baby, they certainly didn’t cooperate with all my expectations. The one thing I wish I’d done with the third book in particular was to decide on how to begin the thing. That little hiccup had me stuck in front of a blank document for a long time.

So write notes, by all means, like how to start your book (who’s narrating? where does it happen? etc.). You can scrap that scene or put it somewhere else later, but at least it will get you rolling.

If you’re dying to write a scene but know you can’t until November, jot down the parts you don’t want to forget: “Brenda runs into her ex at the store”; “Josh’s future plans change when he doesn’t make it onto the football team.” Your character(s) may have a complicated family tree, or you may have a timeline that jumps all over the place. Write these down if you’re afraid you’ll forget, but don’t stay married to them! Therein lies the trap. Read over your “plan” before you start typing on November first, but then set it aside, and write whatever wants to be written. You may discover that your story has some surprises that you never imagined—and that wouldn’t be realized if you stuck to a rigid plan.

This year, I know how I’m going to start the book and certain events that I want to happen, but this one is more about the characters than the plot. And there is every possibility that these characters will be difficult. Actually, I kind of hope that they are. Since I won’t actually be having a baby, it should be fun to see how far this story deviates from the “plan.”

Birthing a Book (as told by memes)

01-become-a-writer-they-said

If you follow my blog at all, you know that I’ve participated in both NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo for the past several years. If you’ve read my most recent blogs, you’ll know that I’ve been struggling to finish writing my latest book for several months now. Even dedicating both Camp NaNos to this book didn’t do the trick.

I find that writing is often akin to jumping on a treadmill—I keep going without actually moving forward. With this latest book, in particular, I already had the ending written and just couldn’t seem to get the story to go there. Yes, I wrote—thousands and thousands more words than I wanted to write. And I was still just as far away from the end as I had been when I started. Or so it seemed.

I’m glad to say that I finally made it (and completely changed the ending, of course), and in celebration as well as exasperation, I would like to document this latest writing experience via some memes that must have been written by some poor souls who’ve had similar experiences.

 

So you get an idea for a book, only to discover that

02-scariest-moment

But

03 Madeleine L'Engle Quote.jpg

Yep, Madeleine L’Engle. At least you get it.

And Dory has some valuable advice, too:

04-just-keep-writing-dory

So you do, but sometimes

05-i-dont-know-what-im-writing-about

Or you read over what you wrote yesterday and wonder,

06-what-idiot-wrote-this

Because

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And there are those times when the page stays blank because of

08-writers-block

But no matter what,

09-you-should-be-writing-batman

So your days start to look like this:

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Through it all, you have to remember that

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By the end of the process, you think this is a pretty good approximation of your mental state while writing:

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You’re glad you stuck with it, however, because

13-happiness-is-a-good-book

But you’re not quite there yet. You still have to

14-keep-calm-and-revise

Why Not Sign Up for Camp NaNoWriMo?

Fiction Fix Typewriter

For those who may be learning about Camp NaNoWriMo for the first time, it’s offered twice a year – the months of April and July – as a kind of warm up for the biggie, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in November.

Last year, I finished editing my previous NaNoWriMo novel at the end of June and signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo in July to work on an old, unfinished manuscript. This past April, I signed up again to work on a different novel that I’d started in December.

So why am I writing this when it’s almost halfway through July? To be honest, I almost gave up on the idea of participating this time. No, I haven’t finished the novel I worked on in April (although I did achieve the word count goal I set for myself). What happened is that I came up against a writer’s roadblock that I’ve written about numerous times: the mid-novel slump.

There is little more frustrating for a writer than knowing how your novel will end but then getting lost on the way. It reminds me of the family vacation we recently took, in which my GPS simply wouldn’t believe that our destination was on Sugarloaf Road. It was glad to take us to an empty field on Sugarloaf Mountain Road. While it’s a little misadventure we can laugh about now (and others who have been mislead by GPS can commiserate), at the time, it was aggravating because we knew where we wanted to be, just not how to get there.

Of course, with my novel, I can’t blame GPS. I was cruising along just fine and decided on the perfect twist to give my story more tension. The only problem was that I wrote myself into a hole in which I couldn’t write myself out.

Not knowing what else to do, I committed a big no-no: I went back to the beginning and started editing. Although it’s cost me a lot of time, I’m glad that I did. I’d written quite a few things that I’d forgotten, so I took notes along the way. I also trimmed a lot of extraneous words. And as I went, I realized what I would have to do when I got to that problematic scene that had effectively stopped my forward momentum: I would have to cut it.

There’s still tension, just not nearly as much. Although my scene isn’t the shocker that I originally planned, it’s no longer stalling the manuscript. It meant cutting 20 pages out that I spent days writing, but sometimes that’s what you have to do. I’m just glad that I’m moving forward again.

So now that I know what I’m doing, even though it’s 13 days in, I’m signing up for Camp NaNoWriMo. I am giving myself a low word count goal (12,000 words) because I hope that’s all it takes to finish this novel. Knowing my propensity for verboseness, it’ll likely be longer, but that’s okay. It’s often the scenic route that is most memorable.

 

The End of the Story

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Fer Realz

I know, I know, this is the third post I’ve written in nine days – a new record for me – but I just couldn’t keep it to myself: I finished my NaNoWriMo 2015 book! I was stressed out about it taking so long, but I guess spring break was the medicine I needed. That and a little visit from my muse.

I hoped that if I managed 2000 words per day (the usual goal during the month of November for NaNoWriMo participants – and much more than I’ve averaged since then), I would be able to finish the story. But as any WriMo knows, you can type 2000 words without saying much of anything at all.

So by Friday, the last official weekday of my break, I was feeling a little antsy. March was over, I’d hit 100,000 words (just over 101K, if you want to be specific), and I still had a lot to say. The problem was that I had this looming showdown between two characters, and I knew how I wanted it to end, just not how to get the characters there.

Then, the floodgates opened that night. I typed over 5500 words and was so close – but I still wasn’t done. I joked with my husband that I should just kill everyone off.

No, I promise that I didn’t take the axe to my characters. I actually wrote a real ending, but it’s clunky. When editing time comes, well, that’s when I’m going to pull out my axe. The manuscript is nowhere near ready for even my most trusted (and kindest) of beta readers; right now, there are some passages that are as awkward as a sixteen-year-old guy meeting his girlfriend’s dad for the first time. (Hey, that’s appropriate; this is a young adult novel.)

Anyway, I’m done, and I can breathe. I can actually think about other stuff for a while. Such as Camp NaNoWriMo, which officially began two days ago. Jeez, I’m already behind.

What, did you really think I was going to stop writing?

What Comes After NaNoWriMo 2015?

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The short answer: a lot more writing.

And as much as I usually like to elaborate, I just don’t have the energy or time to say much more right now. Part of that is just hanging over from the doldrums I suffered all November long, but the other part is that I need to use my time (tiny slivers of it, at least) to continue writing this year’s novel.

I wrote my 50,000 words before the end of the month (54,000, actually), but I am nowhere near finished with the first draft of my book. So instead of writing about writing (even though I love to do it), I am going to just plain write for a change.

Slow-Mo WriMo

It’s been one of those kinds of months – you know the kind. I’ve had mornings in which I almost put apple juice in my coffee. The day before Veteran’s Day (a holiday for everyone in the family), I was in a near panic about my son’s baseball game that night and getting the kids to bed on time afterward – and my husband just stood there and listened to me stress about this – before I realized that because we had Veteran’s Day off, we could all sleep late the next morning. Problem solved. Duh.

This November has been exactly as crazy-busy as I feared November would be back when I first participated in NaNoWriMo in 2013. I had every excuse to not participate this year.

But I’m not here to give excuses. According to nanowrimo.org, I’m on schedule to finish my 50,000 words by November 29th. I would have been appalled by this last year, but I’m just happy that I’m still on track to finish this year.

So far, 2015 has been a very different experience than 2013 and 2014. Rather like trying to run in a dream, I can see exactly where I want to go and am trying desperately to get there, but my legs seem to be pumping in slow motion. Some nights, I don’t get to sit down and write until 9:30 (and I’m supposed to be asleep by then during the week). Sometimes I’m so tired that all I can do is stare at a blinking cursor, at a total loss for what to write. Other nights, I’ve written under 1000 words, happy that I was able to increase my word count at all. In fact, I told myself I would not write this blog until I had my word count met for the day, and this is the first day in two weeks that I’ve been able to do that before the kids were in bed.

This year’s novel is the third in a trilogy, the first of which I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2013, the second of which I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2014. Last year, it helped to edit the 2013 book right before I started on 2014, so I figured that this year, I would go back and edit 2013 and 2014. The only problem is that I only gave myself a month to do this (I was having too much fun writing my Camp NaNoWriMo book before that).

I got to the halfway point of the first book by mid-October and switched to the second book, which I wasn’t nearly finished with by October 31st. And at that point, I realized that 1) I needed to finish editing it anyway, to avoid terrible inconsistencies in this year’s novel, and 2) I had no idea how I was going to open the third book. Whereas with the previous years, I was brimming with words and could hardly stop them from flowing from my brain to my fingers/keyboard on November first, this year, I spent half the day editing, praying for a brainwave. None came. Sure, I knew lots of things that would happen later in the book, but I didn’t know how to start the confounded thing.

After three false starts, I got going and was able to limp forward for 2000 words. Now, 2000 words is a great daily goal. That means finishing on the 25th of the month, with plenty of time to spare. But my first year, I wrote  4700 words on the first day alone and had reached 10,000 by day three, 20,000 by day six. Last year was tougher, but I still managed 4100 words on November first and 10,000 by the 4th. I wrote well more than my personal minimum of 2000 per day, despite feeling like it was a slower start. It was a struggle the whole time, so I never imagined that this year would prove even more difficult.

Aside from dividing my writing time between two books for two-thirds of the month (I just finished editing last year’s book two days ago), being in editor mode – cutting, polishing, perfecting – is not the right mindset for NaNoWriMo, when the goal is to build, build, build.

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So I’m dumping mounds of sand right now, trying hard not to judge, trying to just get the job done so I can go back and make it the way I like it later. This dumping is ugly. Sometimes I’ll write a scene that’s not in chronological order because it just won’t let me go. Although these are fun to write, when I fill in the scenes in between, I often discover that I have to make so many changes that the fun-to-write scene barely resembles what I originally wrote. Oh well. It’s all a part of the process, I suppose.

And another part of this process, one that I just realized a week or so ago, when I was thinking that surely I should be on a roll by now, is that the middle is always the most difficult for me to write. It’s the in-between stuff that’s necessary but not exactly glamorous. And since this is a trilogy, much of this third book is still actually the middle of the story.

Plenty of exciting things are going to happen, but I just have to plow through and get to those things. Then maybe (please!) my story will take over and start telling itself. But even if it doesn’t, this girl isn’t about to quit.

Longhand NaNoWriMo?

This year, NaNoWriMo (AKA National Novel Writing Month, AKA November) is going to be different for me. I thought I was crazy to try to write a 50,000-word novel in one month in previous years, but this time, I really am a glutton for punishment. I’m working full-time for the first time in almost eight years, and November concerns me a teensy bit. I’m not worried at all about having a 50,000-word idea. In fact, I already have a novel idea for next year, too. What I’m worried about is not having enough hours in the day to get that idea on paper.

If you’ve read my recent posts, you know I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo in July, but although I met my word count goal, I didn’t finish that particular novel in July or even later in the summer. I hoped to finish the first draft by the end of September, giving me October to edit my 2013 and 2014 NaNoWriMo novels (which are the first two books of the trilogy that I will complete this year). But I can no longer carry my MacBook with me wherever I go and write in my spare time. I’ve had to squeeze all my writing into a few minutes after my kids go to bed and on the weekends. At the end of September, I dutifully (but regretfully) set Camp NaNoWriMo aside and started editing.

Then one day recently I had a stroke of genius – I can still write longhand. Actually, aside from the inconvenience of having to read and then type my sloppy scrawl, I prefer writing that way. Research shows that writing longhand (particularly cursive, which is how I write) makes what we write stick in our brains better than when we type. It’s how I took all my notes in college, in the dark ages before students carried tablets and laptops to every class. I rarely read over those notes after taking them; it was in the taking that the magic happened.

I used to carry a massive folder of loose pages – a novel in progress – with me everywhere, writing when I could. And then, I went back with a pen and edited over my hand-written draft. A guy in my fiction workshop saw me doing this once and marveled that I still “actually wrote longhand.” Gasp! Can you imagine? This was still the early 2000s, folks. He would really flip out now, but I’m excited to employ this method again – something I’ve hardly done at all since 2011.

You might think that there’s no possible way to write longhand and still validate a 50,000-word novel with NaNoWriMo, but they have a specific guideline for just this issue (read it here). Would it be a bit of a pain to keep track that way? Sure. But it’s possible. And who knows – maybe something magical will happen if I write this novel (or a good portion of it) by hand. It’s certainly a more laborious process, but it’s better than the alternative – letting my ideas fade because there’s not a word processing program nearby, losing the thread of my novel in the absence of technology.

As for Camp NaNoWriMo’s novel, I’m still working on it, pulling a pad of paper out of my purse and adding to it one sentence at a time. I may not be able to finish it until after November, but as long as I carry a writing implement and paper with me, I’m ready when inspiration strikes.

I am excited about NaNoWriMo. I know I’ll at least be able to type on November first, and maybe I’ll make up for the time I miss during the week on weekends (and our super long Thanksgiving break – yay!). My fingers are crossed, and I’m ready to go. Maybe I’ll even regain the mark of the writer, my good old friend, the callous on the finger where my pencil rests.

The Return of the Callous

The Return of the Callous