A Tale of Two Camp NaNoWriMos: Victory vs. “Failure”

With only three days left to go in July, you know where you are: you’ve either set yourself up for success, and you’re going to meet your word goal, or, you’re like me, and there’s no way that’s going to happen. This post is for both situations.

If victory is in sight…

Congrats! You’re so close to accomplishing your goal. No matter how many more words you have – 1,000, 5,000, 9,000 – you can do it! Now is not the time to give up. Now’s the time to push forward and pump those words out. Write on your lunch break. Write as soon as you get home from school or work. Write for at least an hour tonight, no matter what your plans are. Your goal is within sight – go grab it!

If you’re staring at a very, very small status bar that seems to be taunting you…

It’s okay. Really. You’re not going to meet your word goal. Maybe you’re 15,000 words behind or 30,000 words behind, but it’s not going to happen. And that’s fine. Maybe the well of inspiration ran dry. Maybe you got distracted. Maybe you’re like me, and you had some unusual, time consuming personal matters (both good and bad) pop up unexpectedly. Your writing career doesn’t end on July 31. If it’s been awhile since you’ve written, maybe open up your Scrivener doc tonight and write 500 words. Ease yourself back into it. If your project isn’t working, switch to something new – or old.

I realized about halfway through the month that I wasn’t going to make it this year. Despite my earlier post that insisted that you can always find time to write, things came up that prevented me from following my own advice. Once I got out of the habit of writing every day, my creativity faded, and I found myself with no urge to write. There were times when I wished I could write, but I didn’t have/couldn’t have my computer with me.

But, oh well. August is a new month. The project that I was working on during July isn’t bad, but I think I want to go back and finish one of my older projects. It’ll be tough to get back in a routine, but I’m a big believer in routine. Perhaps I’ll start tonight.

How did you fare during July, fellow writers? Did you hit your word count goals?

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The Lasting Legacy of Fiction: How The X-Files Shaped My Life

For writers, it’s sometimes hard to see why we are doing all of this. “What’s the point?” we ask, when we hit writer’s block or some other obstacle. It’s not always obvious why our stories matter. I want to tell you that your stories do matter. They matter a lot, to people you don’t even know.

The X-Files is my favorite show of all time. I have been in love with this series since fall 1996, when I started regularly watching the show during its fourth season. I still remember the first episode I saw (“2Shy” – it was a summer repeat), and I still remember the episode that hooked me (“Unruhe” – so creepy).

But The X-Files was more than just a hobby for me, as an 11 year old. It was an obsession. I became enthralled with stories, with characters, with mythology. The X-Files wasn’t just a show that I watched – it invaded every part of my life. I had every book ever published on this series. Every season recap, every nitpicker’s guide, every biography on the actors – I had them. When we got the internet in 1997, I used every available second of that dial-up to look up X-Files websites and message boards. I got mIRC for the sole purpose of finding X-Files groups, and I soaked up all the fan-fiction I could. To say that it was part of my life is an understatement.

I’m currently in the middle of a rewatch. I think this is the fifth or sixth time that I’ve watched the series the whole way through. I was trying to explain this to my husband, and I realized something: the X-Files wasn’t just my favorite TV show. It changed me.

I was in sixth grade, middle school, when I became obsessed with this show. My fandom solidly pushed me out of any “popular” group in school and pushed me to the weird periphery. I had various taglines written on my Trapper Keeper in White-Out. My fandom was obvious and excessive. And yes, this isolated me. It wasn’t cool to be obsessed with a sci-fi show when I was 11. I had maybe 3 friends (one of whom is still my best friend – thanks, Ashley, for dealing with me!).

But I didn’t back down. I stuck to my show. I stuck to these stories, even when I knew that people thought I was weird or when I was called the dreaded word: a “loser.” That decision – to be the weird kid – has been with me through my whole life. I was never part of a “clique.” I’ve always been more introverted. The choices I made in middle school carried through high school and then into my “real” life. I’m an adult now, obviously, but I think that the way we are in our early stages of life profoundly impacts how we approach life as an adult. I thought, as I spoke to my husband, what if there was no The X-Files? Would I have still been that weird kid? Maybe so, but maybe not as obviously. Maybe I could have passed for one of the cool kids. But what would that have done to my creativity? To my self-sufficiency? Would my love of story-telling be different? Would I still love science fiction as much?

My point is this: as creators of fiction, we have no idea what impact our stories will have. Your story could impact someone for the rest of his or her life. It could set someone on a trajectory that he or she had never anticipated. Sure, most fiction doesn’t impact us in this way. We absorb so many stories, and they slip out of our minds, without any effect. But you never know what story will stick in someone’s heart, or what story will change the way someone looks at the world. Value your work. Value your fiction. To someone out there, right now, it’s changing their course.

Atticus Finch, the Importance of the Narrator, and the Writer-Reader Relationship

Recently, I finished Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman. While there are a plethora of issues surrounding the quality of the book and the mystery surrounding its publication, I wanted to focus on a narrow issue: the characterization of Atticus Finch. What can we learn, as writers and readers, from the controversy surrounding this so-called change in his characterization?

Some spoilers within, but probably nothing worse than you’ve read elsewhere.

As a preliminary matter, I like To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t love it. I’m not a lawyer because Atticus Finch inspired me and made me believe in equal justice. I think part of this is because I was too young when I read the novel to really appreciate it. I was curious to see how I would enjoy the sequel (though it was reportedly written before Mockingbird by Ms. Lee) before I heard about the uproar regarding Atticus’s character. If you’re not aware, in short, people are upset because in Watchman, Atticus is quite adamantly a racist. There’s little indication of the great hero for justice with whom people fell in love while reading Mockingbird. Readers were appalled and couldn’t believe that Ms. Lee would assassinate Atticus’s character like that.

On the one hand, maybe it’s not character assassination: some articles have argued that Atticus was always racist (See The New Republic and Jezebel). Further, Mockingbird is told from Scout’s six year old, first-person perspective. She worships her father, and through her narration, we learn to worship him as well. But Scout isn’t an unbiased narrator. She’s a child who loves her father. In contrast, Watchman is told from a third person perspective, though it still focuses on Scout, now going by her given name of Jean Louise. Jean Louise is now an adult and has the ability to view her father how he truly is.

This teaches us a very important lesson about writing. Your narrator matters. Had Mockingbird been told from a third-person perspective, or from the first-person perspective of another character, would the reader have fallen in love with Atticus as much? Or would the readers have had a clearer view of his personality from the beginning?

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that this is a change in Atticus’s character – that Ms. Lee drastically changed this beloved character’s heart. In some ways, this is realistic. People change. Twenty years have passed between Mockingbird and Watchman, and perhaps it’s unrealistic to think even someone as idealistic as we want Atticus to be would stay that way forever.

But finally, and maybe most importantly, I don’t necessarily believe that Ms. Lee owed it to her readers to keep Atticus the same. It’s sad for some readers, but without Jean Louise realizing her father’s true personality, there is no conflict to the story. The entire novel is essentially a coming of age tale where Jean Louise begins to see her father, and the world, for what they really are. Further, as much as readers love Atticus and feel an ownership over him, he’s ultimately Ms. Lee’s character. We never like it when our favorite characters do something out of the ordinary or act in a way in which we believe is contrary to their personality. But we aren’t the writers in these cases. The writer has reasons and motivations beyond what we, as readers, can understand.

Now – if you are still an active writer, especially one with a small following, I wouldn’t recommend tearing down the moral compass of your stories. As evidenced by the drama surrounding Watchman, it’s easy to make your readers mad by the way you treat your characters. But Harper Lee is Harper Lee – she’s the author of one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved books in American history. She can pretty much do what she wants (presuming she wanted to do this, but that is a conversation for another time). It certainly wasn’t a popular decision, but maybe she felt it was the best decision for her narrative.

I would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’ve read Watchman. Was Atticus always a racist? Did Harper Lee screw over her readers by presenting Atticus this way? What exactly do writers owe their readers? 

Camp NaNoWriMo: Tackling Writer’s Block

So, it turns out that this month has not exactly gone the way I anticipated. I’m behind on my word count, and I’ve missed a lot of writing days. I wish I could chalk this up to some easy excuse–working more than usual, personal stress, etc.–but it’s a combination of stress, exhaustion, and just not wanting to write. I’m beginning to wonder if my idea really has the teeth to make it to 50,000 words. So far, I’ve hit a little over 20,000, and I’m not entirely sure where it’s going. That can be good, but I don’t know here. Also, it’s a horror story, and quite frankly, it’s just not scary enough. I need to amp up the fear factor.

That being said, I wanted to take on a common problem for writers: writer’s block. I know some people will try to convince you that writer’s block isn’t real, but I am not one of those people. Sometimes, the well runs dry. You can look at a blank page and just have no idea what comes next. There’s no way around it: this sucks. But it happens to everyone. The trick is figuring out a method that works for you to combat the block. Here’s a list of things that I have found help me:

1. Write something else. If you have a blog, write a blog post. If you have another work in progress, switch over to that for an hour or so. If the block is specific to your current project, “breaking the ice” on something else can be all that it takes for ideas to flow again.

2. Read something. Basking in the creativity of other people can be a huge help. For me, it helps to read something else in my genre. I get motivated by reading great stories by other people. It makes me want to write an equally great story.

3. Create a Pinterest board for your story. I know, this might sound silly. Hear me out: I like to do this anyway, but if you’re having trouble with inspiration, a little visualization can go a long way. Cast your story. Research the city where it’s set. If it’s a science fiction/fantasy story, and it’s not a real place, search for artwork on Pinterest. Finding pictures that match the tone of your story can help get you back in the mindset you need to write.

4. Create your story’s soundtrack. Go back through what you’ve written so far, and imagine what songs would be playing in the background if this was a movie. Or if your reader wanted a recommendation for what to listen to while reading, what would you suggest? Music is critical to my writing. I have a giant playlist full of instrumental music that I use while writing, and I would encourage you to do the same, if you like listening to music while you write. Another musical option is to pick out your story’s “trailer music” – again, imagine it like a movie and think of what the trailer would look like. What are your key scenes?

5. Work on character development. If you google “character development questionnaires,” you will find a plethora of resources. Fill out one of these for each of your main characters. Even if it doesn’t actually inspire you to go back to the project right away, it’ll give you more information on your characters.

6. Take a walk. The world is full of inspiration, and sometimes, the best thing to do is to get out of your house. This is especially true if you’ve been staring at a computer screen for hours. Take a walk. Get a cup of coffee. Engage in some quality people-watching. Keep your mind as clear as possible, and you might be surprised what ideas jump in.

7. Don’t writeThis may seem counter-intuitive, but if you really can’t break the block, just walk away for awhile. A lot of writers say that you just need to power through it, put some words, any words, on paper, but that’s not always healthy. Sometimes you just stare at the screen. There’s just nothing coming out. The longer you sit at your desk, the worse you’re going to feel about yourself. With every passing moment, you start to doubt and criticize yourself. If you know that you’re not going to be productive, take a step back. The project will be there tomorrow. Take the time to recharge yourself.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. These are simply a few things that I’ve used in the past that help me. Writers, how do you battle writer’s block? 

Camp NaNoWriMo: Routine is your friend

We’re on Day 8 of Camp NaNoWriMo. At this point, you’ve probably exhausted the initial “Weeee, this idea is great!” feeling, and you’re starting to get into the weeds of your character development and plot. This is a treacherous time for a story, because if you’re not careful, this is when you fall into bad habits. The worst of these habits is, obviously, not writing. When a story is new and exciting, you want to write as much as you can and as often as you can. But once that initial glow is gone, we start to make excuses about why we can’t write anymore, and the most common excuse is, of course: “I don’t have time to write.”

That is a lie. You know it. I know it.

You think you don’t have time to write. Or you’re not making time to write. But believe me – the time is there. The question is, how do you find it? The key to setting yourself up for success during a writing challenge month is to establish a routine from the beginning. Here are four tips to help you establish your writing routine:

Work at the same time every day:  This is going to largely depend on your personal preference. Do you like to write first thing in the morning? Are you a night owl? Do you go into work in the afternoon, so your morning is free? No matter what you’re doing for work, you have some time somewhere. I’m not good in the mornings, and I’m definitely not good at waking up early, so I know that’s out. I get a lunch break, sometimes, but not always, so that’s out. That leaves me with the evenings. I generally block off 9 pm – 11 pm as writing time. I hit my stride around 10 pm. And as long as I’m home, I write during that time period, no matter what. I plan my whole evening to make sure that I have that time free later in the evening – I’ll do my errands, go to the gym, etc all before 9, so I know I have those two hours free. Sure, sometimes life happens, and I don’t end up actually writing until 9:30 or so, but I always make sure I sit down and do it.

Figure out how much time you need, and then work backward: How much time do you need? Well, again, that depends on you. Look at your writing patterns from the last week. How long does it take you to hit 1,613 (the magic “words per day” number you want to hit if you’re aiming for 50,000)? If I’m incredibly focused, I could hit that in an hour. If I’m zoning in and out, it’s going to be closer to two hours. Maybe you can write that in 30 minutes. Maybe you need three hours. If you find that you need so much time that you can’t block off a chunk of time, split it up! Write for 30 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes on your lunch break, 30 minutes on your train ride home, and so on.

Tell your family and friends what you’re doing: Two hours of writing time is a lot. That’s time that you’re not spending with your friends or family, and some of them might be a little confused about why you don’t want to watch television/go out/etc. Tell people what you’re doing, especially the people living with you, and ask for their support. This is especially important if you don’t have a dedicated writing space, like me. I have a rule with my husband that when my headphones go on, even if I’m in the living room, that’s the Writing Signal, and distractions need to cease. Let your people know what your goals are and how important they are to you.

Make it a pleasant experience: If you’re doing a writing challenge, chances are that you love writing. In other words, writing should be fun. What can you add into your daily routine to make it better? If you’re working in the morning, buy some really good coffee and tell yourself that’s your writing coffee. If you’re writing at night, have a glass of wine or a cup of tea. Find music that you love and make a writing playlist (I’ll talk about this in more detail in a later post). This shouldn’t be torturous – this should be a time for you to follow your passion.

Writers, what other advice would you give on forming a routine? Is routine important to your writing, or do you just write whenever you feel like it? I’d love to hear about your patterns!

Camp NaNoWriMo: It doesn’t have to be good (right now)

It’s Day 3 of Camp NaNoWriMo. I hope that if you’re participating this month, that your projects are going well. This month, I’m going to be writing a series of posts about the NaNoWriMo experience and how to stay motivated.

The biggest criticism I hear about NaNoWriMo, and other writing challenges, is that it produces crap. These critics love to dismiss the work put in during the single month, waving it off as poorly written garbage.

And actually… they’re kind of right.

But that’s okay!

Let me back up. If you’re going to write 50,000 words in a month, it’s not going to be perfect. Finishing an entire story in a month is a daunting task, and it requires a commitment to write nearly every single day. There are some writers out there who can miraculously produce 10,000 words in a day, and sure, those people only need to write for a few days of the month. But for the rest of us, that 50,000 word count gets met by writing consistently. NaNoWriMo doesn’t give you the luxury of reflecting. This isn’t the time to take a couple of days to think about your characters or envision your settings. This is the time to sit down at your computer and just pound out words. Inevitably, some of what you write will be crap.

That’s fine. It’s a first draft. All first drafts have problems. Whether you take one month or six months (or six years) to write your story, your finished product will not be perfect. Even famous, respected authors would have to agree with that. Your story needs to be revised and edited.

But first, it needs to be written.

I don’t like reading criticisms of NaNoWriMo that focus on the quality of writing. I think it’s a bad argument. You can’t write the next great novel in a month, so why bother?  That strikes me as short-sighted. No, you certainly can’t write the next great novel in one month, but maybe you can write the bare bones of it. Maybe you can get the idea onto paper and work from there.

If you’re serious about your writing, you know that the first draft is only the first step of many. There will be time later to fix your grammar and polish your prose. For now, you need to get your idea out there. It doesn’t have to be good right now. It just needs to get done.

June Recap: You win some, you lose some…

Ah, here we are again. Another monthly recap. June wasn’t too bad. There were some awesome highs and discouraging lows.

Writing: In total, I wrote 13,779 words in June. I’m disappointed in that number, but I’m trying to stay positive. As you may already know, I finished my first draft of The Travelers early in the month. I read it on my Kindle and decided to ignore it for awhile. I have every intention of going back and editing it… eventually. Right now, the task seems daunting, and so I’m just acting like it will fix itself.

After I finished The Travelers, I just stopped writing for a little while. Part of it was because I was reading my own projects (as well as many novels; see below). I was disappointed in myself for not pushing through and writing something every day.

On the positive side, the remainder of those words went to two separate projects. One of which is a weird science fiction story that I imagine will be only a short story or novella that is heavily influenced by Philip K. Dick. The other is my Camp NaNoWriMo project, which I started a couple days earlier. It’s a horror novel about the occult, sort of, but it’s really about the choices we make and the things we’ll do for the people we love.

Reading: I READ SO MANY BOOKS IN JUNE. Well, 10, to be exact. That’s pretty good for one month. I’m up to Book #50 on my GoodReads challenge of reading 100 books in the year. At this pace, I should be able to meet my goal. I just started The Maze Runner and Ready Player One, both of which I’m enjoying.

Oh, but I did make one crucial decision. After The Maze Runner, no more YA books for awhile. I just can’t do it. I can’t get into them, and sometimes, they frustrate me, even if they are good books.

Still haven’t finished Anna Karenina.

Other: I saw Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys at the theater. I loved Jurassic World, despite the somewhat silly plot and the terrible character development. I liked (but did not love) Terminator: Genisys, despite the time travel wonkiness and Emilia Clarke’s terrible version of Sarah Connor (sorry, not sorry). Still haven’t finished Daredevil on Netflix.

Bring on July!