NANOWRIMO Week Three: The Midlife Crisis

Hey there writer.

I know I don’t have to thank you for being here with me because if you are akin to me, you’re looking for any excuse to change up the monotony of this novel-writing month and escape that mad-dash. Perhaps you’re feeling like this story you’ve been pouring your heart and soul into for what seems like years is starting to stale. Things are getting drab. The plot line is petering out. The characters have run out of things to say.

This is the dreaded, dead-ended doldrum (say that one a few times over fast) of week 3. And it can often feel like middle age in its sunken sails, stagnant air, and the questioning of the choices that brought you here.

With only 11 days left in this crazy adventure, you may feel like you just don’t want to go on. That perhaps it would be easier to abandon your project all together and take a hot little novella out for a spin. Maybe start seeing some poetry on the side. Perhaps dabble in a little erotica?

While I encourage some dabbling (especially in erotica) I would argue that all of those exploratory practices can be done right in your own work in progress. So you’re bored, so you don’t know what the characters will say to one another…I urge you to start a new chapter, in the same document, where your characters take a jump off of the tracks and do something completely unexpected. Put them in a different time, put them in a different dynamic…hell, switch their genders and see what happens. Write a poem that serves as a synopsis to the story, first from one character’s perspective, and then from another’s.  All of this play might help unlock the paths your novel needs to get going again. Think of it as putting some wind in those sails. A little spice in between the pages.

And all of those words you put down, even if they may be edited out later, still count as words towards your 50,000. Let’s be honest, at this point in the process, any word count is better than none.

It’s normal to feel a bit discouraged and bogged down in week 3, but what you’re building is worth hanging on to. It’s worth the investment of time and thought in this, the darkest, dreaded, dead-ended doldrums.

Hang in there kid. Go get freaky with your WIP and spice things up to see you through to the end.

Next week, look for the final, and highly inspirational installment of my NANOWRIMO survival guide.

NANOWRIMO Week One: The Honeymoon

Ah, yes, the glorious stage of excitement and foreplay. The thrill of fleshing out your characters, and having them say clever things to one another, and building beautiful worlds with soft hues and brilliant sunsets. It’s champagne and butterflies, it’s rainbows and 3 hour love-making sessions with your laptop (please, God, not literally…the keys are hard enough to keep clean with just my coffee and pastry habit).

The words come easy, the beginning is new and exciting, the chemistry is just right. Possibly you’ve been planning this novel for awhile, maybe you even used October to plan it out and things are running smoothly and in great gushes of inspiration and excitement. (I think ‘gushes’ might be just as bad as ‘moist’ for cringe-worthy words).

OR

You’re stuck in front of your blank page and wondering why in God’s name you agreed to this. The stress of completing such a herculean task is causing every neuron to march around your addled brain with tiny little picket signs protesting the ridiculous workload before they even endure it.

You’re thinking of giving up. It feels as though you agreed to do this on a brash weekend in Vegas and you might have done so under the influence of alcohol and you really don’t know this book that well and what will your parents say and… is it too late for an annulment?

In the first case: Congratulations, keep going! If you have the stamina and inspiration to do so, front load these first couple of weeks so you can have a few days to ride if you need to recover. (I can’t help but hear Sheriff Bart’s voice in my head “Man, them schnitzengrubens will wipe you out!” Come on, people…Blazing Saddles)

In the second case: Don’t give up just yet. So she/he’s a gamble and you may have rushed into things. It’s normal to be nervous. It’s normal to feel like there’s nowhere to go. But you’re a writer. And writer’s do best when they stop questioning the end product and just write. See where that impromptu spouse will lead you, let it play out for a few days and enjoy the crazy weird ride that you’re on.

The secret to NANOWRIMO is to not overthink it. Because that’s when you start looking for all the imperfections and plot holes that send you into editing mode and canceling out any forward movement you have.

If you’re having trouble with getting your word count every day here’s some tips that have helped me:

  1. Break it up into smaller sections. A little in the morning, a little at lunch, some at night. Carry the laptop or notebook with you and write a few lines whenever you have a chance
  2. Keep your characters in your head with you at all times. How would they react to what you’re doing? What would they say to each other in the grocery store line? Let them talk to each other while you’re doing the dishes or in that third useless meeting of the day (come on, we all know at least 2/3rds of all meetings are just wastes of time that allow one person to hear themselves talk).
  3. Strike when the fire is hot. If you are on a roll, do everything in your power to keep writing…then in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence–stop. Yeah, you read that right. Stop. It will frustrate you and keep your mind on what will happen next until you pick it back up. Foreplay people…there’s nothing like a little flirtatious teasing to make the next interlude all the more passionate.
  4. DO NOT be discouraged if you have a short day. Every word counts and a 400 word day is still 400 words. Like running or training, or anything really–great things are accomplished not always in leaps and bounds but by small progressive steps forward.
  5. Rest your fingers and your brain. Take breaks, sleep well, eat well, exercise, and get away from it throughout the day. Burnout probably happens most in the first couple of weeks when our inspiration gets ahead of our ability to keep at it with the same frantic pace.

Okay. That’s all I’ve got for this week.

Remember, comment below with how it’s going or send me quick email with any frustrations or elations you have and I’ll enter you to win a goodie basket with some books and writer self-care stuff that will help keep you going into this crazy month.

Good skill Writer.

Challenges, Fears, and What it Means to Tackle NANOWRIMO

Can you feel it in the air? The tingle of excitement in the tips of every writer’s fingers? The antici—–

–pation of the challenge and the reward? The insane gauntlet thrown down to write the better part of a novel in the short span of 30 days? I feel it in a new way. A frightening way.

For the first time since I started participating, I’m wondering if this might be the year that I fail.

It’s probably no surprise for those of you who follow the blog that I’ve been a little…down… lately. And with that comes a starkly lowered self-esteem. Add in a dash of mental block and creative fizzle and I’m having a hard time believing I will have enough clout to make it through 1700 words per day and finish a victor.

So what do I do? Not try at all? Shelve it for this year and treat myself with gentleness? I’m all for self-care, but I gotta be honest, lately I’ve been giving myself a little too much grace. I’ve been allowing myself an out from writing in every basket of laundry, sudoku puzzle, floor mopping, and random ten minute cat nap (that’s a nap with my cat on the couch) I can find. I’ve been so ‘busy’. But the truth is, it’s because I’m afraid to face the blank page that sits inside my head lately. I’m so certain it will end up a blank page on my screen that I’ve let the fear and disappointment of that possibility keep me from writing at all.

After all, if I don’t try I can’t fail, right? Ergo, if I don’t sign up for NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month) I can’t fail at it. Plus…what will it do to me in my delicate mental state? To face such frustration and probable defeat?

The dark voice says it will break me. It says it will keep me from ever writing again, it will unhinge me. It will rob me of time better spent napping and such.

But there’s this other me that’s been trapped inside with the dark and she’s having a real teeth-grinding, fist-clenching, stand-up moment.

She says we can. She says she’s not afraid of a blank page, and she’s not worried that there aren’t any more ideas left in me. She says she knows people and characters, she knows struggle and strife, and the harsh realities of human frailty. She says there’s another novel in there, locked away behind the dark and she wants to flip the switch and shed some light on the subject.

You see, self-care is not just about bubble baths and indulging in your psychotic cat’s demand for a nap at ten in the morning. Sometimes, self-care is about knowing what you love and not letting yourself give it up when things get tough. Sometimes the deadline and the challenge is a sense of purpose in disguise that we gift to ourselves. The pursuit of your happiness is, quite possibly, one of the most important things you can do and not just for yourself, but for everyone who loves you.

So here it is, writers. If I can drag my ass to the computer and invest in my work (and myself) every day for a paltry 1667 words, then you don’t have an excuse not to. We’re all busy. We’re all tired. We’re all at a loss for ideas. The world around us doesn’t make it easy to dream. It’s loud and impatient. It’s riddled with worries and doubts, and problems bigger than any of us can solve on our own. But if we all start by investing in our art, in rising to the challenge, in reclaiming our power and self-belief, then we will become better people. And better people make a better world.

So go do something amazing. If you’ve never NANOWRIMO-ed before, check out their website to learn the rules here:

National Novel Writing Month

Most cities and states have local chapters for the event that will organize meetings, writing sprints, coffee, happy-hours and all sorts of other social stuff to keep you encouraged and give you a clan to check in and commiserate with.

Or if you’re more of a solitary beast, like myself, you can get tips and inspiration emailed to you, or join on-line forums in your underoos. Once you sign up you get a nifty author page where you can log your words per day and check on your progress (this is HONESTLY one of the best motivators for me. Nothing like a swanky bar graph to get a girl all excited about blowing the curve, you know what I mean? Wow, that sounded pretty naughty…not sorry.)

The beauty of this event is that it teaches you to establish a writing habit, and shows you that even when you only have a few minutes here and there in your day, if you dedicate them to writing you CAN complete a novel in a month. And that makes all of those excuses for not finishing your work in progress kind of null.

Maybe you’re ready, maybe you’re not. Either way…do it. You don’t have to tell anyone if you don’t want to. Of if that’s what motivates you, give the world a daily tally to keep you honest. You don’t have to write the next best seller and you don’t have to finish the story. The only thing you need is to do is dedicate the time to your magnificent imagination.

I originally thought I’d be putting The Beautiful Stuff blog on hold during this month since I’ll be otherwise ocupada…but after thinking it through, I will continue to write to you. I’ll let you know my progress, I’ll ask you questions about yours. I’ll offer advice as we get started, how to continue the momentum, how to get through the doldrums (shit yeah, that’s totally a real thing and it happens around week three) and how to finish strong, catching every last minute to cruise into the 50,000 word goal.

Then we’ll celebrate. With cat naps, or champagne, or a good cry in the shower, you know…whatever it is you need to unwind.

To inspire you further I offer this:

One lucky reader who takes a minute to let me how the process is going either via email or comment on the blog, will receive a congratulatory package after your awesome accomplishment with all kinds of goodies, including a signed copy of “Rise: An Anthology of Change” a beautiful little book of stories and poems about the power and folly of change and the human condition. Look at the pretty cover:

Rise Anthology

 

Take a deep breath writer, start brainstorming some ideas or dust off ones you’ve shelved for too long. Saturday we begin a new chapter, a new book, a new start.

 

Undiscovered You

 

Now, I know last week I talked about taking life down a notch, enjoying the time we have and not stressing about impressing others. And I was honest in my expression of those thoughts.

Then what did I do? I turned around and signed up for a writing challenge last weekend, sponsored by the lovely folks at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, a volunteer group based in Colorado. The challenge was done through a dedicated page on FaceBook and the aspiration was to reach 25,000 words in 4 days, with daily check ins.

Novelrama

 

I know. I know. I said I wasn’t going to push beyond what I needed and no one needs to finish a novella or half a novel in four days. That being said, of the few things in life that bring me true joy, writing is one. So to have a challenge that gives me reason to put my writing first above all other priorities was very good for my practice and for my mental health. I had a justifiable reason to get on the computer, shut out the world and work. I had a goal to get to!

And here’s what I learned:

1.) Sometimes a thing seems impossible; until it’s not.

That is to say, that mountain looks insane and unclimbable when all you’re doing is standing at the base looking up at the top. But if you start walking and focus on the trail ahead of you, taking on the obstacles in your present moment one at a time, soon you’ve found you’ve reached the next rise… and the next, and the next.

Large things aren’t accomplished in one step. They are accomplished by persevering through all of the little steps on the way.

2.) My family didn’t fall apart when I retreated into my writing for a while.

Sure…eventually if you lock yourself away in hermitude, giving everything you have to your craft, your children forget they had a mom, your spouse doesn’t remember what you look like, and all your houseplants will die.

But nine times out of ten, when you need an hour to focus on your work in progress, your kids and family and houseplants will manage just fine. They might even be better for it, having been so bored for so long that they had to go and make their own fun.

In your life, the laundry can wait, the e-mails, the FaceBook updates, the schedules etc, can take a back burner temporarily while you work on a dream.

3.) Writer’s block sort of disappears when you don’t have the time to self-edit or doubt.

Now listen, this thing I wrote is rough. I mean ROUGH.

The spelling, the punctuation, the grammar, the inconsistent plot line and character flaws… the total lack of reasoning in some cases…it’s a bonafide mess. But it’s also raw and flowing. There were no stutter stops or abrupt changes because I didn’t have time to stop and rethink. Character’s said what they meant, and did it efficiently because I had a story-line to build. And I think my ability to follow the character’s lead improved, letting them do what they do without my intervention led to a more interesting twists, and brighter characters.

4.) Never underestimate the power of having people in your corner

Ya’ll…I didn’t even know the people who participated in the Spring Novelrama either to write, or to mediate writing sprints, or to send memes and inspirational videos. And yet not a single one of them, from what I read, had a disparaging word for their fellow writers. When the word counts were paltry, or life was distracting us, or if someone had gotten caught up editing and *gasp* lost words, every response was that of “I’ve been there, I know it, you’re gonna get through this! You’re doing great!” And getting told that three or four times a day by writers more experienced and talented than you can really start to make you feel like:

5.) I’m kind of awesome.

Now listen, I know that sounds cocky. But if any of you know me in real life, you know that I’m not very generous when it comes to dolling out self-esteem. I’ll be the first to tell you all of my flaws and give you a detailed list of why I’m the least capable person in the world for anything.

But when you get to the top of a mountain that you once thought was impossible to climb, you learn a lot about yourself. How dedicated you can be. How well you can step up when something matters to you. So the next mountain over still might be scary but now you know you have the determination and persistence to conquer it. And knowing that is half the battle in recognizing your awesomeness.

IMG_5766

So big picture message here is this: Don’t not try something just because it seems hard or even impossible. Mastery is achieved by accepting difficulties. Living in the moment and taking the steps we can until the impossibility passes beneath our feet like rocky ground. Go do something amazing today, startle yourself, challenge yourself. Whether it be in your work or in your passion (I would love if, for all of us, that was one and the same), take a little leap and trade the fear for faith that it will all work out.

Surround yourself with good people who are sympathetic to your struggle but won’t be enablers to your pity party.

Thank you to all that participated and helped run the contest. Thanks for my quirky new novel that has everything from deep-rooted government conspiracies, to genetically modified super soldiers, to in depth conversations about leg shaving.

Go on now writer. Set a goal, give it a timeline, and get on with discovering who you can be.

You’ve got awesome written all over you today.

Can I Get a Prompt?

Pssst….

Hey there kid, want to do something different?

Well, if you read this blog I’m willing to bet that part of your time is spent on creative endeavors of some kind. And I thought it might be a good time to remind you about improvisation exercises as a healthy and fun part of your writing routine.

Whether you are a novelist, a poet, a technical writer, historical non-fiction guru or children’s phenom, everyone’s creativity waxes and wanes with the progression of our career and lives. It is, therefore, important that we spend some time practicing in different ways to jog the old idea factory into an efficient, work-producing machine.

This particular exercise is about improvising (on the fly you might say) with one sentence prompts. You may have had to do this at conferences or class and present your material after the allotted time. As an introvert it might have be akin to a claustrophobic getting stuck in the kiddie tube slide at the park (Breath, Sarah…breath…just keep squirming.)

So, in defense of all of those out there not wanting to share their words yet but in need of something that boosts their creativity, I’m going to give you some pointers on prompts and let you go to proverbial town on them.

The important things to remember with these kinds of exercises are:

  1. DO NOT (repeated it after me) DO NOT, censor yourself or edit. Let yourself run with the idea, no matter how stupid or silly.
  2. Stay true to the character you’re given to work with or the situation, this is not about what you’d do, it’s about what they do. And they’re crazy bastards. So let their freak flag fly.
  3. The funnier the better. The sadder the better. The more horrific, the better. Improvisation should be a lot of things but none of those is BORING. Make it snappy, or if it must be reserved, do it to build tension for a whiz bang ending.
  4. Emotion is important. The only time to pause in writing for a prompt is to ask yourself, what’s the most intense thing this person feels in this moment and how does that look on the outside. How do I make my reader jump into the character’s skin and feel that intensity?
  5. Challenge yourself with prompts that may not seem interesting or your ‘type’ of writing. You will surprise yourself at what comes out from behind those locked doors.

 

I’m going to give you three prompts. I could give you a length requirement, but we’re not middle schoolers here (though my humor sometimes digresses to such a level). Get dark, get dirty, get freaky, get sweet. Make it something that shocks you. Share it in the comments if you want to or in a private message to me.

At the end of this article I’ll link some really amazing references for doing more of these kinds of exercises on your own. If you are gripping your computer screen, shouting at me with spittle flying, that you “DON’T HAVE THAT KIND OF TIME!!” calm your tits…this will take five minutes tops. You can do it while you wait at the doctor’s office for your appointment for excessive salivation. You can do it in the car while you wait for your kids to get out of school. You can do it over your first cup of coffee…

Think of it as the second-most-fun form of “quickie” you get in life.

(Come on…I warned you about the seventh-grade humor, don’t look shocked.)

Ok…. Here’s your prompts. Pick one, or two, or make it a trifecta. In a perfect world, quickies are not limited. (And, yes, I mean that in all the ways)

  1. A rancher comes across a mutilated cow in her field, and all of the organs have been replaced by…
  2. A man is dared by his friends to ask the next woman who walks through the bar’s door to marry him. The next woman who walks through the door is…
  3. A child finds an ordinary rock on the playground that begins to make his wishes, big and small, come true. He brings it home and his mom finds it in the wash and puts it in her pocket without thinking…

 

Go play.

Here’s some books you should read or apps (for you tech savvy geniuses) you can download to help bring a little fun and playfulness to your art.

 

“A Writer’s Book of Days” by Judy Reeves

“Pocket Muse” (1 and 2) by Monica Wood

“The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice” Kelli Russell Agodon

Apps:

Prompts for Writing

The Brainstormer

WordPallette

 

 

Muse

Vim and Vigor. Piss and Vinegar. Spunk, Spark, And the Immortal Divine.

sexy secretary pinup girl 1960s

I’m talking about Muse…not the band…I mean the illusive, seductress…who steals into your thoughts and whispers sweet plot lines into your ear like naughty suggestive teases.

One of my favorite older movies starred a young Julie Andrews and even younger Mary Tyler Moore. It was based on a Broadway musical and was set in the roaring twenties when women were toying with independence and embracing a more modern sense of sexuality. In Thoroughly Modern Millie, the main character, a stenographer, comes on to her boss by lounging across his desk and rasping out the line; “Well, when you’ve got it, you’ve got it.” (In context she’s referring to Tom Sawyer’s innate mojo despite his tender age of 12)

Julie Andrews Rockin' It

So when I think of that evasive and tease, inspiration, I think of that line.

When you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

The problem is that so many of us think we cannot create without ‘it’. That unless the muse is on our desks, lounging across our scattered post-it notes and circling the rim our cold coffee cup with a delicate finger, we won’t be able to create anything substantial.

Can I let you in on a secret I’ve learned? That blank stare against the wall of a writer’s block doesn’t come from a lack of ‘it’. It comes from the expectation that having ‘it’ is the only way creativity will come, and that anything other than madly typing away the best idea we’ve ever been gifted, is simply a waste of our time and divine talent.

Let me tell you something about my muse. He’s a well-upholstered, balding guy in a basement, with a half-smoked cigar hanging out one side of his mouth and a sneer that could stop a very determined freight train on its tracks. He’s an asshole. He doesn’t come out when I sit down at my lovely little desk with all of my office supplies neatly aligned inmy muse OCD perfection. He sneaks up behind me at airports and gooses me like some over-entitled politician. He wakes me up in the sweetest six minutes of sleep before the alarm goes off by hitting me in the face with his meaty hand and a pale idea of how to fix Chapter 8. He’s the one that whispers, in dark undertones, questions about unassuming passerby’s that turn into vibrant characters. I cannot summon him to lie across my desk and pull up his smooth skirts seductively.

He’s got it, all right, but it’s never what I expect.

The one exception is this, and the point of my post this week:

That bastard shows up every time I give up hope on him and just sit down to write anyway.

The first few sentences on my own are stumbling patches of weeds, filled with gopher holes and tripping hazards. But if I ignore the imperfections and keep at it, one paragraph becomes a page, and so forth and so forth.

I don’t stop for clerical errors like misspelled names, or fudged facts. I forget the use or non use of oxford commas and just let the words go where they go. I don’t allow myself deletions, even if I’m painfully aware of the stupid that trails behind my keystrokes.

It’s like emptying the hot water from the camelback tube on a hike. You have to draw out that nasty part before you can get to the refreshing cold stuff.

Before I know it, I can smell cigar smoke and salami and that cagey bastard is behind me…nodding in a nearly impressed manner.

Creativity is part vim and vigor. It is part mojo. It is part magic and a dash of spark. But it is mostly work. Even when the playing is done and the book is written, she’s just a dowdy, ill-fitting dress until you nip and tuck her into shape.

Maybe creativity lives in my basement because a dash of it goes a very long way. It’s the elbow grease we have to buy by the barrel full. Because long after Muse is sacked out on his brown plaid recliner with one hand down his polyester waistband, the work still remains and that’s when we really find out if we are indeed full of vim and vigor.

. . . If we’ve got ‘it’; the magic that turns muse into story, story into book, and book into experience for you and your readers alike.

So don’t pay too much mind to capturing that sultry vixen. Just write. When she whispers at you in crowded stores, or on quiet trails, be at the ready with pen and paper (or…ugh, yes your cellphone if you must) to catch her teasing giggle. But for all of the other 97 out of 100 times, don’t let her be the excuse you aren’t putting your ass in the chair.

After all, a muse is best attracted when she’s being ignored.

Happy writing, Kids.