Saturday, December 03, 2011

Lessons from NaNoWriMo 2011

"Never underestimate the strength of a woman. Never mess with one who runs 13.1 miles just for fun." - Judi Welsh

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2011 is history. As I wrote last month, I chose to write a novel instead of memoir. It wasn't my first novel, but it was the most difficult NaNoWriMo of the five I've done. I did no planning and I fought for the story every word of the way. In doing so, I learned a few things:

1. Plotting isn't all bad: I'm a professed panster and yet, plotless this month, I was at my wits' end to make the story move forward. While I didn't consciously plan any of my previous books, I've always known where each was headed and I knew a few things that would (or did) happen along the way. Going in completely cold was terrifying and threatened to derail me.

2. I am not easily derailed: I did not give up even though I hated the story for almost the entire month and felt like I was wasting my time.

And, most importantly, 3. I was not wasting my time: I know this because I fell back in love with writing. Somewhere in the last year, I'd lost the passion. Writing had become a chore I'd considered giving up. Some of that I attribute to depression, but some of it was just the reality of being a writer. Writing, much like any other work, without passion is drudgery. But this month, doing NaNoWriMo, despite feeling lost and frustrated most of the month, I rediscovered the joy of putting words on the page all the while knowing they were in the wrong order or, more likely, weren't the right words at all. And that was worth much more than 30 days of agony.

I'll leave you with my own version of Judi's quote:

"Never underestimate the strength of a writer. Never mess with one who writes 50,000 words in 30 days just because she can!"

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Fiction! What a novel idea!

"Indecision may or may not be my problem." - Jimmy Buffett

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is upon us. For several months, I planned to be a NaNoRebel and write From My Bed to the Half Marathon (titles aren't my thing) a memoir about my journey into athleticism. I had made a list of possible topics and scenes to show my transformation from a woman who has trouble getting out of bed most mornings due to chronic depression to a woman who still has trouble getting out of bed many mornings, but who gets out of bed anyway so she can go run with her dog.

With this memoir in mind, I went to the NaNoColumbus kick-off party on Sunday, October 30th. Forty or fifty Wrimo's (that's what the people who sign on for this literary adventure call themselves) showed up at the Karl Road library meeting room to eat snacks, drink coffee and talk about what we were planning to begin writing a mere 48 hours from then. The energy was palpable with laughter, squealing and lots of stickers. Anne and Carrie, our municipal liaisons facilitated discussions, brought food, and offered clay for the making of little totems to carry us through the month.

As the Wrimos writing fiction enthusiastically discussed their novels, I grew melancholy. They were so excited about their characters and their plots and the traveling shovel of death (this is a mythical shovel that magically appears in novels and kills off one of the characters). I felt jealous. They intended to liberally apply ninjas to any scene that wasn't working or, if a character wasn’t cooperating, to simply end their world in a cataclysmic event and then have the main character wake up the next day to say it was only a dream. I wanted in on this wacky world of creative abandon, but I put it out of my mind and resolved not to change gears so few hours before the start.

I spent Halloween day working on the newsletter only half aware that my subconscious was developing an idea for a novel. As I was posting the November writing events to my website, it dawned on me that I could still write about running. I could write about fictional characters in a running group. I began to get excited. Instead of shoving the ideas aside as I had when I was locked into my decision to write memoir, I let the thoughts come. One of the runners could have a dog. Two of the runners could fall in love. One of the runners could be a middle-aged woman just figuring it all out as she goes along. One of the runners could be murdered on the trail by a ninja with a shovel. The options were endless. My enthusiasm exploded and I stayed up until midnight and beginning writing the novel Love on the Trail (I warned you titles weren't my thing) at 12:01AM November 1st.

I will allow myself to write a very bad first draft since this is, after all, NaNoWriMo and not the National Book Awards. If I can step out of the way, it will write itself. At least that's what I'm counting on.

What are you working on this month? Did you sign up for NaNoWriMo? If not, what kind of structure do you use to get the work done?

Friday, September 23, 2011

NaNoWriMo Helpful Stuff

National Novel Writing Month is less than six weeks away!!! Here's some helpful NaNo preparation information:

YOUR GOAL:

To write 50,000 words of fiction* during the 30 days of November


FIRST:

Sign up! Visit: http://www.nanowrimo.org

“Friend” Nita a.k.a. willwrite4chocolate


HELPFUL BOOKS:

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty (founder of NaNoWriMo)

NaNo for the New and Insane by Lazette Gifford – (free e-book)
http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/84837

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Workbook by the same title

The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall

First Draft in 30 Days by Karen Wiesner

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks


HELPFUL SOFTWARE and WEBSITES:

yWriter - http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter.html (works best on PCs) Free!!!

Scrivener - http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php (works best on MACS) $45

The Snowflake Method - http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php


*Members of the NaNoWriMo group known as the NaNo Rebels write nonfiction and poetry. Willwrite4chocolate is a two-time NaNo Rebel and overall four-time NaNo winner.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Success through Sitting and Staring

“If you want to write and can’t figure out how to do it, try this: Pick an amount of time to sit at your desk every day. Start with twenty minutes, say, and work up as quickly as possible to as much time as you can spare. Do you really want to write? Sit for two hours a day.” ~ Ann Patchett

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That whooping and hollering you heard Sunday, August 28th? It was me. It was my 50th birthday, but that's not what I was celebrating.

As I mentioned in a previous newsletter, I've been suffering from the dread "two documents with the same name" disease. For several months, I had unknowingly been alternately editing two documents in two different software programs thinking they were the same. Since that newsletter essay, I discovered a third document with the same name. One was an RTF file I had saved to email to a friend, another was a Word document, and a third was in Open Office. All three documents were titled, "Memorial 11.3." All three had various chapters recently edited. All three were different.

Last weekend a few other writing friends and I rented a space where we could write without family, friend, Facebook or other f-word interruptions. The facility was none of our homes. We shut off our phones. And, we did not have Wi-Fi. This was crucial. These conditions forced me to stare at those expletive deleted documents for 12 hours on Saturday and 12 hours on Sunday until I figured it out. That was the celebrating you heard. I FIGURED IT OUT!!! I went through all three documents chapter by chapter using Word's document compare function (don't even get me started on how much I miss WordPerfect) and cobbled together a new, clean document, "Memorial 11.4," containing the correct bits and pieces from all prior versions.

I'm telling you this tale because this problem seemed insurmountable. I was ready to give up. I had sort of given up in August when I went on sabbatical to celebrate my birthday for the entire month, but I knew I'd get back to it. And I did! So I wanted to share my success.

I bet I'm not the only one who's overcome a seemingly impossible writing problem. I'd love to hear your biggest battle and how you worked it through.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Time Out

"The world comes first; it's older, tougher, more subtle and more magnificent that anything made from language. So when I go wandering from the desk, I'm not avoiding work, as it might appear; I'm stitching my work to the earth." - Scott Russell Sanders

I've put myself on summer vacation. I haven't been writing anyway. Instead of fretting about it, I'm embracing it by running, swimming, socializing and shopping. And I don't feel guilty. Really. I don't. Well, that's what I tell myself and anyone who asks. Truth is, my books in progress don't agree. They're like three-year olds tugging at my sleeve when I'm trying to take a phone call. They gnaw at me even though I told myself (and them) this is a rest period. I chose this time off. But they're in their folders, on the computer, in boxes on the floor, in piles on the shelf whining, "When are you coming baa-aack?" I'll be back (I tell us all). But it's still summer. I've given myself until the last weekend of August when I have a writing retreat scheduled. That's the end of summer. Coincidentally, it will also be the end of my 40's. What a great way to celebrate, right? Write!

Do you take intentional breaks from writing? I'd love to hear how you handle "vacations." Please leave a comment.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Ready to Teach?

"We make sacred pact. I promise teach karate to you. You promise learn. I say. You do. No questions." - Mr. Miyagi from "The Karate Kid"


Are you ready to share what you know about writing? Upper Arlington's Lifelong Learning Program (UALL) is looking for new writing instructors. But you'll have to hurry. The deadline is July 11th. They want to include any new courses in their Fall catalogue.

I've been teaching there since 2001, shortly after I moved back from New Mexico. They make teaching easy. They enroll the students and do most of the advertising. I post flyers around town for my own courses and include all of their classes on my website. They rent the facility and collect the money. I show up and teach. Their courses are marketed to folks who want to enhance their lives. The participants are eager to be there. Most are adults although I do teach the occasional mature teen.

When I was getting ready to move back from New Mexico, Natalie suggested I teach. "Pass on what you know," she said. In order to teach something, I have to really understand it myself. So now, my writing has become a two-fold activity. While part of me writes, a second part of me thinks, "How could I teach this to my students?" It makes for a fuller writing experience.

If you've ever thought about passing on your writing skills, here's an opportunity. UALL is especially looking for folks to teach fiction or methods for making money blogging. But they're always open to new ideas, especially during the Fall session when they try out new classes. To apply send a resume and brief class outline to dmosely@uaoh.net.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Washing The Elephant

"Writing a book is like washing an elephant. There's no good place to begin or end and it's hard to keep track of what you've already covered." - Unknown

I've used Word Perfect since 1987, but the world seems to have left me behind. When I bought a new computer last year, I had it loaded with Microsoft Word. I began to learn it and then a friend told me about Open Office. I downloaded that and began to use it as well. Unfortunately, I didn't realize I was alternating between the two programs. They were both unfamiliar in similar ways and I accidentally saved two different versions of the memoir about my father with the same name, one in each program. Not realizing my error, I continued working in both documents, at times one, at times another, for about nine months before I realized my error. Luckily, those were some of the least productive writing months I'd had in years and so I didn't make many changes. The Word compare function tells me there are ONLY 1,724 differences between the two documents. Still.

Like many problems, this one shouldn't have happened. I'm rather compulsive about recording changes. I number the documents sequentially the same way we did when I was an attorney: Version 1. Version 1.1. Version 1.2, etc. Then I update a document called "Version List" in which I, allegedly, track the changes I've made. Notwithstanding all my tracking, I now have two documents which need to be combined. Did I mention that these are 82,000 word documents? That's approximately 260 double spaced pages. Sigh.

I'm still stewing about the most efficient way to solve this problem and, in the process, wasting valuable time. Bottom line, we all make mistakes. It's time for me to accept reality, compare each document with the version before it, and start cutting and pasting to make a brand new document. Can I see this as an opportunity? Can I wind up with a version better than any of the versions before? The only way to know is to do the work. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Have you ever blundered in your writing process and lived to tell about it? I'd love to hear how you handled it.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

What I know.

"It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." - Coach John Wooden


I'm a skimmer. My natural inclination is to read the headlines and not the story. I gather information in broad brush strokes and then think I know a lot more than I actually do. For example, I know there's a casino being built on the west side of Columbus. I know that the royals wed on Friday morning. I know that Osama Bin Laden was killed Sunday night. But that's all I know.

Writing takes more than that. It requires me to sink deeply into the details. I have to push against my natural tendency to skim the surface of things, summarzie things, and make broad sweeping statements. I need to inhabit my life. That's what makes meditation an excellent practice for a writer. In meditation, I sink into the experience. I sink into the body sensations, the smells, the tastes. I sink into the thoughts by watching them arise and pass away. In this way, I experience the tightness in my gut when I think about the casino, the warm glow in my chest when I saw Will and Kate kiss, and the blank, empty, shocked space in my head when my husband told me Bin Laden was dead. And then I can write about these things in a way that allows the reader to experience them with me.

How do you sink into your world? How do you capture the details in your writing? If you like, tell us about it by posting a comment below.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Dare Yourself

"There are no great people in this world, only great challenges which ordinary people rise to meet." - William Frederick Halsey, Jr.

I love a challenge. I'm preparing for a 6.55 mile race on May 7th. I also love structure. I follow a training plan that tells me what distance and how fast to run on what days, what days to rest, what days to cross train and what days to lift weights. I do what it says and I listen to my body. On race day, a friend is racing too so we have the added benefit of camaraderie to push us along.

I love a writing challenge as well. This month two different writing challenges provide the kind of structure, motivation and fellowship around writing that I'm getting for running from training for my race.

In Script Frenzy, writers attempt to write a play or screenplay script during the month of April. There are on-line forums, local groups, technical assistance and lots of encouragement. To find the central Ohio group, go here.

For National Poetry Writing Month (aka NaPoWriMo), writers attempt to write one poem each day for 30 days. This challenge has had several different homes, but is currently hosted as a fundraiser in honor of National Poetry Month by the Academy of American Poets.

And, don't forget there are only seven months until November which is National Novel Writing Month. If you haven't started plotting your novel, go here for help.

What do you need? Structure? Challenge? Camaraderie? It's all waiting for you if you choose it.

Are you up for a challenge this month? If you like, tell us about it by posting a comment below.

Plot? What's a plot?

Whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction, your story needs a plot.

The plot is what pulls the reader through the story. In fiction, you make up the events of the story based on the motivations of your characters and lay them out in an order that makes the reader want to know what happens next. In nonfiction, you detail the events and examine the motivations of the real people about whom you're writing to come up with a story that makes the reader want to turn the page. I have shelves filled with books on plot and have used several different methods to come up with the plots in the books and short stories I've written.

Recently, I took Holly Lisle's Plot Outline Course and found it very helpful.

Go here to read more about the other Holly Lisle courses I've taken.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Finding a Community

“A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.” - Henrik Ibsen quotes (Major Norwegian playwright of the late 19th century, 1828-1906)


When I teach, students ask about writing groups. I invite them to stay after the class if they are interested in forming one. Invariably a few folks hang out afterward to swap information and get something started. One of the groups that formed after one of my classes has been writing together for at least five years.

I first joined a writing group the day after I arrived back in Columbus from my first Natalie Goldberg writing workshop in Taos, New Mexico. I walked into Stauf's coffeehouse, a place I'd written nearly every day for months, and spotted two women I hadn't seen before sitting at a table. One woman listened intently as the other read aloud from a spiral notebook. On the floor beneath one of the chairs sat Natalie Goldberg's first book, Writing Down the Bones. I waited until they were done reading to each other, introduced myself, and asked if they were doing writing practice. They were. I told them I'd just returned from Taos and one of Natalie's workshops and they invited me to join them. The three of us wrote together for a year and a half until I moved to New Mexico to work with Natalie.

This experience proved to me, if you're open to forming a writing group, the opportunity will appear. When I moved to New Mexico, I was more assertive. I posted a flyer at coffeehouses and the library. I was very specific telling prospective members what kind of group it would be and when it would meet. The flyer read, "Writer seeks other writers to do Natalie Goldberg style writing practice weekday hours." Over the next few months, six people responded and we formed a group that met for nearly three years. Many of us are still in touch.

There is also a list of more than thirty central Ohio writing groups on my website at http://www.nitasweeney.com/newsletter/ongoing-writing-groups/

If you're looking for a group of writers to share the journey, it's out there. You might have to create it, but other folks want to be found. They're just waiting for you to get it started.

Do you belong to a writing group? If so, how did it start?

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Unplugged

"Please give me some good advice in your next letter. I promise not to follow it." - Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950)

About five years ago, I started reading writing advice blogs, websites and newsletters. I learned much about the publishing industry, how to get an agent, and the craft of writing. Over the years, the amount of on-line writing advice has exploded. Where there were ten, there are now hundreds. As I read these over a period of years, the information began to get repetitive. There are only so many things to say about character motivation and, despite the changes in the publishing industry, the basic components of the query letter remain the same.

Lately as I scanned these entries, I felt depressed. Did I really need to hear one more iota of advice? I tend toward melancholy anyway, and I decided to pay attention to the way these posts triggered an automatic downward spiral in my mood. I was on overload. It was time to unplug.

On January 14, 2011, I systematically unsubscribed from almost every blog feed and newsletter that had been making its way to my inbox. I kept my subscription only to those that seemed to feed my desire to write. Over the next few days, a few I'd forgotten showed up and I unsubscribed from those as well. By January 17, my task was complete. I opened my email inbox to find no one telling me the 5 ways to build conflict, the 12 things I need to know about e-books, or the one thing every writer needs to know to get a book contract. Whew! What a relief! I could feel the space opening between my ribs as I took a deep breath.

As a writer in an information age like none we've seen before, it is up to each of us to find balance. For now, the writing advice input switch on my inbox is turned firmly to the "off" position. Yours may be taped to the "on" setting. I'd love to hear how you manage the input and what you find helpful.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Relax and Lean

"May all your troubles last as long as your New Year's resolutions. ~Joey Adams

“Relax and lean.” That’s the main thing I remember from the ChiRunning class I took with marathoner Doug Dapo last summer. I took up running again last March after a fifteen-year hiatus. Since my body is more “mature” now, I researched ways to make running easier on the joints and found ChiRunning, a technique created by Danny Dreyer, an ultrarunner and student of Tai Chi.

“When you relax and lean,” Dapo said during the class, “You go faster without as much effort." He asked us to try it while we ran back and forth along a section of bike path in a small park near Westerville where he held the class. “When you pull yourself along with your legs, you’re working against gravity. If you relax and lean, gravity does the work for you.” I was skeptical, but interested. As I ran, I leaned slightly forward and relaxed my body into that position. It worked! I immediately began moving faster without as much effort. I continue to use the “relax and lean” philosophy in my running and I’ve improved my time with each race.

As 2010 turned into 2011, I began to wonder if “relax and lean” would work for writing. I don't make New Year's resolutions, but this year, I'm going to do my best to “relax and lean” around writing. By relaxing, I hope to ease the tension I unconsciously hold in my body when I write, as well as the mental pressure I put on myself around publishing. Meanwhile, I'll lean by showing up at the page. I’ll put in the time, but without the type of pushing and pulling that's made me crazy in the past. This is an experiment. I hope this balance of “relax and lean” will improve my productivity. I'll let you know how it goes.

Have you tried any new techniques in your writing? Please share them with us.