On failing NaNoWriMo

I’d be lying if I thought I’d have to make this post. In fact, just about a month ago, I made a post saying I was feeling pretty confident about this year’s National Novel Writing Month.

That turned out to be hubris. I had a run of 10 years of finishing NaNoWriMo, sometimes by the skin of my teeth, but for the past few years, quite comfortably. So for all that KRH is very busy and distracting, I didn’t think there was anything that could stop me from winning.

I was wrong. The whole family got the flu, one that kept me off my feet for almost 10 days. Then KRH got conjunctivitis, three times. His latest ailment, that we’re just now getting over, was a lung infection. One of the things that’s caught me off guard is just how much the sickness of a child made me fearful and worried, even when the illnesses were minor.

We’re still working through all this, but it actually didn’t take me long into November to decide that this year simply wasn’t going to happen. I made that decision based on a cool calculus, because the draft I was writing was just a fun project that had no deadline, sandwiched between two important projects, one in October (which I hadn’t quite completed) and returning to my next project in December.  It was relatively easy, then, to decide not to worry overly about NaNoWriMo because I’d proven to myself I could do it, and move on.

It was actually more difficult than I thought to give up the month. NaNoWriMo isn’t exactly central to my identity as a writer because really November is just another month in my writing schedule, but NaNo taught me a lot about how to get butt in chair and finger to keyboard in the pursuit of completion. It’s also often the one month of the year I allow myself to write a fun first draft, and I spent the month seeing my writing friends and doing events (or I used to. With KRH this proved to be different). The long and short of it is, while giving up on NaNo made a lot of sense, it was hard in that it’s always something that I look forward to and this year I basically didn’t get to participate. If anything, it left me feeling a bit discouraged.

That doesn’t mean that I made the wrong choice. No one month can make or break my writing career, especially not my 10th NaNoWriMo. So in the end, I just have to  do exactly what I learned from NaNo in the first place, which is to get my butt in my chair and put my fingers to my keyboard.

NaNoWriMo with a 1-year old

I love National Novel Writing Month. I love it because I met CRH there. I love it because it taught me the kind of consistency I needed to actually get anything done as a writer. I love it because I’ve met a lot of good friends there, and get to see them regularly because of it. I love it because November becomes a time when writing can be the focus, which I don’t get to do often enough. NaNoWriMo isn’t for everyone, but it is for me.

This year will be my thirteenth year of NaNo, and after 10 straight victories, I feel pretty good about my chances of winning. I managed to finish last year, with an 8-week old. I also managed to finish in 2015, the year I had my appendix out right before November started. Those two years presented some new challenges, naturally. I dug into that a bit in this post.

I expect that this year will present its own challenges. After all, I slowly recovered from the appendix thing, and at 8-weeks old KRH didn’t do much other than sleep. This year, he’s a ball of active, mobile baby, who can be relied on to summon trouble from the ether if left unattended for more than five seconds. In other words, he’s probably going to be more distracting than anything I’ve faced before.

Here’s how I plan to get around his presence and still get in my words.

Scheduled times

The formula for NaNoWriMo is simple, Write 1667 words a day, achieve novel(la). I usually aim for around 70-80k, but the formula remains the same even if the numbers change. At this stage as a writer, pumping out that many words on any given day isn’t challenging. What’s challenging is doing it consistently, every day. Stuff happens. KRH wakes up early. There are poopsplosions of a horrifying nature. So in so far as I can, scheduling the time and being consistent, no matter what’s happened, is a huge part of winning. It relies habit-forming and perseverance, but it’s also the way to win.

Big writing days

My big secret to finishing NaNo, though, is knowing that I can’t be consistent every day. There are just some days where words won’t happen. So that means I have to have days where I write a lot more. Weekends and writing events are the two most likely times where I can either get ahead, or catch up. Either can be necessary, given on how things go. Writing events haven’t been all that productive for me as of late, thanks to KRH, but hopefully I can find one or two that will be.

The community

This is the thing I find the best about NaNo; the fact that a bunch of other crazy writers are there with me, all jamming fingers to keyboards in pursuit of the same goal. That energy has carried me through many years, and I expect to feed on it like some bloodthirsty cannibal again this year. However, I anticipate being able to make it to a lot less of the writing events than in years past, so I’m going to have to make sure I get this in when I can. I’m lucky that my region usually offers twice-weekly events, which I usually attend religiously, but now I pick KRH up from day care and he has a bed time, so I don’t imagine I’ll make it to at least half of them. Still, even a few will be sufficient to feel that energy.

That’s it, how I’ll make the magic of November happen.

Setting deadlines and changing deadlines

The whole point of a deadline is supposed to be that the thing you’re working on is supposed to be done by the deadline, right? Maybe that’s why I’ve struggled with having to move my deadline back twice. Good writers and good workers hit their deadlines, after all.

In August, I set myself the goal of finishing my current rewrite by September 25. I was about a third of the way through rewriting a 110,000 novel, so that made it a very ambitious deadline. I can hit 3-4k a day on a first draft fairly easily, but adding in rewriting and re-reading time, that’s difficult. When I realized I’d miss that deadline, I moved it to October 9.  Just a few days ago, I had to move that deadline again, to the 22nd.

I felt disappointed with myself. Twice, I made a deadline and wasn’t able to reach it. The feeling of failure was pretty acute.

But one of those things I’d describe myself as being mediocre at is setting good deadlines. A good deadline has to be achievable, right? In reaching the first deadline, I counted on KRH going to daycare when we’d originally planned, giving myself 5 whole days for uninterrupted writing. I knew that in order to reach the deadline, I’d have to do a ton of writing on those days. Well, those plans changed, meaning there was no way I’d reach that goal.

I recalculated, moving the goal up 2 weeks, to the day before I expected to return to work. But even then, that required me to write about 3k words a day, again re-writing with rereading time. That takes me 2-3 hours a day. I can do that, but it uses up any nap time KRH might give me and time in the evening. More importantly, it was using time that I needed to finish other temporary but higher-priority goals (basically, stuff I need to do before I go back to work). So after about a week, I realized that wasn’t the best use of my time, either. Hence, another pushed deadline.

I think that for my own sake, it’s important to remember that this was an entirely self-imposed deadline. Some deadlines, in other words, are worth staying up all night for (or at least a few extra hours). But for the sake of a month, when I’ve already told myself dozens of times (and will keep having to, really) where taking care of KRH was the primary goal, then it’s not worth killing myself over. A different deadline would be.

So what makes a good deadline, anyway? I’ve recently been reading Shawn Achor’s Before Happiness: The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading Happiness, and Sustaining Positive Change. I’m a big fan of Achor’s other book, The Happiness Advantageas a science-based look about how to bring positivity into your life and the proven benefits of doing that. In  Before Happoiness, there are some interesting ideas about how to design good goals. A couple stuck with me. From Before Happiness.

“Identify your X-spots. X-spots help your brain believe that success is close, possible, and worthwhile. They need not be near the end of successfully completing a project; they can be found all along the way. When you are at work, design minigoals that you can achieve daily so that you can be sure to reap the benefits of mental accelerants each and every day. Set markers to highlight for yourself when you’re 70 percent of the way to each minigoal—that will cue your brain to release the productivity-enhancing chemicals that will speed up your progress. And for particularly challenging or mundane tasks, focus on “progress to date” rather than “what’s left to do.”

Keep your eyes on the beach, not the rocks. Mentally practice and visualize accomplishing the small steps you need to take to get to your goal. Your brain will naturally steer you toward whatever you focus on, so instead of visualizing failure, visualize what success could realistically look like.

Make 70 percent your goal. Design goals or minigoals that you genuinely believe you have more than a 70 percent chance of achieving. If you doubt your likelihood of success from the beginning, then you dramatically decrease your chances of hitting your target. If you honestly believe you have less than a 70 percent chance to complete the goal, adjust it to make its likelihood of success more than 70 percent.”

I recommend checking out his work if you haven’t already. Still, these are things I’m trying to embrace in my current goal-setting. I think it’s easy to see how, by breaking down goals, staying focused on success, and believing you can achieve your goal, you can increase your chance of actually achieving it. Both of my previous deadlines didn’t take these into account. We’ll see if my next attempt can do better.

you’re not gonna die

So some great writers keep stopping by Reddit. This time, Yoon Ha Lee came to discuss his novel Ninefox Gambit (which was excellent and well worth your reading time). The authors who I’ve been asking lately were all later into their careers, and while Yoon has published many short stories, I asked him about his journey to publication. Here’s what he had to say.

I used to have a folder FULL of rejection slips. So yes, I have definitely been there! I know it can get discouraging, but please, keep writing and submitting. Somewhere out there is a reader who wants your story.

For general advice…hmm. I think there are a few big things here. One is perseverance–it’s an emotional skill. Writing is frequently isolating and discouraging, so finding ways to handle that is very important for your long-term sanity. (Personally, I vent to my husband. The stories my husband could tell…) Find other writers: writers who are not yet writing as well as you do, whom you can mentor; writers at your level, for solidarity; writers whom you aspire toward, to be inspired by. Keep pushing your craft. The only way to learn to fly, in writing, is to jump off a lot of cliffs. And the beautiful thing about writing is that when you jump off a cliff in real life, you’re probably gonna die (so PLEASE don’t literally jump off cliffs) but when you take storytelling risks trying new things in writing, you’re not gonna die. The results might be embarrassing, but you’re not gonna die. And you’ll probably learn something new and cool and add techniques to your bag of tricks.

Read–not just the kinds of things you want to write, but read things COMPLETELY DIFFERENT to broaden your horizons. If you want to write epic fantasy, read noir, read baseball match reports, read jewelry catalogues. I promise you that you will learn unexpected things about how to use language that way.

In a way, Yoon answered the question I keep asking. How do you develop toughness and grit? How do you persevere? I like the idea of it as an emotional skill. Perhaps I’ve been treating it too much as something mechanical, like it was something I could learn by repetition. And while I’m sure practice is important, maybe there’s something else to it. Something to ponder, anyway.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
59% Complete
53,137 of 90,000 words

I want it five years ago

I spend a lot of time thinking about personal growth. I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that we are imperfect creatures by nature, and that there is always some way or another we can improve ourselves, be it our health, our personality, our habits, whatever. As a writer, I see how slowly improving my writing techniques and output will eventually yield massive gains and indeed that has been my plan for a long time.

But somehow, I think, my thinking about growth has gotten twisted, or maybe always been twisted. As a society, I think we hear a lot of stories about people who made massive changes overnight. They quit smoking cold turkey or took up a health lifestyle or quit their jobs to write or were one day struck by an epiphany and did something. And I think we tend to idolize those people whose willpower, apparently, is simply enough to sit down and make that massive change.

I don’t think most change comes from that method. If it does, maybe it shouldn’t. Sure, if that works for you, but I can’t off hand think of anything I’ve accomplished through that kind of massive change. And yet, if you looked at my planning document(I use and love my Volt Planner, I’m consistently setting goals across multiple areas for massive change. I’ve gotten better about breaking goals down into achievable bites and strategizing methods, but I’m still often trying to pack big changes into a month.

I think one of the reasons I’ve found the jump to parenthood so difficult is that I somehow expected that it would be a milestone and an opportunity. I thought that since everything would be changing, it would be an opportunity to set all the blocks of my life exactly as I wanted them. I’d eat perfectly after KRH, I told myself. I’d get really good at stealing 15 minutes here or 30 minutes there of writing, so that I’d actually write more and more efficiently than before. I’d get to the gym more regularly, something I only started doing a few months before KRH was born. And so on and so forth.

Does it shock you, dear reader, to learn that none of those massive changes worked out? Even though I had broken things down into achievable bites? It turns out that having a baby was more difficult than I expected, in different ways than I expected. So here I am, six months after KRH was born, and much of my change is still unmade. It doesn’t help, I think, that when I set out to make a change, I want it to happen five years ago, and if not then yesterday will have to do.

Now, this realization is a bit funny because I’ve long mentally accepted the idea of continuous growth. But I think I really need to focus on the fundamentals and try and do less of what doesn’t work. So in May I’m going to do that, and I’m going to pick a few narrow areas to try and improve in, rather than filling my list with to-do things. We’ll see what kind of progress I can make.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
56% Complete
50,197 of 90,000 words

Changing everything

So I haven’t been posting my Cloudbreakers status updates lately. It’s not because I’m not working on it, but I have had to pause the rewrite.

I came to a realization a little while ago. One of the three viewpoint characters was wrong. That part of the story follows a group trying to rescue the main character. I wanted a viewpoint inside the group, whose relationships with each other and acceptance of the friend is a major plot point. Each had their reasons to go along with the rescue, but each had different points of impact through the series. By choosing one as a viewpoint character, I was de-emphasizing the others. Worse, none of them had a reason to be a viewpoint character, so their motivations came through rather flat, especially the one I choose.

I’ve been working on this novel since September, and working it over in my brain since I wrote it as a short story back in 2013. Took me this long to realize that the viewpoint problem was right there. Another character accompanies the group, one who’s romantically interested in the main character, and who also manages to betray her. In other words, someone with a whole lot invested in the outcome of the rescue. She also functions as an outsider to the group, being able to comment and observe things. She travels with the group for the whole journey, so she’s in a position to tell the part of the narrative I need to tell. In short, she’s perfect.

Why I didn’t I see this until now? I’m not sure, but I knew from the start that it wasn’t working. I think this is part of the writing process, in which you understand what does work and what doesn’t.  I think a good writer will understand that when they read it, even if they don’t know why it doesn’t work immediately, which is possibly why I felt those scenes weren’t working.

So what do I do about it? That character’s viewpoint is about a third of the book. I’m midway through a rewrite, so this took me back to the start to fix those scenes, which I’m still working on now. I’m confident the result will be a better book, and I’m glad to have this solved on what’s essentially my third draft rather than a much later one, even if it does derail my progress a little bit.

Like scar tissue

So lately some of my favourite writers have been over on Reddit, dispensing advice and answering questions. At the time, I was struggling with confidence, so I asked Kameron Hurley and Brandon Sanderson the same thing, “how do you develop toughness as a writer?” You can read their answers at the respective blog posts, but they said pretty similar things. You can control the process, not the goal of publication, so do what you want to do.

Chuck Wendig is the writer who, for me, most personifies Dad and Writer. I’ve been following his stories about his son bdub for years, now. So naturally, when he appeared like a swarm of bees on Reddit, I asked him the same question. Here’s what he had to say.

Man, I dunno, it’s like scar tissue. You can’t build up scar tissue without submitting yourself to the slings and arrows of it — you gotta take the hits, you gotta be willing to suck, gotta be willing to take the rejections right on the chin and let it rattle your teeth. In terms of pushing past the bullshit of the world, well, I’ll admit, all the Heinous Fuckery going on in the world makes it hard, but you also have to realize that stories matter. Escapist stories matter. Resonant stories matter. All stories matter, so be a part of that. Commit and contribute. Turn off the news. Turn off social media. Commune with the work and tell the world to fuck off for a little while.

Stories matter. Do the work. As with the past advice I’ve been getting, this was important for me when I received it. I’ve been trapped in a bit of a funk for some time, probably since KRH was born. Not only does the world feel like it’s hurtling toward chaos, I’ve struggled both with the fact that I can’t spend as much time pursing my goal of publication as I used to, and with feeling stuck, like my new project has an uncertain future and that I’m not sure how to take it where it needs to be. I’ve been starting to emerge from than funk lately. This is a good reminder that what I’m trying to do matters. Writing is important. My writing is important. I needed that.

Meanwhile, I also asked Wendig about writing as a Dad. His thoughts.

Well, in some ways it’s easy, because being a writer isn’t like being at a 9-to-5 job — I can come in, make breakfast, make lunch, still be a part of his life and then go fuck off to Imagination Unicorn Karate Land for as long as I need to.

But here’s a few tricks:

a) write early in the morning, before Tiny Human awakens b) forgive yourself and the kid — it doesn’t really start to get easier until they’re 2-3 years old c) it’ll get much easier when they go to school, too d) carve out little pockets of writing time whenever you can

In some ways, it’s a little tough to keep in mind that things won’t get easier. KRH is just 5 months old. 2-3 years old seems like a long way away, and if my wife and I have more children, as is the plan, then it just starts the plan all over again. That feeds into my fears that I’m missing my window, so to speak. But Wendig reminds me that it can be done, (even if I don’t have a magical writing shed). That’s the sort of thing I’m focusing on going forward.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
42% Complete
37,836 of 90,000 words

Getting close to something amazing

Last year, through perseverance, I caught the attention of an agent with the publisher of some of my favourite authors. He rejected two queries from me, but he suggested I rewrite one, Legacy of the Destroyer, and trim about 20,000 words from a 120,000 draft. That would leave me a leaner, meaner, fighting book.

I’d just finished rewriting a different book, so launching into another serious rewrite wasn’t actually what I wanted to be doing. On the other hand, I recognised that he was likely right and that I could probably trim the book significantly. That was a project that took me almost up until KRH was born (that was my self-imposed deadline.) I fired it off to said agent, and waited.

Waiting, I’m told, is a major part of writing and publishing. I consider myself fairly patient, which is a good thing. I only recently received a reply. The agent in question told me that my sample pages zipped alone, that my voice was “solid,” and he liked the premise. However, he had to decline because it was similar to an existing client’s project, because it didn’t speak to him, and because although my writing was good, there was nothing that spoke to him in terms of it being something only I could write.

I don’t like to talk much about interactions with agents, because it feels unprofessional. Also, I firmly believe in being cautious about what’s repeated out of a private email conversation. Still, I wanted to talk about this.

Anyone who’s queried probably knows that an agent has to love your work in order to offer representation. There are a lot of good books out there, but good isn’t enough for publication. It needs to be great, and it needs to speak to the agent in question. Still, the agent signed off by telling me he thought I was close to “something amazing.”

I find this somewhere between encouraging and discouraging. I happen to think both the books I’m currently querying are hecking great (or else I wouldn’t be querying them). But I nurse the fear that they’re not amazing. Unfortunately, the results of my querying so far is that agents agree. So I do find it discouraging that, after all this work, the best I can do is pretty good.

On the other hand, I have received some insincere praise in response to queries, and I don’t believe this was that at all. So if this agent things I’m close to something amazing, then maybe I am. I’m not sure how to get there yet, but I can work toward that as a goal. I will get there. I don’t intend to stop until I do.

Four lessons from When Words Collide

For the fourth year in a row, I came away from When Words Collide feeling fired up and ready to go, so this weeks blog post comes early. A lot of things went right, I met a lot of great people, and I learned a lot. There are a few key lessons I want to remember going forward, so here they are.

1. Nobody has all the answers. 

This is a really key point. Nobody knows everything, and if they think they do, then you probably shouldn’t listen to them. During his two-hour talk on the writing process, Brandon Sanderson shared tips about things he wishes he’d known he started writing. First on the list? “Know when to ignore the person telling you what to do.”

This is a point that Brandon really illustrated well. There is no one true path to anything, no carefully guarded secret that will bring you success. A conference like WWC is all about sharing experiences, and there was a real wealth to draw on. I heard Robert J. Sawyer talk about his 7 netbooks, heard Jodi McIsaac speak about her impressive marketing methods, and enjoyed Hayden Trenholm, Ian Alexander Martin, Adrianne Kerr and Robert Runte’s perspectives on querying. None of them have The Answer, but having heard their opinions, I can decide my own path.

2. It’s hard to put yourself out there. Do it anyway.

No, really. We’re not writers because we’re social butterflies, but to get what you want, you’ve got to talk to people. You’ve got to get out and do it. I spoke with agents, editors, and above all, lots and lots of other writers, and every time I did, I learned something, even if it was just about my fellows.

It’s more than that, though. If you want to be published, eventually, you’re going to need to seek feedback on your work. Try a blue pencil session, or submit to a slush pile panel. This isn’t a thing that came naturally to me, but after pitching for three years in a row, I was only nervous for a few hours leading up to the pitch, instead of spending the weekend terrified of five minutes on the Sunday. You will learn to be more comfortable and to do more, and you don’t have to leap in and do it all at once.

3. Writing and publishing are always changing.

Be prepared for things to change, because they do. The market will change. The tools will change. Change, change. And not just Amazon-Hatchette big-time events. Trends will come and go, too. Last year, everyone I spoke to couldn’t stop telling me about trilogies. Pitch a trilogy, everyone said. This year, I heard in half a dozen places that the market is saturated with trilogies, and that single books are better. Should you let that change what you write? Probably not. Chasing trends means you’ll be left in the dust. But it should affect what you propose, and to who.

Maybe that’s why conferences like this are so important. By next year, things will be different. You can’t follow the day-to-day events, but if you’re writing for a market, you’d better know what’s going on in that market.

4. Don’t stop writing

Here’s a golden rule, one that I heard reiterated a dozen times. Keep writing. Brandon Sanderson told a very enraptured crowd about his writing schedule, in which he rises late in the day, writes, spends time with his family and children, and then writes more once it gets late. Even at a conference, he gets in some words, describing himself not as a fast writer, but as a consistent writer. Robert J. Sawyer has seven netbooks that he keeps in difference places so he always has access to them, so he can always keep writing. Jodi McIsaac’s top marketing tip was to keep writing, because new books sell old books. It’s easy to get caught up in the business and the networking and everything, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the writing.

A final note

My short story Aurel Stonegate received honourable mention in the Robyn Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest, and was published in In Places Between 2014. I was lucky enough to attend the judging panel with the other winning authors, and I want to congratulate them all on their wonderful work. Also, thanks to Calgary’s Imaginative Fiction Writers Association, Calgary Crime Writers, the Alberta Romance Writers’ Association and the Alexandra Writers’ Society for hosting the contest, to the administrators, and to the judges. The end result is wonderful. 

Seven reasons not to write novels, and why we should anyway

Spanish novelist Javier Marias has seven reasons not to write  novels. I highly recommend a read of them, because although they are a bit cynical, I can’t help but detect a bit of cheekiness to them. For brevity’s sake, here they are.

  1. There are too many novels and too many people writing them.
  2. Because anyone, whatever his or her profession, can write a novel, it is an activity that lacks merit and mystery.
  3. Writing a novel won’t make you rich.
  4. The novel is no guarantee of fame.
  5. The novel does not bring immortality, largely because immortality barely exists any more.
  6. Writing novels does not flatter the ego, even momentarily.
  7. Isolation, a fear of the blank page, the vast amount of alcohol a writer consumes, and so on.

Perhaps this is more than seven reasons, and perhaps there’s more than a bit of tongue in cheek there. But this leads Marias to one reason he can see for to write novels. From the article.

“Writing novels allows the novelist to spend much of his time in a fictional world, which is really the only or at least the most bearable place to be. This means that he can live in the realm of what might have been and never was, and therefore in the land of what is still possible, of what will always be about to happen, what has not yet been dismissed as having happened already or because everyone knows it will never happen.”

There’s a bit of temptation to get to up in arms whenever a published writer tells unpublished writers not to write. It smacks a bit of gatekeeping. But Marias is right in that if publication, fame and profit is the goal of writing, then the vast majority of writers will be disappointed. But there are a lot of writers who grind away at our works, odds be damned. Do we hope to defy the trends?

I’ve ruminated in the past about readership as a goal of writing. But I’m not sure that really gets at what this is about. We all write for different reasons, but as tongue in cheek as Marias may be, it’s easy to look at his list and feel a bit discouraged.

So I wrote my own damn list. Why I should write novels. It’s below.

  1. I enjoy the feeling of having written. Sometimes, I even enjoy writing.
  2. For me, writing is a social activity, and I hugely value the friends I’ve met through it, not to mention my fiancé.
  3. Because I’ve got so many stories that need telling.
  4. Taking something that exists only in your brain and making it real and tangible is a real joy.
  5. I love the feeling of knowing someone has enjoyed reading something I’ve written.
  6. Because while I know my writing has improved, I know it can get a lot better, and getting there is exiting.
  7. I’m certain that if I work long enough and hard enough, lots of people will enjoy my novels.

Sometimes, re-affirming why we do what we do is a useful exercise. If you decide to write your own list (and it need not be seven points long) then please share them in the comments below. Happy writing!