So, NaNoWriMo is done. And – surprising myself tremendously – I won, and won doubly over. I had planned to write a complete rubbish-summary-half-assed draft of a novel – and not only did I hit the 50k words (on about day 20, good lord!) I completed the draft (at a slightly meatier 68k words) with a couple of days to spare.
I’m basically flabberghasted. I didn’t even know I had this in me.
Looking at it as I was going, and in the immediate aftermath, my conclusion is that my chief weapons were
fear and surprise over-the-top planning, and permission to suck.
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Finishing a first draft means:
- Being able to help more around the house. (“Hey, I could cook one or two nights this week.”)
- Catching up on media. (“Hey, we should watch the latest season of Game of Thrones.”)
- Reading over lunch instead of writing.
- Socialising again. (“Brunch, or are you still writing all the time?”)
- Epic Neverwinter sessions. (Except I still haven’t managed to score a party who can defeat Valindra, or had a queue pop for Castle Never.)
- Playing enough to get somewhere in Sunless Sea! (Killed by the largest crab you ever saw. Again.)
- Getting to tick off huge to-do items in HabitRPG and get metric fucktons of experience (w00t!)
- Starting to write the next thing…
And the next thing is NaNoWriMo. (Doing it too? Here I am!)
I’m looking forward to this. One of the biggest kicks I got out of Camp NaNo – which started me off on the four-month productivity bender that finished the draft for me – is: permission to not be perfect. Which is a big thing, and such an enabler (I’ll talk more about this soon) but it does mean that I get to the end of a draft and know that so much of it now needs major rewriting. I’m super happy with the shape of the ending, now I just have to realign the rest of the book to meet that ending. Which is all great, but the fly in the ointment is how long it took me to get the first half. It’s aggravating to have spent so long on material that’s going to need major revision.
It seems to me that the best way around this is to stop taking so long with the first draft. If I can’t really know what shape the story should be until I know how it ends in detail (which seems to be how I roll; it’s been the case for both novels I’ve worked on) then either I need to write ending-first (which has worked for short material, but I don’t think I could do for longer pieces: the ending would lack the necessary complexity) OR I write the first draft even rougher and quicker.
I’m trying the latter for NaNo. I’m not aiming for the first 50k of a novel in relatively coherent prose. I am aiming for a 50k epic-rough quasi-summary draft of the entire novel. I’m anticipating chapters that are a patchy collage of prose and summary and notes to self. I’m anticipating covering a chapter a day in this method. And most of all, I’m anticipating needing to do a fuckton of work once I come back to write it properly – but since I know there’s a fuckton of work needing to be done on the first-draft that took me two years to write, that’s no big deal.
P.S. To add another spanner to my bouquet, I received some really thoughtful feedback on Boralos from a marvellous agent – confirming for me how much I’d love to work with her in the future. As always, new input makes my brain spin on old projects (it’s true: the further you get from a project in time, the more leverage you have to tear it apart and put it back together) but obviously any serious consideration of what to rework next will have to wait until after November.
The splendid Susan Dennard has been hosting a critique partner match-up, which I’ve been calling “writer partner speed dating” when I describe it to my husband (who assures me he’s fully supportive of me dating on the internet…). While I love and would be lost in the wilderness without the Firm (my critique group) I have also been keen to find someone with whom I can have a less structured and more organic and sprawling partnership of creativity with. (And it also helps to have a variety of resources; for instance, in my next project I have a big twist at the end of act 1, and I’ve been brainstorming how to make that work technically and logistically with my husband, so he is now spoiled a million for that twist. I need other readers to let me know how my delivery works.) So I’ve leapt on in to the fray. (And if this sounds good, you should too.)
It’s been a great experience. I’ve touched base with half a dozen other writers who write various kinds of fantasy at various stages in their writing journey, and looked at their opening chapters. Novel opens are possibly one of the most intensive parts of writing – there’s so much you have to think about and get moving, and you can’t rely on the momentum you’ve created because you’re only just starting! So it’s an excellent piece of writing to really dig into. Even when I’m reading a whole story for someone, I’ll tend to leave most comments in the first 10%.
What I hadn’t expected was how much I was going to get from engaging critically with the openings of half a dozen novels in development. Oh, hey, it’s absolutely invigorating and inspiring to get comments and responses back from my prospective critique-partners as well, but I’m also getting a heap of push just from reading. Well, not just from reading: from reading, thinking why isn’t this working for me? and then what’s a fix for that? and then, finally, is this something I should be doing / doing better in my own work?
The answer is almost always: YES YES YES.
Because why wouldn’t you? Stronger sense of who the main character is and what he really, really wants? Yes, sign me up! Rich but tight delivery of world immersion through stripping back to a few strong, evocative details? Sounds ace! Piling more than one layer of awesome into every scene if it can be arranged? I can think of no reason not to! Thinking hard about what I really need to include right now? Can only make things better!
In short: don’t underestimate how much value you get for your writing from thinking critically about other people’s writing. (And maybe hop over to Sooz’s forums and find yourself a CP!)
Rearranging my current work in progress in Scrivener (how you know things are getting serious: when there are enough words to require organisation) I came across my initial character sketches for my core characters.
It’s quite delightful to me how much some of them have changed in the writing. Oh, not changed, but matured. Developed. Settled. A little in the way a haircut settles down once you get it home from the hairdresser and treat it the way you do for a week or so. It loses that sharp-edged unreal glamour, but becomes something natural and comfortable. (Hopefully. There’s just no living with some haircuts.)
For instance, where the original reads Izmir is an unremarkable man, it would be more accurate that every other character who’s run into him in the course of the narrative has remarked on him, and the remarks have demonstrated a considerable reputation for acting out that shows an admirable dedication to the art. Bless his cotton socks (which he leaves on the bedroom floors of the disreputable).
In these sketches, one of my characters isn’t even the younger sister of another – they’re cousins – and I wonder how I ever hadn’t realised how tight and close those two needed to be. (She’s also beautiful – I devote a paragraph to talking about it in the sketch, and remark on how she disdains it. She disdains it so much it hasn’t even come up in any of her viewpoint chapters…)
And my policeman lived in a boarding house – obviously before I realised that if he was doofing a married woman they were going to need somewhere to prosecute said liaison. Actually, from this distance the extent to which he’s based on that appalling agent in Boardwalk Empire is making me side-eye myself a little bit. Really, self? I’m so glad we got over that one.
What delights me the most is that this is really only the halfway point in the development of their stories. They – and I – have so much further still to go.
To follow up on my last post, adding to the wordcount of my current project went rather well, actually. I didn’t actually wind up making the 30k I initially signed up for, but Camp is flexible, and enabled me to twiddle my wordcount up until a few days before the end (I finished on 28k). Which I was grateful for, because I was actually so happy with how the month went that it seemed ridiculous to not “win”.
Some big happy-making stuff for me from this month:
- I wrote every day. Even if it was just opening up the file and moving some words around, or pulling faces and redoing my planning notes for the chapter, I was engaging with the project every day. (And face-pulling word-juggling days were actually really rare. Most days had genuine words added.) This is actually huge for me. I used to write every day while at university, but then again, I also stayed up until 2am every night. It’s good to know that constant productivity is not actually one of those university habits that is completely unsustainable in regular adult life.
- Writing every day kept me constantly in touch with the project. Increasingly, as the month progressed, there was less and less “getting into the zone” time when addressing myself to the page. The ebb and flow of the project was always present in the recent strata of my mind, all the easier to bring back to the top on command. (Is it like mining, or like image layer editing? The answer lies somewhere between: yes.) Putting together the plot-point notes into easy chapter files a few ahead of where I was meant that I always had where-I’m-going in mind, and could flow more fluently. And this enabled…
- I wrote all the time. In prep for the month, I made myself a schedule with two evening sessions, and a short lunchtime session (I even booked out a tiny meeting room and everything). But as the month went on, I also started grabbing time whenever I could. Waiting ten minutes while all my office work is out as queries to people? Flip open the laptop and write two paragraphs. Set up a meeting and now waiting for guests to arrive? Another two paragraphs. Having the project mentally on tap at all times made whittling away at it easy. (And bless Google Docs for making anywhere, anytime possible, even if it occasionally fell off the network and forgot to sync. Including on the second-last day of the month. The words were always there when I came back to that device next.)
- The momentum exerts its own gravity. When I hit a problem and go away from the keyboard to sulk/brainsimmer, the habit draws me back and hammers solutions (make-do or otherwise) out of my brain. And even when ten minutes for two paragraphs didn’t manifest, my brain happily stacked sentences and ideas up in a corner, confident that they wouldn’t have atrophied by the time I finally did get to scribbling. (So very often, in the past, I have endlessly brain-crafted a scene, only to never get time to actually commit it, so eventually my brain goes, “well, fine, I’m not thinking about this any more if I can’t move forward” and I can hardly blame it.)
What now? Now I just want to keep going with this. Perhaps not aiming for another 30 or even 28k this month, because there were times in the month where the pressure was making me cranky, and I don’t like being cranky. But I’d like to continue all those happy points. The daily habit. Etc. So here are a few reminders to myself about how I helped myself do this:
- I have a complete plotted plan. Admittedly it’s a little thin in places (see the moment last week where I went, “…and?!” at my past self) but it gives me structure.
- This enables me to lay out my work for the next couple of days. I set up individual Docs (“TO-DO: Zagiri chapter 13″) and load them up with the plotpoints for this chapter, and the surrounding chapters (for reference), as well as throwing in any important influencing chapters (e.g. the part where the alchemist and his client have to go back and shake down the jinni for further details, I included the references to the first time they visited). This way I can’t put myself off when writing with “oh, I’ll have to look up xyz before I can write this bit la la la” because a) I never have to anyway, I always eventually check it and realise I never specified that so I can make up whatever; and b) this is first draft, just shut up, write what this scene needs and line up the details later.
- When I finish one chapter, I immediately go into the next to-do chapter, look at all that reference material, and draft up a dotpoint structure of the chapter. (e.g. A musing history of the revolution; a meeting of revolutionaries who really aren’t very inspiring; Z making a Big Suggestion.) This will almost always change at least once, but it’s good to have a straw man to set on fire and dance around.
- Any time I hit a Thing I Need To Check, I just throw it in [brackets] and check it later. (“Oh really,” [whatever her mother’s name is] scolded.) Nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of Progress, yo. Especially not piddly little details like names, hair colour, geography, significant triggering memories and injuries.
- I did throw words in throughout the day, which meant that often when I got to my scheduled evening schedules, I’d made half or more of my daily requirement, allowing me to also have some downtime in the evening. Which was just such a bonus, and helped make me not-so-cranky. (That said, there were also evenings where, after dinner, I had to head back to the saltmine while Mr Dee got to watch television, and that’s just the way it is. Helped that he was watching Mad Men, which I have given up on because real life is depressingly congratulatory enough to white men already.)
- No, seriously, yay Google Docs. I still love Scrivener, and it is the best collecting and distilling tool, but writing raw into the cloud is enabling me and I’m a fan.
Camp NaNoWriMo, that is.
I first tried NaNoWriMo in 2002, which must have been nearly the first year it ran (or ran big, at least). Everyone in the blogosphere was doing it, and my honours thesis was due to be handed in 1st November, so I figured hells yes. Of course, then I needed a month’s extension, and the whole idea of writing a novel at the same time as finalising my thesis just did not work. (What a surprise.) What with one thing and another – mostly honesty with myself about my likelihood of completing, but also the “new project” thing – I never tried it again.
This year I am looking for any and all ways of kicking, coaxing and tricking myself into finishing my current project. As one of them, I thought hey, why not tempt my inner short-attention-spanned-creative-toddler with telling it it can write that shiny new project in November, as long as the current project is finished in first draft by then?
I checked the viability of this idea by visiting the NaNoWriMo website and having a look around, which was when I discovered that they also now did this thing called Camp NaNoWriMo. Any word count you like, any project (including one already underway), running in April and – oh look at that – July.
Kick, coax or trick, remember. So here I am, just about to start trying to add 30k words to my current project in the month of July.
And it’s tricking me into better practices already. I’ve got an actual written-down daily schedule with two variants incorporating two sessions a day. I’ve got dates with myself for lunchtime mini-sessions every day (even if I only hit half of them, it’ll be something). And I’ve got my next three to-do chapters laid out in mini documents with their storypoints and reference material already included, so there’s no excuse. (Oh yes, I know myself and my tricks of old.)
So here we go…
I wanted to make my first post back after our five weeks in South America a link to our travel photographs and various whimsical remembrances. Since I’m still sorting, naming and uploading our 850 photographs, despite it being another five weeks since we got back, this post represents my succumbing to the inevitable suck on that one. Hopefully coming soon, though!
This post also represents a “Hey, I did a nerdy thing!” announcement. The Queen’s Birthday weekend just gone was my second Continuum ever, and my first time signing up to be on panels. I used my honours degree and professional experience for awesome (sort of) talking “Good Governments” in spec-fic, and I traded off fourteen years (fourteen years! I looked up when the first X-movie came out to try and date my fannish involvement and nearly swore out loud) of mashing metaphorical action figures together on the “Writing Fanfic” panel. Which, incidentally, meant I was on a panel with both guests of honour – not actually a balm for my first-timer nerves! But apparently I managed to fake urbane experience, so that’s another win for brazen front.
The whole weekend was, once again, a fantastic experience and an invigorating slap in the face of ideas, enthusiasm, and things to be aware of; I always come out energised and full of thinky-thoughts. Ambelin Kwaymullina‘s guest of honour speech was a pivotal element in this, raising for me some deep questions about how we even think about exploration and investigation. Some stories are just not ours to tell. (And is this one more note in a complex chord of “learning to take no for an answer”?)
I even, around all this chicanery, got 2500 words written. Weekends like that should happen more often!
Now, back to sorting through 400 photographs of glaciers and waterfalls…
I had a meeting the other day about work website content. We were joking that everyone in the (three person) meeting except for the actual web content coordinator had a blog. The other lady turned to me and asked, “What’s your blog about?”
Step one of fantasy nerd withdrawal: I said, “Oh, fantasy fiction, the stuff I read.” Because I don’t like to engage with complete strangers (effectively) about writing because it inevitably leads to questions about my creative work in progress (which is not ready to be shared by dint of being, y’know, in progress, especially with someone whose genuine interest in the details of the genre I have no idea about).
She perked up, and said, “Oh, like Game of Thrones? You’ve read those?”
Step two of fantasy nerd withdrawal: I stick to generic comments. Yes, I’ve read them. I find the television show a more refined and finessed version of the story. Did she enjoy the show?
It was at this point that I started analysing my own behaviour, and saw how I was consciously not engaging fully with the topic (i.e. to the extent that I would with another fantasy nerd) until she provided further indication that she was, in fact, another fantasy nerd, and not just someone who enjoys Game of Thrones on TV.
Let me be clear: it’s not that I didn’t consider her a Real Fan. It’s not that I doubted her ability to hold an interesting conversation on the themes and events and characters of George Martin’s work. It’s that I really, truly, desperately didn’t want to have that moment where I jumped in with both feet talking intricately about fantasy fiction tropes and details and my pet peeves, and see her eyes glaze over with the transparent desire that she’d never brought this up. I’ve had that moment before. I’ve felt like I’ve messed up. Like I’m being mentally catalogued as an overenthusiastic nerd who’s not very interesting to talk with – which is probably only the truth, but it still stings to be dismissed.
And I wondered how much of this is mixed up in the Real Fan business. (There’s also a lot of really poisonous crap mixed up in the Real Fan business. A lot of elitism and selfishness. I have no time for that side of things.) To what extent are real-fan challenges bound up in petulance that this was my space for safe conversations, for knowing I can be enthusiastic, for not worrying about being dismissed, but you have come in and I am uneasy about whether you will dismiss me, so I’m lashing out first.
There’s never any excuse for lashing out. There’s never a reason to be nasty and unpleasant. But having watched myself dancing around my passion for fear of being judged for it, I can sympathise a little with the relief of having a safe space to be enthusiastic.
There’s some amazing discussion of language in fantasy (and especially the ubiquitous and lazy “common tongue”) going on at the moment. Kameron Hurley has written a fantastic piece on common realistic civilisation fails in fantasy worldbuilding, and followed up with more depth on language in particular, and Django Wexler’s writing about languages in fantasy over at Fantasy Faction.
There is just so much YES about all of these pieces that I feel like I have very little to conceptually add except emphatic nods and perhaps the offer of a beer. However, the pieces – especially Kameron Hurley’s second one, and her comments on the inherent tension in the multilingual state – really made me think of a couple of personal experiences that I wanted to throw into the gumbo on this.
1. Communicating, and trying to communicate. A few years ago, Mr Dee and I went to Russia. A friend was getting married, and it was the chance of a lifetime to see a place very different from what we were used to. And it was amazing, but it was also incredibly difficult for a variety of reasons, one of which was language and communication.
English is not common in Russia. In fact, outside the elite tourism sector (expensive hotels, expensive restaurants, some tourism venues, mostly the popular ones) no one speaks a word of it. Or of any language save Russian. (Why should they? As we tried language after language on one shop assistant – between us, we can communicate badly in about five – she looked at us like we were crazy, pointed to herself and said, “Russki.” She’s Russian. Why would she speak English? Or French, or Italian, or German, or…)
But most difficult was the lack of willingness to make an effort to cross the communication divide. Guides in museums would just speak slower and louder at us; we resorted to mime and gestures and guessing, desperately searching for the “da” or “nyet” that would give us something like a clear idea what we were being told we could or couldn’t do. The aforementioned shop assistant, with whom we wanted to complete a financial transaction, was completely disinterested in working with us to find a pair of shorts that fit, despite demonstrations of the problem with this pair of shorts. And the train conductor on our overnight from Moscow to Novgorod shook her head at our tickets, made us stand aside, and we realised that there was nothing at all we could do. We could be stranded in this country and have no idea what the problem was, no way to attempt to resolve it.
That’s what language means.
2. Language and identity. Same trip, two weeks later, we’re in Belgium. We’re so delighted that basically everyone speaks English (especially in touristy Brugge) that we didn’t really think about Belgium being an officially bilingual country until we sat down for a social beer with our B&B hostess. We’d made our booking by email in French (because Mr Dee could, and it seemed polite to at least make an effort) but had noted that Brugge was in Flemish-speaking Belgium (and therefore strictly shouldn’t be called Bruges); we asked what language she preferred. She noted that she was Flemish, but as a tourist guide and now B&B host, she spoke English and French as well. But her children had learned English at school as a second language, not French. They refused, in fact. They actively avoid the language. They don’t want to know. This is a country with two official languages, one of which is not English, but people aren’t learning both of them. They learn their language. And English.
A year later, we’re back in Brugge, catching up with our hostess for another beer. (It’s what we do in Belgium.) She tells us that Belgium still doesn’t have a government, hasn’t had one since before we were there last time. They haven’t been able to form one, in part because the bilingual issue in the country is so contentious. One party won the Flemish side, one won the French. Both have intractable positions. Other parties want to figure out compromises, but none can make a majority. (While we’re there, the king uses his national-day-of-Belgium address to tell the politicians to get the hell on with it and sort something out.) Language, especially in terms of financial and service use, is such a hugely contentious issue (among others; I’m not pretending this is simple or I know everything about it) that before any sort of resolution can be reached Belgium will have been without an official government for 541 days. In any other day and age, this is civil war sort of talk, and you can’t tell me otherwise.
That’s what language means.
And if you’re missing out on these amazing tensions in your fantasy, you’re missing out, yo.
(The fact that I can reasonably make this post at all is 100% down to GoodReads. Just saying.) From what I read in 2013 – some of which may have been published earlier! I am slow and behind! – some highly-recommended favourites in no particular order:
Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. One of these days I’ll stop raving about this series, but today is not that day. Three Parts Dead is full of fantasy delights (necromantic rituals, gargoyles, hive-minded security forces, legalistic duels of power and will) delivered with modern savvy and urban panache. It is vivid and different, and intelligent while still being delightful and delighted. It’s the sort of canny fun I wish there was more of.
White Cat by Holly Black. In a world where magic is performed by touch and everyone wears gloves, our narrator’s struggling with his family history of con-artistry, crime lords and violence. Yeah, sure, it’s YA urban fantasy, but it is every inch serrated razorblades and knotted twists and I loved it to vicious black-hearted bits.
Shadow in Summer & A Betrayal in Winter by Daniel Abraham. It’s sort of cheating to have two books in here, but I read them back to back in an omnibus printing, so they’re quite melded in my mind. Betrayal was absolutely magnificent, just an ineluctable emotional wrench of a novel, a fantastic feat of character conflict and self-sabotage, but it wouldn’t have had nearly the power without the amazing worldbuilding triumph of Shadow. And it’s a world I find myself thinking about again and again, constantly turning over the amazing poetry-driven magic system (such a meditation upon the term “capture”) and the fantastic Cold-War-detente analogy it drives.
Tomorrow, the Killing by Daniel Polansky. The most amazing world-fantasy-noir feat I’ve ever encountered, with a sympathetic but believably hard narrator getting dragged snarling through his past (including a truly magnificent fantasy analogy for the First World War). The regret was delicious, and the conclusions unsettling and splendid.
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. I avoided this for a long time because my “meh” list includes teenage fantasy and dragons, but I’m so glad I finally gave it a try (and persevered past the prologue) because it was a really good book, with a worthy heroine and some great ruminations on entrenched prejudice. And genuinely interesting talking dragons. There. I said it.