Subvert The System: 6 Ways To Hack NaNoWriMo

Quick, before the NaNo Police arrive!

So I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. Kind of a last minute decision. But, since I’m already in the process of doing something else—namely The Big Edit—I figured this would be a good chance to kick start it.

Now, I won’t be starting from scratch; I’m actually rewriting the last NaNoWriMo project I did. Don’t tell the NaNo Police*, since it isn’t strictly by the rules, but rules were made to be broken, baby. Or at least severely bent.

I know there are more than a few of you out there who might have considered NaNo as a jumpstart for writing, but you don’t feel that your project fits their guidelines. Well, guidelines be damned; this is about writing. So here are a couple ways to hack NaNo to fit your project.

1) Go Short And Sweet. A small but interesting group writes short stories instead of novels for November. Some do thirty in thirty days; others try to tally 50,000 words worth of short stories in a month. If you’re more into short fiction, this could be your project.

2) Hack and Slash. Maybe, like me, you’ve got a project that needs editing. NaNo can jumpstart that, too. Depending on your needs, maybe you could edit a chapter a day. You’d be through those edits in no time! Or, if you need to spend a little more time on it, go for a page a day and really fucking dig into it.

3) Draw Me A Picture. I am a long-time lover of comics and graphic novels, as evidenced by the contents of my t-shirt drawer, and I see nothing wrong with taking NaNoWriMo and working on a comic script. Whether you’re writing a poignant narrative about life during the Enlightenment, a heady space adventure, or a rocking cape story with heroes galore, this could be your time.

4) Just The Facts, Ma’am. Or maybe you need to grind out some non-fiction. Honestly, if I’d known about NaNoWriMo when I was working on my theses, I would have jumped on it like a meth-addicted cat on a slow mouse. Talk about footnotes with your fellow academics! Or compare dodgy research methods and start messing up Wikipedia articles!

5) Roll A Craft (Writing) Check. All you tabletop gamers out there: do you think those books of rules, monsters, scenarios, and dodgy magical items write themselves? Jump in and have a go. There’s a small group that sharpens their pencils and rolls the dice to make up scenarios for their favourite games. Or maybe writes their own game. Break the rules by making other rules!

6) Something Else Entirely! There’s a group on the NaNoWriMo forums called NaNo Rebels. There’s not as many things in there as you might think; the rules have changed a little in recent years to allow for other sorts of projects than the puke-it-up-as-you-go zero draft. But if you’re not sure what it is that you want to do—if, in fact, all you have in an amorphous idea blob that could become any number of things—then trawling through there might give your project a shape.

And if you are in doubt about the legitimacy of your project, they will be more than happy to tell you whether or not you belong in the regular forums or in with the rebels. Also, I hear that they might be giving our eyepatches and parrots to eligible candidates.

Still think it’s not for you? Fair enough. But know that the doors are more open than the title ‘National Novel Writing Month’ might imply. And, even if they’re not, there’s no harm in squeezing under the door when no one’s looking.

*No such thing, but a trip through the internets could leave you thinking differently.

What It’s Like To Get Published

There was a sizing error with the author copies…

Getting one of your pieces published has two sides.

On one hand, there’s the awesomeness: holy shit, someone else thinks that a thing you did is good. And it’s probably not your mom! You are the creator of worlds, motherfucker, and that world is now open for visitors! Stamp your passport and get your shots, because we’re taking a trip into your brain.*

But on the other, far more creepy, hand, there’s the terror: holy shit, something you wrote is now out in the world where other people can read it. And judge it. And write scathing one-star reviews on Amazon. What’s worse: that people hate it…or that they don’t notice it at all?

It’s at this point that most writers retreat into a corner and begin to gibber. It’s okay. It happens to everyone. Try that corner over there, it’s got a nice floor.

But once you unfold from the fetal position, you realize there is a third hand to all this, one that you never considered before you got published: getting published is not the end.

So many writers are focused on the notion of publication that they don’t realize that getting published is just one more stop along the line. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an important stop—not least because someone is giving you money for a thing you made, which is awesome—but it’s not the end. Because after publication comes promotion, and readings, and launches. And of course the next publication, and the next story.

And that’s a good thing. If publication was the end of it, I’d be sad that it was over. Instead, the train keeps right on rolling.

Best thing you can do is enjoy the ride.

Which I am doing right now. I’ve got a story coming out in a new anthology, Flashpoint. You can find out all about it over here, at the IndieGoGo page, as well as check out some of the cool bonus rewards for those who support it. There are copies of the book and ebook, shiny things, events, and other assorted perks for supporting the anthology.

Or, of you want to know more about the anthology and the writers featured therein, check out the blog, which has interviews with the authors. Find out what writers drink! Who’s an outliner! What our superhero powers would be!** My interview will be going up shortly, in which you will find out exactly when I slithered my way into this dimension from my own.

So go check it out. I’ll be updating progress along the publishing ride here as new things happen. Book launches! Readings! Summoning rituals! All the trappings of publication.

And, in the meantime, I’m going to go write something else.

*Watch out for the locals. They bite.

**Spoiler alert: ‘hero’ is not the word for me.

Bathroom Break: Life Details In Fiction

Thank you, Poop Writer, for inspiring this post. At least you did something right.

I once read a story in which every characters’ bowel movements were graphically described.*

It wasn’t a very long story—maybe ten pages, max. But, of those ten, about three were devoted to detailing the process and product of taking a dump. And those pages were so detailed that I can barely remember the plot of the story. Everything else has been eclipsed by the endless descriptions of shit. I’m not squeamish by any stretch of the imagination, but at a certain point even I was all, Enough, dude. What’s the point of this?

When I read the afterword—yes, it was one of those publications that has afterwords for short stories, presumably to give the authors a chance to explain what the hell they just did to you—the author discussed how s/he** was striving for more realistic stories. S/he felt that most stories didn’t accurately represent the actual human experience, as far as conversation, thought processes, and, of course, sitting on the porcelain throne.

To which I say: well, duh.

Had Poop Writer been in my home at that time, I likely would have pointed out that fiction doesn’t need to be a perfect representation of daily life, with all its dead ends and wanderings and everyday boring errands, physical or otherwise. We already have something that does that. We call it life.

Fiction*** is an idealized representation of reality. It’s streamlined. It has to be, because fiction has something life doesn’t: plot. There’s a story being told in there somewhere, and all things are in service to it. Even ‘reality’ television knows this rule, which is why story lines and villains and drama emerge in every season. Someone out there is carefully cutting those scenes together and making a story out of them instead of the random, chaotic mess that is real life.

Which means I damn well don’t want to read about your characters musing on their digestive tract health unless it is key to the story.

It’s not just bathroom breaks; I’ve read things that had the occasional detour into What The Hell Land many times. Unreasonably long sections about running errands. The minutia of hair styling. And, on one memorable occasion, an entire chapter devoted to deer hunting and the preparation of the skins for wearing. It’s not that these things can’t be interesting, or even useful to the story. But in these cases, they weren’t. They were just…filler. Or the author showing off how much they knew.

When writing fiction, children, remember this: if it doesn’t serve the plot or illustrate character—preferably both—leave it on the killing floor. If it does one or both of those things, it’s probably a keeper.

Even if it’s about poop.

*I typed that sentence one-handed because I was drinking coffee at the same time. My right hand skipped most of the letters on the left side of the keyboard. Presumably because it thought the left hand was on that. Muscle memory is weird. Anyway. Back to the post.
**Can no longer remember the author’s gender. Or name. They will forever and always be known to my brain as The Poop Writer.
***Usual caveats apply. Surrealist fiction is, of course, a horse of a completely different colour with seven legs.

Staying Inside The Lines: Writing For Anthologies And Other Stuff With Rules

“Monsters and Waving Hero Junk” sounds like an anthology I would read. Someone get on this.

Short stories and I are taking a break from each other right now—it’s not you, stories, it’s me—but most of the ones I’ve written have been written just for anthologies or collections. Which means that I’m writing to a specific set of guidelines. This is a valuable skill for all fiction writers to have because 1) it’s a cool way to try something new, and 2) it gives you more markets for your work.

But how do you fit your style into a set of guidelines? Unless your style is entirely illegible, it’s not that hard. Here it is: the Bare Knuckle Guide to Writing For Anthologies.

1. Read the guidelines. Then read them again. Make sure you know what it is you’re supposed to write. I’ve seen guidelines that ranged from the crazy broad to the hella specific and everything in between. If you’re going to write for something, then make damn sure it fits the guidelines. They’re there for a reason.

2. Check your pipeline. Got something half finished that could work? Or something that you completed that fits the guidelines? How about an idea that you had a while ago and hadn’t gotten around to writing yet? You might surprise yourself with what you have already available. A few tweaks might be necessary, but, hell, you’re a writer, aren’t you?

3. Research. Is the anthology/magazine/collection/whatever based on a time period? Do some reading about history. Particular sub-genre? Google it and check out what comes up. Spend some time trawling Tumblrs and Pinterest* boards with the keywords. Get images, styles, philosophies, geographies. Anything you think might help.
A note for those who worry this might taint their final project with unoriginality: bucko, you can’t work in a bubble. Well, you probably can, but it’s not advisable. Have faith in your own awesomeness and do the goddamn research. It’ll stop you from making silly mistakes.**

4. Let it percolate. With the theme in mind, let your hind brain work on things. Brainstorm a few things, and then settle in to think. This is less about driving toward an idea than it is about filling your brain up with crap and then seeing what it comes up with while you’re doing the dishes.

5. Listy McListPants. Make a list of ideas. You might have to roll a few around before you find something that sings. Don’t throw the others away, though. They might fit something else down the road. Writers: we’re like idea hoarders.

5. Write. Now you actually have to write the story. With your hands. Like an animal.

6. Check the guidelines again. Does your story still sound like what they’re looking for? Stuff changes in the writing sometimes; it’s like trying to pin down a Hydra. Double check what you’ve done with what they want and see if they still cross over. If not, you have two choices: change the story to fit, or keep it as is and write a new one. Use your own judgement. And remember that if you feel changing it would alter the story in ways you don’t like, that’s cool. Just don’t submit it to that anthology. You’ll waste everyone’s time and come off like an entitled douchebag who can’t be bothered to read the guidelines. Don’t worry, a home for that story will come along sooner or later.

7. Submit: Again after reading the guidelines. Write the cover letter (if one’s needed) and send that bugger packing. Move on to the next one while you anxiously wait for a reply. Rinse. Repeat.

*Fuck me, but Pinterest is obsessed with steampunk.

**While giving you all the freedom to make bigger, better mistakes, of course.

One Question Writers Need To Keep Asking Themselves

Do you have any gummy mascara wands?

Working on a long piece can be like traversing a deep dark forest: you’re pretty sure you’re moving, but you could be going in circles. And those suspicious mushrooms are starting to look tasty.

There’s a question you can ask to keep yourself from getting lost. Well, from getting irretrievably lost, anyway. I’m bang alongside getting periodically lost.* But when the word-forest is starting to close in and you can hear the wolves in the distance, take a breath and ask yourself the following:

What the hell am I trying to say?

This is loosely about stuff like theme and the other words that made you cringe in high school language arts classes, but it’s more about purpose. Writers love wandering. We find a pocket of unexplored randomness and we just want to hang out there forever, turning over every rock and naming all the plants. And that stuff’s good; it gets the creativity moving. But there are times when you need a little focus, and that’s when you should ask yourself that question. What the hell are you trying to say?

You should have an idea, even if it’s only a vague one: I want to talk about families and relationships and stuff, but there should be rockets and an intelligent marmoset. Well, maybe semi-intelligent. It doesn’t have to be a Big Important Universal Theme***; it just needs to be a target you can shoot for, tailored to fit. I want to show how Rylan is being a complete asshat to Dyson****  is acceptable for a scene or chapter; Rylan being an utter knobstick is a comment on his upbringing is better for a novel. But you should be thinking about it, turning it over, finding the creamy centre of your story nugget. You should be saying something, not just making noise.

Focusing on what you’re saying—however distant it might be when you’re scribbling down that initial zero draft—gives you purpose. It turns you from a blindly hammering word chimp into a clever ninja-ing word gorilla: cooler, hairier, and far more dangerous.

You need to have something to say. Otherwise, why are you writing?

*This weekend I got lost underneath Toronto for a few hours. It was fun. I found a candy store** I never knew existed, and ran giggling through the empty marble lobbies of huge financial buildings. You can get a hell of a slide across those shiny floors in wool socks.
**I think it was a candy store. It might have been a Korean cosmetics counter. Whatever I bought, it was pink, glittery, and tasted like lychee.
***Henceforth known as a BIUT. Because.
****Might be a character, might be a vacuum. Might be both.

Cyborgs, Soldiers, And Gunslingers: A Year In The Word Mines

amy Whale, breaching, Stellwagen Bank National...

This is what it’s going to look like when I go back to the gym tomorrow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This time of year, I always find myself doing a little thinking. Maybe it’s the scrolling down of the Gregorian calendar. Maybe it’s because I’m stranded on the couch like a beached whale until that last holiday meal digests.* Whatever the reason, this is the time of year for taking stock.

Those of you who are long-term readers probably remember my goal for this year: thirteen rejection letters. Well, that goal was accomplished, just barely. There was also an acceptance in there, so bonus.

Writing-wise, this was a fucking busy year**. I started rewriting a novel, cranked out a half a dozen new short stories, laid down the foundations for another novel, and posted three days a week here. Blogging alone, that works out to….*does quick math*…around 80,000 new words. Plus maybe another 25,000 words of short stories. And another 50,000 from the Sandbox and World-Building files. I have no idea how much is new on the novel because that’s the nature of rewrites: too much cutting and backfilling and general re-jiggering. But, however you slice it, this was a productive year.

Now the question becomes: what next?

Honestly? I’m not sure. This year—the year of the short story—was fun. Gave me a chance to try some new ideas and new places, at least one of which is on its way to developing into a full-blown world. But, at the same time, my energy felt scattered. I was jumping from project to project, one step ahead of the deadlines, and every story was different. Cyborg magic. Military horror. Post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Alternate world fantasy. Storybook horror. I ran the fucking genre mash-up gauntlet this year, and came up with some really interesting stuff. But, because I was focusing on all those, my novel rewrite isn’t even close to bloody finished and I didn’t start the other novel that I was planning on writing.

So, here’s the question for 2014: focus on the novels exclusively, or try to do both again***?

I’m going to mull this over while eating my way through the rest of the Christmas candy between now and New Year’s. In the meantime, keep me in the loop, word monkeys: how do you feel about your writing year in review, and what are your plans for 2014?

*Fasting sounds like a better and better idea this time of year.

**You know, for me. For some of you this output might be slack; for others it might seem unattainable. Your mileage may vary.

***Better this time, obviously.

On Strange Ground: Finding Your Weird

A growler of beer

I always feel like growlers should have three Xs on them, like in cartoons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My foot’s itchy.

This, of course, signifies the presence of story ideas. Or maybe hookworm. One of those.

When I was a kid, my mother would say that an itchy foot meant you were going to walk on strange ground. When it came to random folk superstitions, it was right up there with not breaking mirrors and wearing an item of clothing inside-out when you go blueberry picking so you don’t get stolen by the Fair Folk. I must have heard that one—all of them, really—a dozen times a month. And they never really struck me. It’s just part of being a kid, especially in Newfoundland.

Then, this morning, as I was drinking my coffee and watching the sun and snow make Murder Icicles on my eaves, my foot started to itch. And I thought, Strange ground is coming.

And that, children, is where story ideas come from.

I’d heard that little bit of nonsense for decades; I’ve even said it myself. But that’s a damn strange thing to think watching the sun rise over the snow, the only one awake in the house.* And the strangeness of the situation makes me think about the phrase itself.  About how it’s not “you’re going to go somewhere new”. It’s strange ground.

I’m not going to labour this too much, so here’s the Cole’s Notes version: never underestimate the potential strangeness of everyday things. Especially when seen in the cold shadowless light of dawn.

You want a never-ending fountain of inspiration? Just fill up your brain and see what weird-ass wine gets made when it ferments. Find what strikes you at odd times. For me it’s often phrases; I had a similar experience at the Farmer’s Market last week when I was lining up to buy beer from a local microbrewery. They sell it in big glass jugs called growlers, a term that goes back a long way. I read a book on Prohibition a while back** and they talked about children going to the local bars with a container to pick up beer for their parents. It was called ‘rushing the growler’. And that’s another story idea, as well as the title to go with it.

Both strange ground and rushing the growler had been floating around between my ears for a while. In the case of the former, for decades. But they needed that one little moment of oddness to float above the swirling chaos in there and become ideas.

Find your weird. All your stories are there.

*By nature, I’m an early riser. The Snowman, on the other hand, prefers a lie-in.
**Last Call by Daniel Okrent. Very good.

Stakes: I Like Mine Bloody

English: Hand I'm bored Español: Mano I'm bored

Me too, hand. Me too. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading over one of my short stories the other day, trying to figure out what was wrong with it.* I knew there was something, but damned if I could see what it was. It had a lot of things I like: love, robots, horrible wrongs being done, sarcasm. The characters did stuff. Things happened.** There were no explosions, but, hey, explosions aren’t right for every situation.***

It wasn’t until I was watching Catching Fire that I figured it out. Watching that movie is like having a Tension Beast wrap its claw-covered paws around your guts and squeeze: OHGODTHISISHORRIBLE….Oh, but things are okay for a bit….ANDNOWIT’SHORRIBLEAGAIN.**** I don’t know how people eat popcorn during that movie. It confuses my fight-or-flight instincts. I’d probably attack the popcorn bucket.

That’s when I realized what was wrong with my story: there were no stakes. Therefore, there was no tension. Therefore, I was bored titless.*****

Reading it over again, I see the problem bold as brass. It’s an interesting idea, yes, and the characters are fun, and there are interesting things happening, but without a sense that there is something at stake, then it’s just kind of ….meh. And nowhere in the story do you ever get the feeling that this needs to be done. The audience needs to know that there are consequences to things not going as planned. Shit will go down. As it is, there’s just a vague feeling that something might happen. Maybe. Or maybe not. The biggest consequence of things not going according to plan is…that things don’t go according to plan.

So I am bored. And if I am bored, editors will definitely be bored.

Without a sense of the stakes—defuse the bomb or the kids die, find a cure or be turned, ask the boy out or remain alone forever—plot becomes an intellectual exercise. The audience needs to realize that there is something to lose here. It doesn’t always have to be a thing, either; it can be losing a relationship, losing a friend, or losing face. But there has to be risk, and it has to be real.

Otherwise…Zzzzzzzz

* I do this a lot. And not just with writing: paintings, cookies, sketches, things I’ve knit…they all get the ‘what’s fucked up about this’ stare. Kinda hoping it doesn’t extend to any children I might have.
**You’d think that’d be a given, but I’ve read enough bad literary fiction to know better.
***Just most situations.
****Trying to avoid spoilers here. Take notes, internet.
*****Just learned Scrivener corrects ‘titless’ to ‘titles’. And, man, lot of footnotes today.

Monday Challenge: Sort Of

The looks are pretty aggressive. Both are pet ...

Actually, my head is less Socratic and more dog fight. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Brain: Hey, what the ass, man? It’s Monday.

Me: I’m aware.

Brain: Then where’s the Monday Challenge, motherfucker? Not sure if you’re aware of this or not, but that comes out on Mondays.

Me: Yes, I—

Brain: It’s right there in the name and everything.

Me: Shut up for five fucking seconds, will you? I know you’ve been like a coked out jackrabbit* the last few days, but try to rein it in.

Brain: Sorry.

Me: It’s all righ—

Brain: HA, JUST KIDDING, I’M NEVER SORRY ABOUT ANYTHING.

Me:…Well aware of that. Anyway, the reason we’re having this uneasy Socratic dialogue—

Brain: Uneasy what-now?

Me: Go read some philosophy. The reason we’re talking is because I’m changing it up a little this week. It’s December now, which means that a fair chunk of people have finished NaNoWriMo. Some of them completed the 50,000 words, and some didn’t, but the fact remains that there’s a shit-ton of tired, burned out writers out there.

Brain: So your solution is to give them a break? That doesn’t sound like you. Hand-holding: not your go-to move.

Me: Christmas is coming. I’m trying to be nicer.

Brain: That also doesn’t sound like you.

Me: Fuck off. Look, while I don’t go with the soft and fuzzy approach, I know that there are times when bashing your way through a brick wall with your forehead will only give you a headache instead of the armoured head-carapace that writers need.

Brain: I have noticed less headaches. Nice carapace, by the way.

Me: Thank you. Burn out is a real thing. Trust me, I know. And it’ll keep you out of the game.

Brain: So you’re just going to let them off so easy? Dude, I don’t even know you anymore.

Me: Didn’t say that. Burn out comes from focusing on one thing for too damn long. So, for this week, I’m going to so suggest the following for the Monday Challenge: change it up. Work on something new. Try something new. Shift your focus a little, even if it’s just for a day. Write a short story, a blog post, a poem. Whatever you didn’t do during November. Even if you didn’t do NaNoWriMo, there’s likely something that you’ve been working on for a while. It’s time to take a break. Come back to the Big Fucking Deal Project tomorrow.** For today, take your foot off the gas a little and stretch your brain.

Brain: I don’t know if I like the sound of that.

Me: You don’t need stretching. Now back to work.

*Seriously, I don’t know what’s up. Can’t even blame it on the coffee; I’ve been waking up like this. And getting the nagging impression I should run five kilometres right fucking now.
**And make sure you do, especially if it’s not done. This is a break, not a vacation.

Lies Writers Tell Themselves, #591

English: Bouquet of yellow roses, red flowers

Well, you can’t just let the damn things arrange themselves. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was chatting with a friend the other day about flower arrangements.

…Shut up, I’m going somewhere with this.

Anyway, like I said: flower arrangements. She’s a floral designer and was texting me pictures of the pieces she was working on that day. From there we got to talking about working within the limitations of the media—ink and paint for me, plants and wire* for her—and the nature of finished products. It translates over to writing as well; after all, it’s just another medium, with its own kind of limitations.

There was a lead up, but here’s the bottom line: the best art looks effortless.

It doesn’t matter how long it took, or how many times you had to redo it. When it’s done, it should seem easy. Like anyone looking at it, or reading it, will think, Well, of course that’s how it goes. It couldn’t go any other way. That’s how that landscape should look, or how that flower arrangement should fall, or how that scene should read.

Think about this next time you’re working on a piece. When you’re messing with timelines and plots and the balance of show versus tell and all the other messy, occasionally tedious chores that go into making something. All the effort that went into that story, that chapter, that sentence, won’t be seen by the reader. And it shouldn’t be. The best writing passes as easily as water flowing downhill.

Of course, for those of us attempting to do the same thing, it makes us roaringly jealous. Other people seem to have it easy. Things just come to them, right? Not like us. We have to work at it.

That’s a lie. Every effortless sketch you see, every perfect piece of prose, every movie scene that slides past your eyes and into your heart…you can bet your mother’s ass there’s someone behind the scenes, working like a mad bastard to make it right.

You just never see it.

*And probably some other stuff. I know jack about flower arrangements.