Around this time in National Novel Writing Month, I start seeing a litany of familiar fears and complaints from first-time participants. My plot isn’t working. My story’s boring. I don’t know what to do next. I’ve hit a block and I can’t write another word. This is literally the worst thing I’ve written, quite possibly the worst thing anyone has ever written.
I’ve got bad news, guys. Those fears aren’t endemic to Nanowrimo. They are the tiny ankle-biting gremlins of the writing life, and they will be with you all your days. You might as well start naming and feeding the little bastards right now. You might placate them for a while, but they can never truly die.
I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t had moments of crippling doubt about their own work. Most writers I know have days where they feel like they’d just as soon hang it up. Every one of them has felt like a failure at one time or another, myself included. But the real writers keep writing, and if you want to be one, just repeat these three simple words: permission to suck. These words form the map that leads out of the caverns of despair and self-loathing. They are tranquilizer darts for the ankle goblins.
Although a lot of writers (and editors) seem to look down on it, I’ll always owe a lot to Nanowrimo, because it taught me one of the most valuable lessons in my writing life: there’s every chance your first draft is likely to be complete shit, and that’s okay. Seriously, it’s okay.
A lot of aspiring writers I know want to start at the top and work their way up. It’s natural. The desire to rattle off a brilliant, life-changing work in a couple of coffee-addled weekends and bask in the adoration of our peers is something most of us have probably entertained at one time or other. It’s an idea shot into our heads by movies and television, where a writer lights up a cigarette and creates something beautiful in the space of a pop-anthem montage. We buy into this and let it poison us. Some aspire to being great before they dare aspire to being decent. Some decide imaginary greatness is preferable to real mediocrity, and so they may never start at all, and they sure as hell never finish.
It took me years to figure this out, so I know that it may seem difficult. But your draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be great or even good. It has every chance of being born into the world an ugly, mewling, mutant thing, warty with flaws and riddled with issues. Accept it. Embrace it. Love it anyway, and let it grow into something more. Don’t toss it off a cliff Sparta-style because you took one look and judged it too weak to live.
If you find yourself struggling with your draft, despairing that it’s shit, wondering if you have what it takes to be a writer, the test is right there in front of you. Either give yourself permission to suck and finish what you started, or expect perfection the first time around and invite crushing failure. If you’re struggling with these doubts and you want to push past them, there’s really only one choice.
So go nuts. Hit the gas and punch through that plot hole like a semi running a roadblock. Inconsistencies? Who cares? One-dimensional characters? You can add dimension later. Loose ends? Tie them up on your way back through, because believe me, you will be back. The Plot Police aren’t going to show up to your house and start marking down your mistakes in the Book of Life. You can screw up. It’s okay. Just remember why you started this thing, and let that carry you through to the finish.
Now go forth and be awesome. Or, you know, go forth and suck. Just keep writing.
Paucity of inspiration hits us all sooner or later. We hit a tricky story problem, labyrinthine chapter, or a mood-killing piece of dialogue that we’re sure reveals us for the insufferable hacks we are. Advice to simply bear down and power through is all well and good, but sometimes we all need a little boost to help get the creative elixir flowing again. Here are a handful of tools (some free, some merely cheap) I’ve had luck with in the past.
1. Oblique Strategies
Originally a series of cards created by musician Brian Eno, Oblique Strategies is a set of context-free remarks and questions designed to break through creative deadlocks. (Eno was the guy who composed the original “Microsoft Sound.” if anyone knows how to work within limitations, I guess it’d be him). The original cards run from the expensive to the ridiculously expensive; fortunately, there’s more than one random Strategy-dispensing website out there, and even a Twitter feed.
2. The Observation Deck: A Tool Kit for Writers
I like to think of the Observation Deck as Oblique Strategies’ more accessible cousin. This set comes with a deck of cards bearing various questions, recommendations, and strategies, most of them more specific and external than Oblique Strategies. The Deck also comes with a booklet explaining the meaning behind each card and brief anecdotes about writers who have used those strategies successfully. I’ve had my set for ten years now, and it still comes in handy every so often.
3. Rory’s Story Cubes
Rory’s Story Cubes are nine dice imprinted with random icons and symbols. Roll them, rearrange them, make up a story based on what the cubes depict. They’re simple and fun. Story Cubes probably won’t help you unlock specific creative problems, but they do make a fun distraction and a handy brainstorming tool. I sometimes break them out when I’m trying to break out of my linear thinking.
4. Seventh Sanctum
Seventh Sanctum is a free site featuring dozens of random generators. They have an entire section devoted to writing, making it a terrific go-to for story ideas, character names, and writing challenges. I visit it when I get the hankering to write a short story but don’t have a compelling idea ready.
5. The Freewrite
In some ways, this is the simplest tool of them all: just write for ten or fifteen minutes without stopping. I first ran across this concept in Peter Elbow’s Writing With Power. Elbow recommends warming up with ten minutes of just writing without pause or backtracking for ten solid minutes. If you can’t think of anything to write, put “I can’t think of anything to write” down on the page. Just don’t stop. The object is to overcome your writing inhibitions and generate words, regardless of their quality or purpose. I’ve broken through more than one creative block with this technique; it’s amazing what you can come up with when you have a short deadline and no particular agenda.
A reader requested that I include the Nanowrimo word count on the original wallpaper, so here it is. I don’t have time to do the rest of the color variants this way, but I might get to it before the month is out. This is also the last time I’ll mention the wallpaper until next week. So, check out the wallpaper page and once again, cheers and happy Nano-ing.
In honor of Nanowrimo’s big kickoff tomorrow (or today, for some of you), I made another Nanowrimo desktop wallpaper. This one just covers the first week, so there will be more like it coming. I don’t know how much true utility this one has, but it was fun to make anyway. Cheers. Oh, and feel free to add me as a writing buddy if you’re so inclined.
I realized belatedly that maybe I should have picked a snappier, less self-centered title, like 10 Books On Writing You Must Read in Order to Not Be a Total Asshole, but, whatever, too late now.)
A friend recently asked for my favorite books on the craft of writing. I had originally intended to go through these volumes in detail, one at a time, but nothing else about this blog has gone how I intended, so here’s my short list. I’ll probably have more to say on each of them later. I’ve already talked about Zen in the Art of Writing in detail, so I won’t say more about it here (other than “buy and read it”).
I don’t generally enjoy Card’s fiction, and to say I disagree with his politics would be a dire understatement — but this book is really good. If you can swallow giving the guy your money, pick up this volume. It’s still the best book on characters I’ve read.
It’s a bit of a cliche to describe a book on writing as being written “from the trenches,” but Ariel Gore’s book reads like that. It’s full of hard-nosed advice and scruffy charm. Especially recommended for people thinking about getting into self-publishing.
The basic unit of the dramatic scene is this: give a character a goal to pursue, have them pursue it, then move that goal further away. Rinse, raise the stakes, repeat. The harder your characters fight to reach their goal (and the further they’re driven away from it), the more your readers will love it.
This is sometimes called obstacle-stacking, and my favorite example of the technique actually comes from a movie: the famous V-Wing fight from Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was hoping to track down a video of the sequence to post here, but unfortunately, no dice. Basically, it goes like this:
Indy and Marion emerge from the Well of Souls and attempt to escape the Nazis on a stolen plane.
Indy sneaks up to try to knock out the pilot. Before he can get there, he’s spotted by another guy.
Indy gets back down off the plane, beats the other guy unconscious, but now the pilot sees what’s going on.
The burly mechanic shows up and starts beating Indy to a pulp.
Marion takes the blocks out from under the plane’s landing gear.
The pilot draws a pistol and nearly shoots Indy, but Marion knocks him out with the blocks.
The unconscious guard falls on the plane controls, the plane is now spinning slowly in place with the propellers running.
Now Indy and the burly mechanic have to avoid the deadly propellers while they’re fighting.
Marion tries to stop the plane, but the hatch closes on her and she’s locked in.
The rotating plane knocks open the gas tank of a truck. Gas spills across the runway.
A whole mess of guards show up in trucks, armed with machine guns.
Marion machine-guns the guards, but one of the trucks explodes, and now gas is now flowing toward the flames.
The plane is about to blow up, Marion’s trapped inside, and Indy is being beaten senseless as deadly propellers whirl over his head.
All they wanted to do was get on the plane! To me, this is a pitch-perfect example of how to create drama: a simple goal, and things relentlessly going wrong. This is the good kind of obstacle-stacking: the kind that gets your readers turning pages, forsaking sleep, missing appointments, and alienating loved ones.
But there’s a different kind of obstacle-stacking, which is neither dramatic nor gripping. I’m talking about the obstacles people set in front of them when they plan to start writing. Here’s an example, which is completely fictional and totally not from my own life, especially not from earlier this week.
A hypothetical author (TOTALLY NOT ME) gets up, plans to do some writing.
But first, better check email. And blogs. And Twitter.
One can’t write on an empty stomach, so breakfast time. Better make it as complicated as possible.
Oops, just got another email because I didn’t turn off my email client. I mean he didn’t. Oh, screw it.
I need coffee. I have to wash the coffee pot and filter because I didn’t do it last night.
Is it dark in here? I better adjust the shades. Now it’s too bright. Now it’s too dim. Now it’s too bright again.
Better clean this desk off too. A dirty desk is the sign of a dirty — coffee’s done! Oops, too much cream. Now not enough. Now too much again. Now I spilled hot coffee on my crotch. Time for several minutes of screaming and worrying about my future offspring, followed by laundry triage.
Okay, NOW I’m ready — maybe I should read a few more blogs, you know, for inspiration. Inspiration to do what, you ask? Look, nobody likes a wise-ass.
The cat needs attention. Well I can’t neglect the cat, that would make me some sort of monster!
And I don’t want the other cat to get jealous, so…
Now to spend ten minutes finding just the right piece of music.
All right. I’m finally all set! Everything’s perfect and —
Now my coffee’s cold.
You know, it’s almost lunch, I’ll catch up this afternoon.
Ad infinitum, up to and including social obligations, TV series, the gym, the laundry, the telephone, the doorbell, and so on.
If this looks like textbook procrastination, that’s because it is. But that’s what procrastination amounts to: stacking obstacles between you and your writing. Sometimes they’re perfectly legitimate circumstances that come up. Sometimes they’re just situations you make up. Life will make it hard enough for you to write without you helping.
I still struggle with the urge to wait for the “perfect” circumstances to write in: the day that I’m well-rested, have big blocks of unbroken time, feel inspired, and meet any number of ephemeral criteria. While these days do happen, they’re like a combination of leap year and Christmas. You can’t depend on them coming along very frequently.
Moving yourself further from the act of writing is drama you don’t need, and no one’s going to find it riveting, least of all you. If you want to create a series of insurmountable obstacles, put them in front of your characters instead. Your readers, and your muse, will thank you.
I have a guest post over on WrimosFTW! about how I wrote 10,000 words in a day for Nanowrimo a few years ago. These days, such an accomplishment is pretty banal; to get noticed by Nano, people now have to write 20,000 words in an hour on the back of a bus ticket while wearing a chicken suit in Times Square. In their own blood. The bar’s gotten kinda high. But back in 2005, I managed to get a brief interview and a spot on the Nanowrimo front page. And I was every bit as photogenic then as I am now, which is to say not in the least. Anyway, check it out over at WrimosFTW, and thanks to Lyn Midnight for the opportunity.
Among the many stops on what I call the Road to Getting Serious About Writing is a frank conversation I had with a close friend many years ago. He had just finished assembling materials for a book idea he’d been kicking around for years, and admitted to me that he was nervous about starting.
“Why?” I asked. “You’ve obviously got the knowledge, you’re passionate about the subject, you’re a skilled writer. What are you worried about?”
“Well,” he said, “this is my life’s work… what if I put in all that work and it isn’t any good?”
I winced because I’d felt the same way, many times. This particular fear often comes to haunt me in the wolf’s hour, when it’s three in the morning and I can’t get to sleep because of the parade of morbid thoughts stomping over my ribcage. It rears its deformed head when I’m in the midst of an editing problem of Gordian proportions. It bites my ankles in the evening hours when I’m behind deadline and my inspiration has gone as limp as overcooked linguine. It peers over my shoulder and paraphrases the bitchy girlfriend from Happy Gilmore: “All you ever talk about is being a writer. But there’s a problem. You’re not any good!” This is the worst of all, because apparently my taunting psychopomp enjoys Adam Sandler movies, and therefore so do I. If that’s not an eldritch blasted heath of the soul, I don’t know what is.
This fear is not only natural, it’s fairly endemic to writers in general. I have yet to meet a writer who hasn’t white-knuckled their way through spasms of self-doubt at least once. But ultimately, it’s like any other psychological terror: you either let it stop you, or you work through it. Here are some things to keep in mind that might help you banish the lurking fear back to the unholy terror dimension from whence it came.
You’ll fail for sure if you don’t try.
This is so obvious it circles the drain of empty platitudes, but it’s true enough that it bears repeating. If you write a bad book, then you write a bad book. Or short story, or screenplay, or whatever. But if you write nothing, then you’ve got nothing. Whenever I start thinking about giving up because trying’s just too damn much work, I recall a favorite quote from Al Pacino in Glengarry Glenn Ross: “In this life, you regret the things you don’t do.” Granted, he was a crooked real estate salesman trying to hoodwink a potential mark, but… well… shut up! It’s motivational, okay?
“Not any good” isn’t an ending, it’s an obstacle.
Life isn’t like a movie. In real life, couples who finally get together after a series of hilarious misunderstandings have to learn to get along. Likewise, giving up on your book isn’t going to end with you laying on the floor in defeat and the camera slowly zooming out while the theme from Requiem for a Dream swells in the background. You’re going to have to live with yourself for the full run, so you might as well learn from your mistakes and get back in the game.
A bad book can be fixed. You can learn craft. You can learn to edit. You can get better. You have awesome opposable thumbs and the capacity to absorb new knowledge. Expecting perfection the first time around is a rookie mistake, Millhouse. Get shut of it and embrace the joyous torment of revision.
Maybe this isn’t your life’s work.
The very words “life’s work” can carry a heavy load for a writer. Certainly you have to invest emotionally in your work to get to the finish line, but it’s easy to get overly invested and start defining yourself by the quality of your prose. All the passion in the world won’t do you any good if you spook yourself into never writing again.
Accept imperfection as inevitable and don’t raise the bar so high for yourself that you can no longer spot it in the clouds. Chances are you have many more stories in you, so don’t hang the world on this one. I used to think every writer out there just polished their first book until they sold it, but a lot of them don’t. Some have written as many as twenty books before making a successful sale. So don’t write off the rest of your creative future just yet.
Like Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, the lurking fears of writing can never truly be defeated. They await, dead but dreaming, for the moment when the stars are right. And when “the stars are right,” I mean when you’ve run out of coffee and you’ve been staring at the blank page for an hour and listening to the sussurrus of your hair falling out. But you can dispel these fears long enough to get your work done.
So you decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month this year. You’ve kicked around a few ideas and sworn to make an outline. Then things got busy. The kid got sick. You just had to find out if Elise was going to get kicked off Hell’s Kitchen. Your World of Warcraft raid group decided they were going to run Firelands without pants. Your muse packed up her stuff, gave you the finger, and knocked over your entire collection of Elvis commemorative plates on the way out the door. Or whatever. Long story short, you’ve burned your time like a Roman candle, Nanowrimo is a week away, and you’ve got nothing. Nothing! What do you do?
All is not lost. It might be a bit late in the game to meticulously plan ahead, but you can still throw something together in time for your inevitable November panic attack. It won’t be perfect, but you don’t want it to be perfect. Perfectionism runs contrary to the very spirit of Nanowrimo. Here, then, is a quick-and-dirty method for outlining that you can pull off in a week or less.
I call this the Hailstorm Approach, which is to say that it’s an extremely stripped-down variant of Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. (I had considered calling it the Half-Pants Approach, but that sounded kind of dirty.) If you want a proper, useful method of outlining a novel before you write, I highly recommend the Snowflake. But the Snowflake is far more thorough and time-consuming than this, and that’s time you probably don’t have with Nanowrimo only a week away.
If you’re experienced with outlining, then you probably have no need for this. But if you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer or a first-timer looking for a framework for your story, this method might help you get through Nanowrimo with your sanity intact. I broke these steps down into daily tasks, but there’s no rule saying you can’t do it all in one Herculean sitting if you’re that kind of maniac.
So here we go.
1. Pick a Genre, Write a One-Sentence Summary
Before you even start, you have to know what your story’s about. Most likely, you already have this covered; if not, well, here’s your big chance. Don’t worry too much about specifics at this point. Just boil your story down to your “elevator pitch,” the single sentence that sums up the book you want to write. You should also pick the genre(s) for your book. If you want to write a crazy, genre-mashing masterpiece for Nanowrimo, that’s fine, but it’s best if you at least know which genres you’ll be defying from the outset.
2. Better Get a Bucket
Next, make a wishlist of all the stuff you want to write about. Nanowrimo transforms November into a demanding beast, and you may find motivation and inspiration at a premium. So just write down everything you want to put in your book, no matter how off-the-wall or unlikely it might seem. Aim for one simple criterion: if the thought of writing a particular element excites you, put it on the list. You’re under no obligation to include everything on this list when the time comes to write your draft, and you can save the elements you don’t use for a later project.
3. Three Acts, Three Disasters
To keep your novel from meandering, impose a loose three-act structure for the novel. Again, don’t get really exacting about it at this point, just have a rough idea in mind. Ingermanson adds another layer onto this, called the “three-disaster” structure. These are basically three obstacles that you throw in front of your protagonists before the climax of the story:
The Three Disaster Structure says that you have three MAJOR disasters in your story and they are equally spaced. So Disaster 1 comes at the end of the first quarter. Disaster 2 comes right at half-time. Disaster 3 comes at the end of the third quarter.
Once you’ve figured these things out, you’ll have a skeletal framework for your story. This framework will almost certainly change over time and multiple drafts, so don’t sweat it too much. The goal here is not to create a rigid plan that you can’t deviate from — it’s to keep your contemporary political thriller from becoming a sci-fi epic about ninja chimps swordfighting on Mars (unless that’s your one-sentence summary, in which case, good work!)
4. Characters and Aspects
If you’ve been writing for awhile, you’re probably intimately familiar with the many intricate character charts that detail every nuance of a character’s existence. Such a thorough level of detail is probably impractical given the pace and scope of Nanowrimo, so here’s a quick compromise: for each character, come up with a name, then a set of five to ten “aspects” that describe that character. These can be anything: physical descriptors, story goals, personality traits, quotes, character tropes, a list of their diseases… anything you think sums up the characters. Don’t worry about being consistent — just make a quick sketch of each major character.
5. Relationships and Conflicts
Now that you’ve figured out your characters and their roles in the story, it’s time to start tying them together. Carve out some relationships: best friends, lovers, sworn enemies, backstabbing traitors, disapproving parental figures, whatever. If a sketch or a mind-map works better than a bulleted list, do that. Plotting out the major relationships and keeping them in front of you will lend your scenes clarity and drive, especially when characters are working at cross-purposes. Again, this is not a stone tablet to be slavishly devoted to — if you get to writing and you find something’s not working, jettison it without mercy.
6. Create Summaries for Major Characters
At a certain point in the outlining process, the Snowflake Method recommends writing the entire story from the point of view of each character. This presumes that you’ve already written a summary of the story in its entirety, though, and since this method doesn’t include that step, I recommend a slightly different approach.
Write a couple of sentences or a short paragraph describing the story arc for each major character: where they begin, how they change, and where they end up. If you’ve outlined your characters and their relationships in the previous steps, this should be pretty easy pickings. Paint with a broad brush and don’t get hung up on details — there’s plenty of time for that later.
7. Create a Rough Scene List
For the final step, break out a new text file or a spreadsheet and create a list of scenes for your novel, from beginning to end. Include the point-of-view character and a one-sentence summary of what happens in each scene. Again, this is not to be considered immutable law — just a low-level breakdown of the story.
Pick items generously from the wishlist you made above: include everything you find exciting and compelling. Try to add only scenes that move the story forward. One of the big advantages of outlining is that you cut way down on wasted scenes that go nowhere. They’ll probably still crop up during your draft, but there will be far fewer of them.
And that’s it. You now have a nice, messy framework for your Nanowrimo novel, with just enough detail to keep you going, while not detracting from the joy of the first-draft rush.
If by any chance you end up using this method, I’d love to hear about it. Criticisms, recommendations and refinements are equally welcome. Happy Nano-ing this November!