Fail?

I have given up (for now).

I am not going to make it to 50,000 words by the end of the day. I am not going to even get close. My word count sits at 30,194 at this point. I may add another thousand by day’s end, but it was clear more than a week ago that it just wasn’t going to happen this year.

 – Begin excuse portion – 

I don’t have any valid excuses, but here is what seems to have happened. Some of the excitement was gone this year. You can never recapture that first-time rush, that panic, pain and ecstasy. Since I was successful last year, I knew I could do it again this time. And somehow, knowing that I could succeed took some of the motivation away. I wasn’t working without a net.

In fact there were too many nets. I wanted to make this one different. There had to be more characters, more stories intertwining. I wanted the story to be more distant from my own experience. I wanted a book I could actually describe in a synopsis and make it sound interesting.

I don’t know if you could call it a sophomore slump when your first effort wasn’t a hit, but it felt like a slump nonetheless. I hit a personal rough patch mid-month, and lost all motivation. Nothing dramatic happened – no family crisis, no health problems, no accident that broadsides you on a random Tuesday – it was just a confluence of things that sent me spiraling.

This time around, I had more of an idea of where the story was going. This should have made it easier, but it did take away from some of the excitement of discovery. There are still many things that came to me in the moment, but somehow the scenes that I had planned a bit ahead of time were harder to start. There is sort of a fear that I won’t be able to pull them off.

But of course I can’t pull anything off that I don’t start.

 – End of excuse portion – 

I may have failed to reach the 50,000 mark within the 30 day challenge, but I will finish this book. Though I haven’t read it yet, I think there is something there, there. The pressure of a deadline forces me to sit down and write whether I feel creative or not, but I need to be able to do that on my own any month of the year if I want to continue to have this be a part of who I am.

I am digging my way out of the slump I fell into. Though I am disappointed I did not pull off the NaNoWriMo challenge this year, I do not consider 30,000 words a failure. Beating myself up over it (as tempting as that is for me) will not make me any more motivated.

I will get inspired again. I will sit my butt in the chair and write. I will finish what I started.

Just not today.

Different but the same

Different novel, same story.

The first week of NaNoWriMo went relatively well. I sat down at the computer on a regular basis, and met my daily word count. The characters that had been bouncing around in my head were now taking life on paper. They were talking, they were fighting, they were going places.

On day six I was within a couple hundred words of that graph line that leads to 50,000 words. Then I plateaued again. Last year I was out of town for several days in the second week, and wrote nothing. This time I had no excuse. I had time, I had a quiet household to write in, and yet I stalled just the same.

Doubt and over-thinking moved in and chased creativity out. I struggled to type anything. I think what I am writing is more polished than the first draft last year, but it is only because I am taking so (too) long with it. I have lost the panicked abandon of just getting anything down on paper. After several rewrites of the first novel, I am too self-critical this time around. I hover too long over every word and paragraph.

I have a much better idea of where the story is going this time around, but that doesn’t seem to help. I keep those plot points safely out in the distance, worried about how I am going to pull them off. Like last year, I am counting on things developing as I write. And they are developing slowly.

But there are good things happening. I will finish this thing. Even if I don’t make it to 50,000 words by the end of the month. But I am hoping for some of the late month magic that happened last time. To get to the point in the story where it takes off and the words come more easily.

I haven’t given up.

What to write?

Last year, I started with little more than an opening paragraph. I wrote my way into the story and figured it out on the way. I did have the physical structure of a road trip to lead me along, and that helped the story to move forward.

Share the Road was a man vs man sort of novel. I like the way the book turned out, but it is a relatively simple plot with only a few characters. I wanted to write a more typical novel this time around. More characters and story lines. But what to write about this time?

I was wrapped up in the last book for most of the year, but wondering what I would do next was lurking in the back of my mind. As November approached, I was starting to panic. I had nothing.

One morning, I was listening to a podcast on the way to work. The Seattle affiliate of NPR does a show with Nancy Pearl, a librarian worthy of her own action figure. She discusses books once a month, usually under a tenuous theme, though they go off on tangents when they present themselves.

I don’t remember the theme of the particular podcast, but it had me in the literary mind as I drove. Then I saw something in the car next to me that sparked an idea. It started to spin into something over the next 15 miles. It was something. Finally.

I wrote some things down in the first few days after the spark, but little later. I wanted to be better prepared this time. I wanted to do a little planning, maybe draw up a rough outline of how the story would progress. But the story sat tucked away in the back of my head, safe from any active work.

As is typical, I crammed for finals. I still didn’t plan out the book in outline form, but I at least thought about the characters, their histories and their motivations. Sticking with On Writing as my guide, I plan to let them discover their own story.

Hopefully they have some good ideas.

Back up

I write regularly in coffee shops and libraries. I am more easily distracted at home, so I am constantly carrying my netbook around. I am paranoid about losing my novel through either theft of my netbook, or from a computer crash that I can’t recover from. I don’t want to imagine losing my first novel. I don’t know if I would have the strength to write it again.

I have been using the online service DropBox. Dropbox is essentially an online drive where you can store and backup your information. Not only is the information backed up, but you can you access files from any computer or Smartphone. When you sign up for the (free) service, you place a folder on any device you use regularly. When a file is saved to the local folder, a copy is stored online, and the folders on your other devices are updated as well. You can also access the folder on any random computer by going to their website and signing in with your password.

When I was writing the first draft of Share the Road, I backed it up after each session. And either through paranoia, or to create a road map of how far I got each day, I sent a separate file each day leaving all the previous ones intact. There are 30 versions of the first draft, one for each day I wrote. I did the same thing for each of the edits, so there are more than a hundred files, each with a slightly different version of the book.

I doubt I will ever go back and pour over each version to see what each contains, but it is sort of interesting to look back on the file dates to see how long I took on each round of editing. I probably won’t even open more than a few of the files at any time, but it is nice to know they are there, backed up on another server in case my computer fails.

And of course, most everything is backed up on another external drive in case the cloud fails me. You can never be too careful.

Turning point

I was over two thirds of the way through the month, but not as far along on the word count. I had been doing a pretty good job at clawing my way back toward that purple line over the past five days, but as my text on the 22nd implied, I was hitting another stall point where doubt and terrible writing were creeping in.

I wrote nothing on the 24th, and very little on the 25th. I was bumping up against the turning point in the novel. Unfortunately, I didn’t exactly know what that turning point was going to be. I was stalling, not sure where to go. Five days until the deadline, 16,500 words to go.

The character in my book was riding his bike down the west coast. He was physically moving down the road as the story unfolded, and he had reached a nice stopping point. Something needed to happen. I was running out of time and real estate. So I plunged ahead.

Over the next few days, I wrote furiously. The combination of the approaching deadline and my own discovery about where the story was leading spurred me on. The story started to move, and the words came more easily. It certainly did not “write itself” as I have heard some people describe it, but in a way I was more detached and excited to see how it would turn out.

Over the final five days, I wrote those 16,500 words, plus a few more. At noon on November 30th, 2010, I had 50,213 words toward my first novel. I had made it. Through all the stalling and all the days where I didn’t write, I had crossed the finish line with twelve hours to spare.

The good news/bad news? I’m wasn’t done. When I was stalled at 33,000 words, I didn’t think I had enough left to say to make it to the 50,000 word mark. But the turning point ended up being longer than expected, so I have a few more chapters to go until I reach “The End”.

I took a much needed break for a day or two, but was back at it after a couple of days. On December 12th, I had 9,000 more words and the first draft of my first novel.

My first novel. Hard to believe.

But the work and fun were just beginning.

Outrunning and sheltering self-doubt

I want to vomit on my keyboard. Who is writing this crap? Oh wait, its me.

I sent this text to my writing buddy on day 22 of the 30 day challenge. He said that if he had ripped out the backspace key, he would have been finished long ago. I suggested that we turn down the screen brightness all the way so we didn’t have to read what we were writing.

Lack of confidence and that niggling feeling of self-doubt. The feeling that what you are creating is not only poor, but worthless and laughable. I am sure that even successful writers feel this insecurity at times, and there may be no way around it. It is something you just have to plow through. If it turns out you were right, and the thing you were creating was indeed crap, well, you’ll find that out soon enough. No need to torture yourself in the meantime.

I’d like to say that I kept this in mind at all times, but of course I didn’t. Several times a day, that lingering feeling would creep in and stall my progress. But like that one good golf shot that gives you hope after a terrible round, there would be that one idea or turn of phrase that sustained me through all self-critiquing. But it was always a bit of a struggle. I sent up the text message flare because I knew my buddy would understand my frustration.

Another bit from On Writing by Stephen King on the way he pushes through:

With the door shut, downloading what’s in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in. 

The time pressure of the looming 50,000 word deadline helped to push me along when I wanted to pause over the next sentence. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, I did not go back and read any of what I had written at the end of the day. I tried to keep pressing forward and didn’t want my critical eye going over any of the crap from the last day or three weeks. I think this helped, but the better lesson came in the very next paragraph of King’s book:

The first draft – the All-Story Draft – should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else. There may come a point when you want to show what you’re doing to a close friend (very often the close friend you think of first is the one that shares your bed), either because you’re proud of what you’re doing or because you’re doubtful about it. My best advice is to resist that impulse. Keep the pressure on; don’t lower it by exposing what you’ve written to the doubt, the praise or even the well-meaning questions of someone from the Outside World. Let your hope of success (and your fear of failure) carry you on, as difficult as that can be.

I did not show anyone the first draft of my novel while I was working on it. I probably didn’t need the above lesson to keep it locked away, but it helped reinforce the decision. At the very least, I figured I should be the first reader. Since I hadn’t been reading it as I went along, there was a certain amount of excitement to go back and see what I had created. But paired with that was the always present self-doubt, and I think showing an incredibly rough draft to the world would only amplify the feeling. Especially a work in progress. I agreed that the head down, shut out the world approach was the best for me.

Even with these barriers to self doubt, it still creeped in as indicated by the text to my buddy. But by the end of day 22, there were 32,117 words down and I was approaching the turning point in the book. Whether or not the Outside World would ever see it, the creation continued.

Accountability to a diagonal line

Part of the attraction of the NaNoWriMo challenge is the vague sense of accountability it gives you. No one is looking over your shoulder to see what you have written, or slapping your hand with a ruler if you set aside your writing to check Facebook, but you still feel responsible (if only to a website) to get the work done.

You are encouraged to update your word count on the website every day to document your progress. The number is posted prominently on your page, along with stats like

  • How many words you should have written by now.
  • How far behind or (just imagine) ahead you are.
  • Your current daily word count average.
  • When you will finish at your current pace.
  • Number of words you need to write each day in order to finish in a month. 

But the biggest motivator for me was one of the simplest. The purple line.

The blue bars are your daily totals, and the purple line is where you need to be each day to reach 50,000 words in 30 days. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

As you can see on the graph, I put myself behind the 8-ball by writing absolutely nothing for the five days I was in Phoenix. At the worst, I was almost 8800 words, or five days behind. I had another non-productive day on the 17th, but over the next four days I was able to get in some extra work and reduced the deficit to around 5600 (or 3 days). I was still too far behind, but I was slowly clawing my way back.

Writing is definitely a rhythm thing for me, and motivation often follows momentum. But nothing focuses my energies like an approaching deadline. I found the simple, graphical representation of where I needed to be at all times more helpful than anything to keep me on track. It felt like I was almost physically reaching for the bar to pull myself back up.

Week three was somewhat of a mad scramble to get caught up, and the added pressure helped to muzzle the inner editor (a little). The words weren’t coming any easier, but it started to feel like the good to crappy ratio was getting a little better. Certain elements of the story were starting to come into focus, and there were moments when I would pick up and expand on something I wrote, seemingly at random, weeks earlier.

I still had a turning point and ending to work out, but chasing the purple line kept the story moving forward.

Week two, more stalling

I read somewhere among all the helpful material posted on the NaNoWriMo site that week two is often the hardest for writers. In week one, the excitement and novelty of the challenge keeps your motivation high. You are also doing a fair amount of world-building to set up the story, and some writers can spend many hours and chapters introducing all the players.

In week two, some of the new-challenge glow has worn off, you are out of set up material, and it starts to feel more like work than fun. There are very few players in my novel, so I had less of the built in bit of introductory material to write. As I mentioned in the previous post, I started struggling early on, but I wrote enough each day to maintain the word average necessary to hit 50,000 in 30 days. For the first 10 days that is. Then I left town.

I went to visit a friend in Arizona for five days. I brought along my computer thinking that I might get up early to get in an hour or two of writing before everyone else was up. But I was fooling myself. We stayed up into the wee hours each evening, and I just didn’t have it in me to take away hours from our visit to write. Outside of writing a few hundreds words while waiting for my flight, nothing was done for five days.

I thought that at least some ideas would be percolating in the background while I stepped away from the novel, but it didn’t seem like I returned with much of anything new. Except an 8,000 word hole that I would have to dig myself out of. Time to return to my cramming skills developed in school.

Distraction

When I was younger, I could tune out everyone around me in a crowded restaurant or coffee shop, but could not resist the small distractions of home. If I wanted to get any work done, I had to get out of the house.

I worked in restaurants all through school. School during the day, work four or five evenings a week. I would try to get some work done in between, but I was often up past midnight studying. But if I went home, tv or bed was too great a temptation. I spent many evenings at the local Denny’s studying or doing homework.

I knew the menu by heart and was on a first name basis with all the servers. One was even inspired to go back to school after watching me study there night after night. I developed my penchant for coffee shops not long after, and could spend hours lost in a book oblivious of all the chatter of the nearby tables.

Unfortunately, I have lost some of that ability to focus in a loud room.  My ability to shut out distracting temptations at home is a bit better, but only slightly. I live with two roomies and a small child, so it is easy to get drawn into the activity of the house. So I had to go to the “office” to get my writing done.

Starbucks was the most tempting, but I most often ended up at the local library to save money. It is only a couple miles away, and of course there should be librarians keeping the noise level down. Most of the people there were huddled around the computers up front, so I often had the tables in the stacks to myself. I could spend a couple hours a day there getting my words in.

I found some online help in case the going got particularly tough. There is a Chrome browser extension called Stay Focusd. You can set up hours you should be working, and if you visit selected (or all) sites online, a timer starts. After a selected online time has expired, you are blocked out for the rest of the day. If you try to visit anyway, a page pops up that says “Shouldn’t you be working?”

Another site is called Write or Die. Depending on the consequences you chose, when you stop writing a pop up will taunt you, an annoying sound will play, or the program will start unwriting what you have written. The desktop version prevents you from using the backspace key.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to go to the software nuclear options, but it was close.

Quieting the inner editor

Day one, November 1st, 30 days to write a 50,000 word novel.

To make the 50,000 word mark, I needed to average about 1,700 words a day. I have no idea if this sounds like a lot to you, but in practice it felt huge at times. Day one went reasonably well as the details of the first scene had been working themselves out in the back of my mind. Day two, I was on my own.

One of the stated goals of NaNoWriMo is to turn off your inner editor. That little (sometimes loud) voice that says, “that paragraph makes no sense, you have nothing new to say, you’re not much of a writer, no one will ever want to read this, this is all crap…” The point of the challenge is to create enough time pressure that you are forced to just write as quickly as possible. In order to get your daily count of words, you need to muzzle that inner editor. Quantity over quality. What you are writing may indeed be crap, but you can always clean it up later. If you listened solely to your inner editor, nothing would ever get written.

For the first week of writing, I still struggled against the voices and hesitated too long over sentences. It would take me a while to get the ball rolling and I found myself staring too often at that little word count number at the bottom of the page. Writing became a rhythm thing, and things would speed up in the second half, but each morning I would stall out again.

The one thing I was able to do to limit the inner editor was that I didn’t go back and read what I had written at the end of the day. Once it was down on the screen, I did not go back to it. Each morning I would read the last paragraph or two to see where I left off, but I would not go back any farther. I didn’t want to give my inner editor any more ammunition than it already had.