writers write

A Writing Retrospective

A couple weeks ago, I did something I hadn’t done in almost 200 days.

Or rather, I didn’t do something I had done every day, for just under 200 times in a row.

On May 16, I did not write. No blog entry, no flash fiction, no in-progress novel.

Oh, I wrote plenty on May 16. Notes on essays, probably some e-mail responses, but those don’t count.

Prior to that Wednesday, however, I wrote. Every day, all 195 of them from November 2 through May 15, I created some typed content. I wrote on Christmas. I wrote on New Years Day. On Valentine’s Day. On St. Patrick’s Day. The day AFTER St. Patrick’s Day. I wrote the day I flew to Hawaii, and every day when I was there. On the day I flew to a curling bonspiel, and after every game I played while I was there. I wrote while camping (although it was only a one night camping trip, so I wrote before I left and after I got back).

More specifically, during that streak, I typed at least 444 words into the website 4thewords.com. That website is also the reason I know how impressive my streak was. I don’t even know what my best streak was before this. Maybe twenty days? I mean, I know I sure as shit never wrote on Christmas before. Or any of those other dates written above. Except for Camptathalon, of course.

But 4thewords keeps track of my streak, which thereby makes it easier to maintain said streak. My character gets special wings when my streak reaches a certain number of days.

The website and its various carrots are also the reason that the streak was as impressive as it was. I wrote about it after NaNoWriMo. Wow, the number of throwbacks in this blog post makes it feel like those clip shows that sitcoms used to run in April before everything was available on demand.

But because of 4thewords.com, for the first time ever, I continued writing after November was over. Every day. Some days it’s a struggle. Some days, I drudge back downstairs at 10 PM to put down some drivel. Naturally, I get wordier that time of night. Or maybe, since I’m typing this in 4tw, it might be better to say I get as wordy as a talkative wordsmith crafting his wordiness for a living.

What happened on May 16? It was a conscious decision to not write. No, I didn’t wake up with a general “fuck it.” But, with the finite amount of time available to me between the child being put down and my impending crash into unconsciousness, I opted for what was behind Door #2. The AP Test was two days away and I still had a handful of essays I wanted to return  to the students taking the test the following day.

So I said “Fuck it.”

Actually, after I “fucked it” (fuck ited? wordy wordsmithed it?), I logged onto the website to make sure I didn’t lose my streak. They have a special item that extends a streak without needing the 444 words. I had five of them in reserve. Then I got back on the donkey the next day. I’m now up to 216 days, which they count as 195 legitimate days + May 16 + 20 more days since.

So don’t worry, I didn’t lose my wings. Had I not owned one of those items, then I guess my students would’ve just been a little less prepared for a nationwide standardized exam. Gotta have my priorities, after all. Now I have four of the mulligans left. I’ll earn back the one I used next Monday when my streak hits 222. Who knows, maybe I’ll just get a hankerin’ and take a week off from writing. Of course, this is coming from the teacher who has 120 sick days banked, so it’ll take a much more legitimate “fuck it” before I lose that streak.

But still, maybe I should take Christmas off this year.

Oh wait, Christmas is with the in-laws this year? Yeah, I’ll be writing that day.

So what are the results of this newfound verbosity?

On a sidenote, I just looked up verbosity on thesaurus.com, and evidently there’s a word called logorrhea. Like diarrhea, but with words. I definitely need to use that word more.

Okay, here are the stats: I just passed 197,000 words written on the website. Not bad.

They’ve come in all forms: blog posts, which have allegedly become more frequent; flash fiction, and I promise there are more of those on the way, I can only post them after I lose the contest, but I’m 0-for-4 so far, so I’ll start posting them weekly in the summer; e-mails, letters, and Facebook posts (don’t judge); and, of course, the novel-in-progress.

I started the novel way back in NaNoWriMo, 2014. You can read the basis for it here. And a sample chapter that’s four years old. It fizzled out after about 25,000 words, but the idea was still there. Over the next four years, I managed another 15,000 words. In the past 200 days, I’ve added another 75,000+ words to be on the cusp of 120,000 words. That’s too long for a first book, but a lot of those frivolous words will be edited out. I’m guessing it’s closer to 80,000 legitimate words.

How did I triple the output? Well, this will be a shocking answer to some: I actually sat my ass down and wrote. For 200 days. Not always on the book, but I run out of e-mails eventually, and if I want my 444 words, I’m going to have to move that pesky main character along.

I always knew where the book was going. Since I first started, I had this grandiose final scene in my head. Some of the dialogue’s been ready to go for four years. I’ve known where the characters will be placed and exactly how much of the big picture would be revealed (gotta keep a couple things for the sequel, after all).

But getting to that final scene is sometimes a problem. And by sometimes, I mean always. For four years. I’d often get stuck mid-scene. How do I get the characters or narrative through a particular scene? So historically, I would get to a spot, the main character dangling precariously from the precipice, and then I’d take a few days off while I mulled how do get him to the bottom of the cliff. Or a few weeks. Or years.

Then maybe I’d figure it out, and I’d sit down to write the scene, and I’d write 1,000 words and, wouldn’t you know it, the fucker’s still up on his clifftop. Because I forgot I needed a little internal dialogue or a scatological description of how scared he is. And then I’d get frustrated that I spent two months deciding where this scene was going and I finally sat down to do it and I DIDN’T EVEN GET TO THE FUCKING PART I JUST SPENT TWO MONTHS FIGURING OUT!

Here’s how that same scene has played out over the past 200 days: I blog for a day, write a flash fiction over the weekend, and when Tuesday rolls around, I guess I have to write the actual book. So I write 500 words. That’s easy enough. Nothing has to happen in 500 words. He shits himself. Then the next day, he wipes for 500 words. After three or four days, I finally get to the point where I just say “Fuck it” and describe him scrambling down the cliff. Three days later he’s finally engaging in the dialogue I’ve known he was going to get into at the bottom of the cliff.

There are chapters that I know for a fact I will chop 1000 of the first 1500 words. But a lot of times those words were necessary for me at the time, because they helped me work through what the character’s going through. I gain insight into my characters and their world that can be edited to be implied instead of explicit.

It’s the same process I would’ve gone through before, just without the winter of contemplation in between.

So here I am, 120000 words later and guess what? I’m finally to that culminating scene! The one that’s been in my mind since page one. Woo Hoo! Easy sailing from here!

And how’s the scene going? The one that I’ve known the intricacies of forever?

Well, I’m blogging right now.

Because, goddammit, this “easy” scene is just as difficult as any other scene. Maybe moreso because it’s the culmination of four years and 120,000 words of character and plot development. One of the characters who’s supposed to be there is dead. There is a character that showed up around the 70,000 word mark that is vitally important now. rDi I just have him stand around and pick his butt while the corpse of the dead character does something important? Just because I know Darth Vader’s going to reveal he’s Luke’s father doesn’t mean I know how Luke’s going to get there in the first place.

Come to think of it, how the hell is there a Death Star-esque bottomless cylinder in Cloud City? Is everything in the Star Wars universe built by the same contractor?

I think there’s something else hindering my process right now. Do you ever get to the end of a book and slow down your reading? Not sure if you’re ready to be done with it? Well, this book’s been in my thought process for four years. What am I going to write the next day? Sure, I have plenty of new books I could start, but which one should I do? I feel like I’ll be so lost when I don’t have this specific existential weight on me. If I’m not thinking of this specific character and plotline, will I suddenly become aware of a lack of substance in the rest of my life?

Meh. Maybe I’ll take another day off.

But until then, it’s a shit-ton of logorrhea.

NaNoWriMo Postmortem

National Novel Writing Month is insane.

Some might say evil, but that could be taking it a bit too far. Not because a month cannot be evil. It most assuredly can. I’m looking in your direction, August. You know why.

But NaNoWriMo is insane.  Writing 1,667 words a day is insane. That many words in one day is no biggie. In fact, I did that a whopping three times in November. Sometimes I can even back up one 1,667-word day with another day that approaches 1,000 words. Hell, I think I got 3,000 words in a weekend once. But writing that much every single day? That’s insane.

Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day. He is insane. He is one of my favorite authors, but he is insane.

Here are my totals for the month: I wrote just under 25,000 words. The first day I fell thirty words short. Could I have written the extra thirty words? Sure. But I figured those extra thirty wouldn’t matter in the long run, and falling short on day one might give me motivation on day two. I was correct on the first assumption, not on the second.

I participated in a number of Word Wars over the past thirty days. In Word Wars, a whole bunch of people stop chatting for about 15 minutes and just write, write, write. I’m usually good for somewhere between 250-350 words in a 15-minute span of writing. Some people write over 1000 words. How? I have no idea. They say things like “it was dialogue,” or “it was a scene I had already thought about.” Um, okay. I could have planned out every damned word, and I couldn’t regurgitate a thousand in fifteen minutes. My brain needs to stop and breathe from time to time.

And yes, I can hear you math majors already – if I can write 300 words every 15 minutes, all it should take me to write 50,000 words is… carry the one… about forty hours. One work week! What’s the problem, Wombat?

The problem is that I can’t string together too many Word Wars. I’ve improved a bit from last year, when I would spend the ten minutes following each Word War going back over the drivel I had just written and edit it. I became much more comfortable with writing, and more importantly leaving, that drivel this year. My inner editor took the month off, and I’m happy with that. I’ve found that the mantra of “fix it in the re-write” is a good one to write by. Characters are going to change, anyway. I’m going to be writing one scene and think “Oh, crap, I need to allude to this in an earlier scene.” So save it for the second draft.

But even without the inner editor and with Word Wars aplenty, I cannot consistently push past 1,500 words. My sweet spot seems to be about 800 words a day. I know I need to increase that. But for right now, those 800 words are all that fit in my brain at any given time. I think about what I’m going to write the next time I write, and about 800 words later, I’ve finished that scene or description or dialogue. Then I usually need some time to think about the next batch. Occasionally that will happen in the same day. I might write a few hundred words, take an hour or two to drive somewhere or take a shower (a really long shower) or whatever, then I’m ready to go again.

So why don’t I just make sure that I always write two batches of 800 every day?

Because I’m not insane.

Okay, maybe that’s not it. I very well might be insane. But the things that are preventing me from always double-dipping, from always pushing 2,000 words a day, are the same old things as before NaNoWriMo.  Lack of motivation, lack of confidence, real world distractions.

This year one of those real world items was my daughter, the best distraction in the world.  Some of the best writing times, evenings and weekends, are now prime baby time.

My wife also has a very busy November. She works in health insurance, and of course, most people renew their insurance on January 1. So her November is spent driving all over to various open enrollment meetings. Last year, she’d call and say she wouldn’t be home till 8:00 or she was spending the night in beautiful Redding, and I thought, “Cool, I’ll just sit here and write.” This year, that meant I was single parent for the night. Similarly, my school district gets the entire week off for Thanksgiving. Last year, I wrote in overdrive that week. This year, we took baby out of daycare for the week and I was full-time daddy.

Mr. Mom finds it hard to get things done. I know, I know, the baby naps. Why don’t I write then? Just like in the first month of her life, when the so-called experts said “sleep when the baby sleeps.” Sounds good in theory, but I never know if this particular nap is the 15-minute variety or the 2-hour coma. And then bottles need cleaning and, oh, a shower might be nice. I can also put the baby in her swing or give her some toys on her playmat. And in fact, I did get some writing done at those points, but anyone with a child knows that is living on borrowed time.

But I’m not laying this year’s shortcoming at those tiny feet. There’s still that fear of the unknown. Twenty-five thousand words later, I still haven’t finished the part of the story I had already plotted out in my head, much less figured out how everything would resolve itself. I thought it would take 10,000 to 15,000 words to get to a point in the story that is still probably over 5,000 words away. Sometimes I got disheartened by how little happened in those 800 words. Hell, I was writing a sex scene for five damned days. Every day, I woke up thinking, “Okay, another two or three hundred words to finish off this scene (literally and figuratively during the sex scene), then on the next scene where some cool stuff will happen.” Then the next day, 1,000 words later, I was still on that damned scene. It’s bad when even the guy writing says “Okay, this scene is boring me, when does the good stuff start happening?”

I know, I know. It’ll come out in the re-write. Some of the excessive character introspection and revelations will be spread out over to other points in the novel.  But you cannot edit a blank page.

And I refuse to divulge how many levels of Bubble Witch Saga I passed when I should have been writing.

Now NaNoWriMo is over. The next time I write 800 words in a day, it will be an accomplishment, not a disappointment. And if I can string together a few of those, who knows, I might finally find out what happens after the sex scene.

This is the time to remind myself that I wrote over 20,000 words last month. That is no small feat, NaNoWriMo be damned. If I could add another 20,000 this month, and another batch in January, I’d be close to having a bona fide novel. Last year this transition from writing in November to writing in December was where I failed miserably. This year, I hope to do a little better.

Right after I do some Cyber Monday shopping.

If worse comes to worse, I can always just wait until next NaNoWriMo and try again. Then maybe I can do everything exactly the same way I did this year. I’ll just expect different results.

Because we all know what that is the definition of.

Not a Writer

I want to be a writer. A paid writer, preferably, but I’d settle for just being a writer. What makes a writer? I’ve visited blogs about writing, read some books, and subscribed to Writer’s Digest. They all give pointers on character development, plot motivation, editing, publishing, you name it. But there is one thread that runs through all writing advice.

Writers write. I think Chuck Wendig might through a “motherfucker” at the end. Succinct, pithy, perhaps a bit simplistic. But writers write.

That’s why I’m not a writer yet. But to continue the Jules Winnfield Pulp Fiction quotes, “I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard.”

Seriously, how hard is it to write? All you have to do is sit down at a keyboard and tap, tap, tap, right? And yet… and yet…

There are a whole bunch of books running around in my head. The one that’s been there the longest is a political drama about a dark horse running for president. It’s been in there since the government class in my senior year of high school. It would have some great plot twists, a seriously flawed antihero, and might even set up a sequel where his brother becomes Governor of California. That is, if I had ever written it. But as of the writing of this blog, (let me do some math, carry the one), about 8,500 days have passed since the idea came to me. The number of words I’ve written is (okay, logarithm to the base of e, translated into base-7, carry that damned one again) zero. Zero words have been put on paper. Oh, there are pages and pages of notes, timelines, character sketches, and outlines. Well, there were all of those things, but I don’t know that I’d be able to find them if I wanted to start up again. I’m guessing they’re in storage with some cassette tapes. But in terms of actual words in the actual novel, I’ve got notihing. Haven’t even created a file named “President Book,” nor typed “Chapter One” on the center of any top line. The good news is that I don’t have to worry about that blinking cursor screaming at me, like I’ve read on many of those blogs about how to get past writer’s block.

But writers write, right? I’m already doing this blog in Microsoft Word, so all it would take is a nifty Ctrl-N and start tap-tap-tapping. But I’m not a writer. I’m a thinker. From time to time, I’m a researcher. Maybe I’m a loose plotter, but what I really am, at this point, is a guy who can think up a scene here or there.

So why don’t I write them down? Oh, I can come up with a litany of reasons, but the top two are usually confidence and time.

My lack of confidence doesn’t mean I’m afraid of being a bad writer. My use of the English language is sound. Do I still need to consult Strunk & White from time to time? Sure, but that’s hardly a count against me.

But proper verb conjugation does not the next Jack Reacher make. All those ideas I’ve had? Most of them are scenes. I know how I might start a book, but then what would happen in the next scene? Or I know the ending, but how am I going to get there? So the internal critic says there’s no use writing the scenes I’ve thought of if I don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Then there’s the whole time thing. Who has time to write? I mean, sure, I’ve got fifteen minutes right now, but how much would I really write in those fifteen minutes? So I might as well play some Candy Crush instead, because that’s a MUCH better use of my time. Just until I lose these five lives, and then, oh wait, I have five more lives in the dream world? Okay, then I just need to see if I’ve opened the new world of Pet Rescue Saga yet…

Of course, now that I have a five-month old at home, I scoff at the silly boy who thought he didn’t have time. I’m sure he couldn’t foresee a time when the laptop isn’t cracked open until after the baby’s gone to sleep, leaving a whopping hour to pay bills, do chores, and maybe shove some food down the gullet  before passing out on the couch five minutes into a DVR’d episode of NCIS.

But that inner dialogue that keeps me from writing. Let’s call her the inner nag, instead. She is the ubiquitous crabgrass that I find whenever I’m looking for the elusive Kentucky bluegrass called a muse. Why bother writing a scene, she says, if you don’t know what happens next? Why bother writing for fifteen minutes if it’s not enough time to finish the whole thing?

The logical part of me knows these are stupid points.  The next scene isn’t forming in my mind yet because the current scene is taking up too much cranial real estate. And I can’t read a book in one sitting, why would I expect to write it all at once? But if I spent the next fifteen minutes writing a hundred words now, then maybe I can write another hundred the next time I am waiting for my Candy Crush lives to reset. Then, when I’m halfway through this scene and start thinking about what happens next, maybe I’ll make more time to start writing that next scene.

Stephen King writes two thousand words a day. Given his publishing schedule, I assume that’s enough to finish a 500-page book a month, right? He tells beginning writers that they might want to just start with one thousand. He also says the first one million words are practice, something akin to Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours. So maybe if I had written all of those scenes I had thought about, I’d be getting close to being an experienced writer. Maybe I would have even figured out how to string a few of those scenes together by now.

Last year I discovered National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, a challenge to write a novel in thirty days. Okay, only 50,000 words, which really isn’t a full-sized novel, but is still a sizeable chunk of one. It’s been going on every November since 2000, but this was the first I had heard of it. When all of your writing energy is potential instead of kinetic, you don’t spend much time in actual writer circles. Now that I’ve been spent a year doing some writerly type things, I don’t know how I had missed it.

But eleven months ago, an Amazon Kindle post about it on Facebook was my introduction. Intrigued, I checked out the website, and before I knew it, I had an author profile and a novel I was “working on.” I didn’t really think I’d follow through on it. First of all, it was already November 9 or 10 when  Amazon posted it. Better late than never, Kindle, sheesh! Plus I had a wedding to go to that weekend. No time, but what’s it going to hurt to say I’m working on a novel.

I already had about five thousand words of a novel written down, so that might compensate for missing the first third of the month. And if that statement seems to contradict everything I’ve said so far, bear in mind words had been written over a span of thirteen years. The book was a fictionalized account of my trip to Mardi Gras in the year 2000, so it had almost been in my mind as long as my political book. Hell, had I known about the first November NaNoWriMo , ten months after the Mardi Gras trip, I probably would’ve written the exact same book I attempted in 2013.

The night before that wedding, I dusted off the old Word doc and started typing what happened next. Only a couple hundred words. I didn’t write any the day of the wedding, but the next day I did. Then the next. Suddenly, I could find the time. And those plot holes? Some of them started fixing themselves. Some of the scenes that I had been thinking about for ten years ended up going a different way than I had always assumed. Who knew that actually forcing myself to put it on paper would finally flesh it out? Then halfway through this scene I had always thought about, I would think, “Oh, I need to throw this in here because the next scene will do this.” All those things I had heard were true. Scenes I assumed could not have more than five hundred words of content actually had three thousand words of detail, exposition, and dialogue. I thought about the characters and the plot when I was in the shower.

I didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo last year. After being spotted the initial five thousand words, I only added another 20,000 or so. Only. But if any statement should serve as an endorsement for the program, it’s me, a guy who spent thirteen years writing five thousand words (and really, twenty years writing zero words of my political thriller) finished the month and said “Dangit, I only made it to 27,000 words.”

The important thing, I realized, was that I was writing. “I’m a writer now,” I thought. And this would continue. Man, now that I knew what it took, the world was my oyster. I would finish that book by the time Christmas arrived and I had ideas for other books that I’d start up in January.

As of this moment, that book is at 38,000 words. I’ve only added eleven thousand words.

Why did I write 20,000 words in one month and only 10,000 words in the following year? I could blame it on reaching a lag in the book, damned old writer’s block stopping me from knowing what happens next. But a lot had to do with how successful NaNoWriMo is as makeshift muse. I missed the pep talks from accomplished authors. The word-count widget that satisfied my desire for meaningless accomplishments (“A badge for 5,000 words? Done!”) was gone .  During November, every time you update your word count, it tells you when you will finish your book based on your current pace, as well as the pace you have to write at to finish on time. The giddiness I felt when my finish date moved from January to December (“I’m going to finish this year!) was matched only by the dismay I felt when it disappeared on December 1. (“But I’m not done yet!”)

But the thing I missed most was the group camaraderie. We do write-ins at real-live locations, but even more helpful was an online chat-room. Chatting with people might seem to be a bad distraction for someone trying to type 1,667 words a day. But they are all in the same boat. The conversation ebbs and flows as inspiration strikes. There are word wars, where we all write for ten minutes, then report back with how many words we wrote. Then we write a little more leisurely until the next one.

When December arrived, all of those things were gone. I stopped off at Starbucks and Panera a few times that month to write, but could only manage another five hundred words a time. In November, I could get close to that number in one successful word war. Plus that old-fashioned lack of confidence came back. You skip a day of writing, you might get back on that horse, but another day or two of no writing and you start doubting you’re a writer.  Because remember, writers write.

But I also need to remind myself that the eleven thousand words I’ve added to the book since December are probably ten thousand more words more than I had written at any time prior to last November. And that doesn’t count the short stories, flash fiction, and blog entries that might or might not count toward Stephen King’s million word starting trot. I’ve also found more of those resources that had eluded me before. Writing blogs and websites, competitions, exciting new authors. I joined Storium, a very cool website that is part role-playing, part write-your-own-adventure, where you create a character and jointly tell a story with other characters. Shoot, a year ago I had no idea who Chuck Wendig was. Now I check his website daily, have written five of his flash fiction prompts, and have bought three of his books.

This blog has been part of my attempt to “keep on writing.” This post will mark the 7th Monday in a row that I’ve submitted a blog entry. I cheated and wrote most of it on Halloween.  It’s an artificial deadline, just like NaNoWriMo. If I miss a week, no hostages will be killed and I won’t miss a paycheck. But, as last December proved, if I miss one post, it will be much easier to miss the next week as well.

But now, NaNoWriMo is back, and I have to ramp up from writing two to three thousand words a week to doing that every couple days. I hope the flash fictions I’ve been writing haven’t destroyed my ability to write things longer than one scene. I guess I’ll find out with my first word war.

I will try to continue posting every Monday through November. The posts might change from my normal musings to book excerpts or check-ins. Or why there’s no way in hell I will make it to 50,000 words. Regardless, they should be shorter. Maybe I’ll just write a sentence or two.

Oh, who am I kidding? I can’t even describe a bowel movement in less than a thousand words.

And if I’m successful this year, maybe I’ll try it again next year. Maybe I’ll, gasp, try to write during the other eleven months of the year. Maybe next year, I’ll finally get around to that political thriller. Or maybe I should wait until 2016, the twenty-fifth anniversary of its residence in my head. I’ll feel like an empty nester. I wonder if I’ll solve world hunger or invent a warp drive with all of the newly vacated room in my brain.

More likely, the space will be filled with new ideas, new plots, new characters. Then al I’ll have to do…

…is write.