writing advice

4tw FTW

I’m currently kicking the ass of an evil marionette brought to life by a wicked witch. In typical RPG fashion, I already beat the shit out of the witch. Actually, the witch was a “global event,” so all the MMORPG players contributed to beat the boss monster. But now that I’ve finished this level, I’m bumping around to finish some side quests and level up. If I can beat this marionette two more times, I get some tickets that I can use to buy sparkly items for my character. Fun times.

Based on my current count, I will have killed the fucker by the end of this sentence.

Yeah, you’re dead. Eat shit and die, Ceratonia.

Of course, now I’m no longer fighting Ceratonia. I wouldn’t have wanted to waste that last sentence. I’m now fighting Wiwaz, an even “stronger” marionette. And the first salvo in our battle were the sentences “Yeah, you’re dead. Eat shit and die, Ceratonia.”

Dammit. I should have written “you are dead,” not “you’re dead.” Because the way to defeat these particular Dark Lord spawns is to write words.

I found a new writing website just in time for NaNoWriMo this year. I also won NaNoWriMo for the first time this year. Causation or correlation? I’m leaning toward the former.

4thewords.com is an RPG-style website. But each of the monsters require a certain number of words written in a certain amount of time to be defeated. Some of them are easy, 300 words in forty minutes. Others, like the Wiwaz I’m fighting right now, max out at the NaNo-inspired 1,667 words in 24 hours.

So maybe I should’ve told Ceratonia that he should dine heartily on a plethora of his own fecal matter. Oh, and die.

After a few fights, you can get better weapons and armor, so in my current battle, I actually have about 26 hours and only have to write about 1400 words. Easy as pie. A very, cherry, strawberry, boysenberry, and a zillion other kinds of berry pie. Shall I describe the scrumptious crust?

I can’t say enough about how this website has transformed my approach to NaNoWriMo, and to writing in general. That 300 word monster? He’s the first one you fight. I always knew I could write 300 words if I was ready to go at the start. The forty minutes was a little daunting, but I made sure I was free of distraction and got it done.

The next monster I encountered required 500 words in two hours. Not surprisingly, the 300 words I had written against the first guy didn’t really get the scene I was planning down on paper. Of course not. Three hundred words barely gives you enough room to describe a bowel movement, much less how a wooden puppet is going to dine upon it.

And yet, in the first forty-three years of my writing life, there have been many days that I couldn’t even get 300 words on a piece of paper. And then I’d go a week without writing 300 words. Then a month. Then when I’d finally sit down and write 300 words, I’d get pissed that I had finally found time to write and I didn’t even get to that point of the scene that had been playing around in my mind for two months. Then it’s rinse and repeat, and a year later, I’d be a thousand words farther into the same damned chapter I was in a year ago and pissed as hell that I couldn’t get anywhere with this particular project.

But now? If I don’t finish my train of thought with one monster, I’ll just gauge whether I want to take on the next one now or tomorrow. Depending on what part of the dungeon you’re in, you can usually choose who to fight next. If I feel like writing 800 words over the next three hours, I can. Or if I want to take a more leisurely approach, I can got 1000 or 1200 over an 8- or 10-hour span. As a result, I’ve actually become pretty good at knowing how many words I need to get through a certain scene.

Now, in contrast with those days of struggling to writing 300 words down, I know I can do 500 words almost as an afterthought.

You get bonuses for maintaining a writing streak. You need to write 444 words to get credit, and no weapons or armor make that number easier to reach. That’s one reason I’m still writing into December. You put fake digital badges on the line, and I become obsessive. I lost twenty pounds the first month after I got a Fitbit, and was at fifty after a year.

And obviously, the website doesn’t distinguish between writing a book or a blog entry. I actually wrote a few things I needed for work on 4thewords. Cheating? Maybe, but the work shit had to be done and that’s the type of thing that would normally derail me from writing, whether it’s NaNoWriMo or any of the other eleven months of the year. And finishing that boring work report is a hell of a lot more fun if I’m shoving a metaphorical sword up a puppet’s apocryphal ass.

It should be noted the website doesn’t actually show the deaths of the monsters and any references to scatalogical functions are entirely my own. 4thewords.com disavows any and all unsightly references being made in their honor.

One other way that 4TW (as the cool kids are calling it) helps my particular brand of writing is that it counts all words, not just the final product. If I rewrite a sentence three times, I get credit for each of the words in each rewrite. One would think that would hurt NaNoWriMo. “Hooray, I’ve written two thousand words! Oh shit, it only counts as five hundred.”

But that doesn’t happen. For one thing, I don’t rewrite as often as I think I do. If I write 1000 words, the actual amount is usually in the low 900s. Sure, a particularly bad batch might only net me 850, but guess what? That 850 might not have been written in the classic NaNoWriMo. They tell you to turn off your inner editor, but I’m sorry, sometimes I know that what I just wrote makes no sense, and I like being rewarded for looking at it a second time. That doesn’t mean I’m going to agonize over every morsel. This isn’t editing.

But the NaNo mantra is ever onward. Each precious word is your child, and you’re not just going to go back and erase your child. If you EVER erase a baby, you will NEVER get to 50,000 babies!

But the way that plays out in my writing style is this: I’m not sure how to word the next sentence in the best way, so I don’t write it. I stare at the screen. I go grab a drink. I play a round of Candy Crush. Or a round of golf. Or I re-shingle the roof. Anything to avoid putting a sentence down that might need to be erased.

4TW works the opposite. When I get to that sentence, I’ll just write it. And as soon as it’s on the page, I can look at it, think it through, and go change those three words to three better words and, voila, I’m six words closer to defecating on a witch. (Not in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” kind of way.)

As such, I am amending a statement I made a couple of NaNo’s ago. It’s my most-read blog post, presumably because most of the participants of NaNo are trying to avoid “doing the NaNo,” so they google things to read about NaNo. I will insert a link later, but for the purpose of words on paper, right now, I will just describe the inserting of links later.

My original statement was that one thousand words a day was, under normal circumstances, an upper limit for me. 4thewords showed me that I can blow past that. Even if I’m not sure what I am going to write, I can at least bumble around enough to get words on paper. They might not be good words, but they’re there. Before 4TW, when the goal was just an amorphous 1667 words in a day, or even worse, “write something today,” a thousand words seemed some sort of natural upper limit before I needed an overnight to replenish my idea bank. Now I’m like, 800 words over 10 hours? Shit, I can go see Thor in between and still have hours to spare.

Most of the time, when I have a specific plan for then next 1,000 words, it’ll actually take me closer to 3,000 words to get through it. And the vague idea I have for what will come after that probably covers another five to ten thousand. It used to frustrate me that I’d write and get no closer to the next scene. Now I embrace it. Words on paper are the goal for today, not finishing the scene.

Of course, one thing I’ve noticed about both 4TW and NaNo are that they make you a bad writer. Usually the fewer words you write, the better. But, as I joked earlier, it’s easy enough to turn a five-word sentence into ten words. That doesn’t make it better and often makes it worse. It tends toward the passive voice. NaNo only does it implicitly. In fact, they explicitly say 50,000 words is an entire novel. Not any novel I’ve ever seen, other than “Slaughterhouse Five.” So it goes. So at least in theory, NaNo’s 50,000 words should not be wasting any space. Yeah, right.

The NaNo people say that you’ll probably add 10,000 words in the rewriting/editing phase, making it closer to “Lord of the Flies” territory. Um, no. Am I the only one that actually takes words out when I’m editing? The first time I attempted a 1,500-word flash fiction, it was close to 4,000 before I took the butcher’s knife to it. The book I worked on through November is at 70,000 words. (When I say I won NaNo, I actually cheated a little. There were already 20,000 words written. But I still did the 50,000 in a month, so screw you, it counts.) The book isn’t done yet. Based on where I am in the story, it’ll easily make it past 110,000 words. Then I’ll edit 25,000 of them out.

4TW actually exacerbates that problem by making the “add some frivolous words” a bit more explicit. If I’m nearing the end of a scene and still have 150 words to defeat this particular monster, I’m not going to spend the time making a new file, am I? Hell, no. So let me just make a wordier description. I’ll have my main character scratch his chin and think about the predicament he’s in, think through his potential choices and the logical ramifications of taking each of those choices. Ten words left? Fine, he scratches his ass, too.

That doesn’t make good story telling, but that works wonders for both NaNo and 4TW. Hence the reason I’m going to have to chop at least 10,000 words off of my novel once it’s finished.

The good news is that, for the first time since I wrote those first 20,000 words in 2014, I feel like “once my novel is finished” might actually happen. And I have 4TW to thank for that feeling. If you’re interested, look me up – my character’s name is Wombat. I also have a referral code. If you want me to let them know I recruited you, leave me a comment.

For now, I’ve got 800 words left to write in my current battle, and it might be worthwhile to put some of those in the actual novel. To quote the Blues Brothers, it’s 800 words to defeat Tamarix, I’ve got a full blog post, a half a book, it’s dark, and I’m wearing sunglasses.

Hit it!

 

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.