Saturday, December 20, 2014

Breaking Free From Word Count Tyranny (but only after winning NaNo)



I should have announced it earlier, but yes, I did it! My sixth NaNoWriMo win. Though my graph was decidedly, ummm, more exponential than linear:


That sad plateau in the middle I blame on (1) having an extra busy work week (2) getting quite sick and (3) finally getting my hands on the first season of Sherlock. (Sooo gooood!)

Thank goodness for holiday weekends. This year was the first time we weren’t either traveling home for Thanksgiving or hosting a Friendsgiving at our place, which seemed sad at first, but it meant I could use my days off of work just to write (and write and write and write until I caught up), including one marathon day where I wrote a PR 10,000 words (which still seems absolutely crazy). Also I could eat most of the mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. Win Win Nom Nom. 

I also think I did a fair enough job meeting my other goal, which was to write something less forced and random than I usually do during the NaNo frenzy. I’m not saying what I wrote is all careful and organized and polished and ready to be shown to the world (ha. haha.) but it is definitely closer to the mark. There were fewer throwaway scenes, less goofy padding language, and more realizations about where my novel should go. 

But HOLY SAVE THE CAT is there still so much work left to do. Despite the progress, so much of the plot still feels like a mess of decisions I don’t know how to make. 

So I’m very glad I did NaNoWriMo, but I also know it shouldn't be my model moving forward. I tend to get overly attached to quantifiable goals and chase the numbers at the expense of everything else, and right now I need solid ideas and connections more than I need piles of potentially unnecessary words. I still need some sort of structured motivation though. I think (hope!) I’ve figured out the right compromise: I’m sticking with the sticker calendar method, but changing the parameters. It’s not just about word count any more, but about having a solid writing day. 

I remember reading some advice from (I think) Raymond Chandler, who suggested setting aside a few hours each day for writing. You don’t necessarily have to write during that time if you’re stuck, but you aren’t allowed to do anything else. The idea being I suppose that if you stare out of the window long enough with little to focus on other than your story, any writer’s block you have will start to work itself out and your fingers will be back on the keys. 

So I can still earn a sticker for 1000 words, or from, say, figuring out a major plot point, but I can also earn it just by putting in over an hour of highly focused writing time. It can be brainstorming, outlining, drafting, or editing, so long as it’s just me, the story, and maybe some staring out of the window, but no tricksty web of the internets or any other distractions.

I’ll have to see how it goes and report back. How are your post-NaNoWriMo writing or revising strategies going?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Refrigerator On The Premises

I don't remember exactly when or how I stumbled upon the On The Premises website, but it didn't take me long to become a fan. They run short story contests and post writing tips and resources, and what's especially awesome is that they (1) never charge entry fees and (2) clearly care about helping writers improve. One example: make it into the final round of judging in one of their main contests, and if you want they'll send a full critique of your work for free.

In between their main short story contests, OTP hosts mini ones. Last month's mini contest was to write a 20-40 word flash fiction piece that included the word refrigerator exactly once. I was in the midst of NaNoWriMo at the time (which I guess I should post about next, huh?) but decided that a little fridge story could be a fun, quick writing diversion. Plus maybe I would finally learn how to spell refridgerator refrigerator correctly on the first go. Of course, I overwrote as usual and my first draft was a few hundred words, so it was a bit more of a beast than expected getting it down to a mere 40 without losing the story entirely. But I eventually pared it down enough to submit, and I was awarded an honorable mention. Woohoo! You can see all of the victorious refrigerators here.

Annnnd OTP is running one of their main short story contests right now! It's for a 1000-5000 word story of almost any genre in which a character attempts to learn something. Top prize is $220. Check it out here!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Painful, Angry Gratitude



I have so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. My wonderful husband, my goofy dog, my fantastic family and friends -- though I don’t get to see most of them nearly enough -- warmth, safety, happiness, education, plentiful food, full bookshelves, two good jobs...

I am grateful. So, so, grateful. But lately I've found some of my gratitude tinged by anger and outrage and guilt. We hear a lot about not taking our blessings for granted, and I think that’s generally very important to remember. But there are a few that I wish I could, and I'll explain why. 

I went to UVA for graduate school. That was always a point of pride for me, and a part of my identity. I live many hundreds of miles away from Charlottesville now, but I still reminisce fondly with my alumni friends, and my father and I bond by texting each other play-by-play commentary while watching UVA games on TV. I never considered UVA a perfect place, but overall it was very good to me. It was a school I’d recommend to students I knew, a school I thought I could see my (hypothetical future) daughter attending.  

And then the Rolling Stone article (*warning: it is graphic and potentially triggering*) exploded onto the internet and I sat there staring, sickened and angry and horrified by what I never knew was happening on my campus, finding it unbelievable that (a) it would happen at all and (b) nothing would be done, yet at the same time believing every word because it fits with how this messed up world so often seems to work, with the illogical horrors that people inflict on others, and with how administrations who over-value tradition and funding so often end up protecting the wrong people. It’s not the first hard news for young women at UVA either; it followed on the heels of freshman Hannah Graham’s abduction, assault, and murder, and a few years after UVA lacrosse player Yeardley Love was beaten to death by her ex-boyfriend.

And this is where the twisted thankfulness comes in. Because even if you don’t see yourself getting into the exact situation of these girls, there is still that moment where it hits close to home and you think: “That’s so horrible. And it happened right here; that could have been me. I’m so glad it wasn’t me.”

That thankfulness hurts, and leaves me feeling raging and guilty about these blessings that I wish I could take for granted. I don’t want to have to be thankful that I’ve never been sexually assaulted. It shouldn’t be something we’re thankful about. It should be something that doesn’t happen, period. We should be able to take for granted that our bodies are our own. We should be able to take for granted that no one will violate us. We should be able to take for granted that, if anyone does, they sure as hell won’t get away with it, because the authorities and administration and all the other people around us will have our back. 

Then came the Ferguson decision a few days later, and I felt those waves of disbelieving anger all over again at the injustice. I was especially struck by this painful truth that was circulating on social media in various forms: "White privilege is being outraged by the Ferguson decision instead of terrified by it."


We should ALL be able to take for granted that police won’t make up their own lethally unreasonable ideas about what constitutes reasonable force. We should be able to take for granted that, if they do, their punishment will be decided by a full and fair trial. 

And so I find myself this Thanksgiving feeling personally thankful but collectively outraged, overwhelmed by disbelief and rather short on hope. I am trying to find some in the many people speaking out and taking action in Charlottesville and Ferguson. I am trying to believe that things will change. I am trying to envision a future where we can give thanks for a different, better world.