NaNoWriMo time is almost here! Most of us have written about the decision to try it, and recorded our success or lack thereof in previous posts. Jamie did a post on her 2015 involvement this past weekend. Because of the New England Crime Bake (next weekend), I’ve always had trouble hitting the 50,000 word mark. Alright, who am I kidding? There are a lot of reasons I haven’t been able to get the badge. Maybe this time will be different–I have a deadline that could use the boost.
I should back up a bit, and explain NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month. It is when thousands of people buckle down, and try to hit the 50,000 word mark on a novel. For many, that is a first draft. For others, it is enough momentum to keep going and finish. As you know from reading this blog, a first draft is just the first step, but it is an important one.
If you are a plotter, and I am a plotter, you should do that work well ahead of November 1. You still have time to get that done before kick off. But whether plotter or pantser (you write by the seat of your pants), don’t forget the AND THEN rule. It helps you propel the story forward. Examples: Ruth has a meeting with Kim. AND THEN they have a fight. AND THEN Kim is found dead. AND THEN Ruth is brought in for questioning. Keep asking yourself the AND THEN question for your main story line, and your subplots.
The second rule of thumb for NaNoWriMo in my opinion? Keep on writing. No time to look back or second guess when you need to average 1666 words a day. When I am trying to get words done, I will use a bracket in the middle of a paragraph, and make myself a note for the next draft. [Find out more about the town] [Add research about rats here] [what was her mother’s name?] Or if I want to skip a part, I’ll type in [write more words]. I know, elegant, isn’t it? Transitions, word choices, detail, the weaving of subplots, all those come with the next draft. Or the next one. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write a first draft, even a bad one.
Every year, I use NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to challenge myself. This year, it is to finish plotting book 3, get the scene cards into Scrivener(goal of the scene, people in it, and which story line it serves), and then start book 3 of my series. First draft goal is in January, but if I can get the foundation built by Sunday, who knows? NaNoWriMo is just the kick in my pants I need to get started.
Without conflict, there is no story. You’ve probably heard this before, and it’s true. For a story to work, you need:
a) A protagonist who wants something, and
b) Something to get in the way of the protagonist achieving that goal
You need to give your protagonist a treasure to find, a dragon to slay, a puzzle to solve, or a lover to woo. And then you need to put obstacles between your protagonist and the prize. Your story will look something like this:
Of course, your protagonist doesn’t just go charging straight through all those obstacles. Instead, most stories have the protagonist working through the obstacles one at a time, with the level of difficulty and stakes rising at each turn. This creates a “story arc” that looks something like this:
But, in better stories, the protagonist’s climb up that arc is anything but smooth. No easy stroll up a gradual hill for the protagonists of better stories. Nope. They have to climb the stairs one at a time, and each stair is an obstacle that (once overcome) brings them one step closer to their goal. And sometimes, they do the one-step-forward-two-steps-back dance. That looks like this:
But, even more engaging than the “stair” story arc, is the story arc that has not only multiple obstacles, but also pitfalls and false wins. In this story arc, your protagonist isn’t just checking off steps in the journey like a paint-by-numbers quest. Oh, no. In the best stories, the protagonist must endure the ups and downs of the Try/Fail Cycle.
The Try/Fail Cycle is what makes up the middle of your story. It’s what drives things forward, ups the ante, and raises the stakes. It’s what gives your protagonist the chance to earn the happy ending. The story arc with Try/Fail Cycles looks something like this:
… your protagonist not only has to climb up the “big picture story arc,” there are also all these smaller peaks to climb and valleys to fall into. Your protagonist hikes up and thinks, “Oh! This is the top!” only to realize this peak is only an interim goal, and then suddenly tumble into a crevice or fall into a pit. Oops! (That’s the fail part.)
To help you ratchet up the tension even more, try employing the “Yes … But/No … And” technique:
Did the protagonist achieve the interim goal?
Yes, but [insert complication or new obstacle here].
No, and [guess what? things just got worse, because …].
“Yes, But/No, And” works at the scene level as your protagonist either succeeds or fails while attempting to achieve interim goals. Some examples:
Derek wants to buy the girl at the bar a drink. Does he succeed?
Yes, but he finds out that she’s a he.
No, and the girl’s boyfriend is none too pleased.
Julia is being chased by bad guys and wants to get her horse to jump over the creek. Does she succeed?
Yes, but the horse breaks its leg on the landing, leaving Julia stranded out on the trail.
No, and now Julia’s pursuers have her cornered.
You get the idea.
Try/Fail Cycles and the Yes, But/No, And technique. Go, now. Have some fun with these. Let me know how you make out!
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NOTE: Though I believe these concepts are pretty universal, I must tip my hat to the excellent writing folk at the Writing Excuses podcast for bringing them so clearly and helpfully to my attention. (Seriously, if you’re not listening to these guys yet, TUNE IN!)
. Jamie Lee WallaceHi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually. .
Oh, my fickle writer’s heart. Make up your mind, I beseech you.
It’s that time of year again – NaNoWriMo season. Yes, for the sixteenth consecutive year, November will bring us the joys and perils, triumphs and heartbreaks of yet another National Novel Writing Month. A week from today, at midnight on the 31st, hundreds of thousands of writers from around the world will come together in virtual and real-life write-ins to surge as one pen- and keyboard-wielding army toward their common goal of each writing 50,000 words in 30 days. Insanity? You betcha. Fun? Absolutely.
Though I admire the spirit of NaNoWriMo (and love its resident plot bunnies), I am always on the fence about participating. As November approaches, I hem and haw, weigh the pros and cons, and generally waffle about . As I muddle about in this year’s annual ritual of indecision, I took a moment to look back on my seven-year relationship with this ordeal tradition of the writing world.
2009 – My First Time
I captured my first (and – spoiler alert – ultimately only) NaNoWriMo “win” during my virgin trip into the disorienting world of trying to write a novel without a plot. I was still fairly fresh off my divorce, and was living with my daughter in a carriage house apartment that had originally been the servants’ quarters on a large, old money estate. Floundering as I was in my personal and professional life, I was looking for something to anchor my existence and NaNoWriMo seemed to fit the bill.
I have fond memories of creeping out of bed in the dark of predawn, brewing a cup of Sleepytime tea, and hunkering down over my clunky old Dell laptop in the small room that served as my office. I would pull the hood of my bathrobe over my head to create a fleecey barrier between me and the rest of the world, and I would write like mad until my daughter woke up. I crossed the finish line with a total tally of 50,146 words. (Cue the champagne and ticker tape.)
2010 – Conversations in My Head
The next year was the first in what would be a long succession of will she/won’t she debates around the subject of NaNoWriMo. In Why I’m Not Doing NaNoWriMo This Year, I provided a frightening peek into my head and the weird conversations that take place there. In the end, despite part of me wanting to do NaNoWriMo just so I could tell my inner critique to take a leap, I wound up giving the writing marathon a pass after realizing that “winging it” was just not my style.
2011 – Radio Silence
Seems that my resolution to listen to my inner writer and stick to less pell-mell approaches to writing must have stuck because I barely whispered a word about NaNoWriMo in 2011. The whole scene passed me by, barely ruffling my literary feathers.
2012 – More Voices in My Head and Blaming Larry Brooks
In 2012, I once again leapt into the fray and joined hoards of enthusiastic (and slightly delusional) writers as they sallied forth into the chilly month of November with Big Ideas and lots of coffee. Halfway through the month, I found I’d hit a bit of a wall. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get away from distractions, my inner critic, or my inner editor. They were driving me crazy, and keeping me from doing what I needed to do: write.
At the end of the month, I posted about the final outcome of my battle in NaNoWriMo #Fail (I blame you, Larry Brooks). Though I had, indeed, failed to hit the 50,000 mark, I realized that there was a silver lining to my shortcomings. I realized that part of my inability to fully engage with the “no plot – no problem” approach was that I’d learned so much (in great part from the aforementioned Mr. Brooks) about story structure that I couldn’t bear to just throw stuff at the wall and see if anything stuck. In short, I was ruined for pantsing.
2013 – Another Intermission
Coming off my failed attempt in 2012, there was another brief intermission of radio silence.
2014 – A Brief Consideration and a Big No
Last year I briefly considered once again throwing my lot in with the other NaNoWriters, but in the end it was NaNoWriNope for me. My reasons remained the same (so points for consistency), but I still felt a twinge of guilt because despite all my talk about learning about story structure and wanting to plan and prepare, I wasn’t making the time to do that work any more than I was making the time to write 50,000 words.
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Which brings us to 2015.
I have been going through the usual motions, trying to decide whether to join up with my NaNoWriMo comrades, or not. I ordered the 2015 winner’s t-shirt in a burst of late-night hopefulness, but in the morning I was full of doubts and second guesses again. I wrote down a pros and cons list (for the record, the “yes” column won by one), but still failed to make a decision.
Then, as I sat down to write this post I decided to take a minute to dig up the “50,000 words of crap” draft that I wrote in 2009. It only took me a couple minutes to locate the behemoth Word doc in my digital archives. I read the first chapter, and though I saw many (glaring) craft errors, I was actually drawn in enough to keep reading until my daughter got off the bus from school.
Hmmmm, I thought. Maybe there’s something here after all.
The characters that I developed (mostly on the fly) for that young adult urban fantasy have stuck with me over the years. I recall their names, and can almost see their faces. Though November 2009 is (and always will be) a blur, and even though this is the first time I’ve ever re-read a single line of that “manuscript” (and, I use the term lightly), I still remember certain scenes quite clearly.
So, after much internal debate, my decision for 2015 is this: I will not participate in the 2015 NaNoWriMo. Instead, I will re-read the mixed up mess of a story I patched together in 2009, and I will then take it apart and put it back together using everything I’ve learned about story structure and the craft of telling a good story. I will use this abandoned not-quite-a-novel as a guinea pig of sorts to see just what I can do to try and bring this thing back to life.
We’ll see … we’ll see …
P.S. I’m keeping the t-shirt.
P.P.S. If you want to go out for your own NaNoWriMo win, by all means charge ahead. Doing NaNoWriMo (or, not doing it) has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not you are a real writer, a good writer, or a committed writer (though you may need to be committed on November 30th if you choose to take the NaNoWriMo assignment).;)
Unlost by Paul Jarvis and Jamie Varon
In my past, I was something of an online course junkie. I signed up for way too many audio courses, digital workbooks, and virtual workshops. Don’t get me wrong. I love learning, but at some point you have to stop consuming and start creating.
I’ve been on the wagon for quite some time now, but then this little course came across my radar. It caught my eye for three reasons: 1) it’s called “Unlost,” which is a cool name, 2) it’s being offered by Paul Jarvis, whose blog I really enjoy, and 3) it’s only $34 ($49 after October 31st). The course description begins like this:
Have you ever been so frustrated at yourself that you can’t seem to do the creative work you know you’re meant to do? Have you ever felt like all you need is more time and at least a million dollars in order to have the freedom to create the things that you stay up at night dreaming of creating?
Well, the bad news is that we’re not going to give you a million dollars or unlimited free time. Sorry.
The good news is that you don’t need either of those things to do incredible creative work.
I’ve only listened to half the audio recordings, and I haven’t even touched the workbooks yet, but I think this is a course some of you may find helpful in an encouraging kind of way. This isn’t a pitch. I’m not a partner or affiliate. I don’t get a dime if you sign up. I just thought you might like the chance to take a look. I did, and I haven’t regretted the purchase. The lessons aren’t exactly rocket science, in fact they are mostly common sense; but sometimes a little dose of common sense if exactly what we need.
In this piece for the UK’s Writer’s Centre Norwich, Harris navigates with grace and brass tacks talking points through some of the most treacherous writing-related territory – the relationship between writers and readers and the perceptions of the value (as in cold, hard cash) of writing. It’s an interesting read that serves up much food for thought along with a healthy dose of pragmatic (but not dour) reality.
And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:
Whether you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo or not, I wish you a barrel-full of enthusiasm and inner fire to get you driving ahead on your writing projects … at your own speed and in your own way. Your finish line is a unique and personal thing. . Jamie Lee WallaceHi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually. .
Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.
QUESTION: Wendy got us started with her own Fantastic Scary Books List, but with Halloween only a week away, this seemed like an appropriate time to share all our best recommendations for favorite spooky reads. What are your favorites for this mystical season?
Lee Laughlin: Nope. Nope. NOPE! Not for all the nopes in nopeville. I don’t do scary. Years ago, someone gave me a Copy of Steven King’s Pet Cemetery. I had just finished my last graduate school class for the summer and was totally looking forward to some reading for fun. To top it off the book was in large print, a rare find in those days. I read the first chapter and stashed the book in the very bottom, back corner of a storage trunk . Eventually I gave it to a visually impaired friend. My imagination is too active and too pervasive. I can not handle scary books at all.
Julie Hennrikus: I’m with Lee. I aspire to read Stephen King (huge fan of his On Writing), but I tried a short story and it freaked me out. I can’t watch scary movies either. The closest I came to was some true crime, but even that is something I can’t deal with easily. I am a wimp, which is surprising for a mystery writer, but there you go.
Lisa J. Jackson: Well, not to scare my fellow bloggers here, but I love reading (and writing) dark fiction. I devoured Stephen King and John Saul books starting in my teens. Pet Sematary is definitely one that sticks in my head, as I had so so many pets growing up (a lot of open space and cats always came into the family). I missed my pets when they died, like the concept of the ‘sematary’, but wouldn’t use it myself!
It (also by King) is another one that sticks with me. I think it was when I saw that book become a TV mini series that I realized reading horror/dark fiction is a lot more fun (scary) than seeing the stories on the screen — although Tim Curry as ‘It’ was a delight to watch. I can enjoy the Freddy Krueger and Scream movies at this time of year, but horror flicks like Saw and others — well, I’m not a fan. I want to let my imagination run free and, wow, some books can really creep me out.
There is/was one book, The Fog, that got right inside my head (like those red glowing eyes in the Amityville Horror tale), that I couldn’t sleep easily for weeks. I was scared each time I picked it up to read it, but I had to finish it (during daylight hours) so I wouldn’t be left wondering how some of the town’s people survived. I can vividly recall the texture of the book and its pages, and how I never read it right before bed (after the first time). Any story, horror or not, that can pull me in so deep I have physical reactions, is amazing.
Jamie Wallace:I’m with Lee and Julie – scary is not my thing. I tried to read a Stephen King novel once. My aunt loaned me a copy of It, and I naively cracked open the cover and began to read. I think I made it maybe a quarter of the way through the book before I had to give up because of the terrifying and frequent nightmares.
Since then, I steer clear of anything scary, but I did listen to the audio version of Ray Bradbury’s novel, The Halloween Tree, last year; and I think I discovered a new, seasonal favorite. From Audible:
On a Halloween night, eight boys are led on an incredible journey into the past by the mysterious “spirit” Moundshroud. Riding a dark autumn wind from ancient Egypt to the land of the Celtic druids, from Mexico to a cathedral in Paris, they will witness the haunting beginnings of the holiday called Halloween.
Ray Bradbury’s evocative prose and imagery will send shivers of delight—and spine-chilling terror—through listeners young and old, long after the last candle has died in your jack-o’-lantern.
The story is a lesson in history across many cultures, but it is also a tense tale fraught with suspense and a containing a beautiful portrayal of friendship. I remember reading it for the first time as I rode the commuter rail back and forth to a writing class at the Salem Athaneum. It has stuck with me, and is beckoning me to come back for a second read. I just might give in.
Diane MacKinnon: Like many of my fellow bloggers, I’m not a big fan of scary stories. I have seen too much real blood and gore to enjoy reading about it or watching it on TV (forget the big screen. I once took my Little Sister and a friend of hers to see a horror movie and I lasted about 5 minutes. I sat in the lobby for the rest of the movie, thankful I wasn’t still in the theater.) The one Halloween story I really love is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. There’s no gore and every version I’ve read of it has been satisfying. I also heard it read once on NPR and I got a copy of it for my brother years ago. I wonder if he still has it?
Not a big fan of scary. Every year, when my friend Archer Mayor comes out with a new Joe Gunther police procedural, I have to block out enough time to read it in one sitting, even while telling myself, “It has to end well, or Archer won’t be able to write another.” Currently, I’m reading my friend Suzanne d’Corsey’s first novel, The Bonnie Road, which has spooky elements – as in spirits in Scotland. Just started it, and I’m intrigued.
When you teach a writing class, you often get students who want to share their personal writing. I don’t mind a bit, in fact I encourage my students to share as much as they’d like to.
One of my students recently handed me a multi-chaptered piece that he was working on. It was a memoir of his life. Although there was a lot of good information, and even though he had a good voice in his writing, the piece was not going to go far without a major revision.
What memoir isn’t
First of all – a memoir is not a diary. It’s not about what you do on a day-to-day basis.
What a memoir is
A memoir is a story of how you got from here to there. In its rawest form it’s like a game of Candy Land.
“Here” is where a life changing event occurs. This life changing event can be a death or a journey, but like the acceptance of a task in the hero’s journey, it has to start you on your path to your “there.” Once that opening event has been established you can then go to a backstory that tells your readers how you got to your life changing event. But you need to begin at the beginning so that your reader can join you.
After your life changing event, or starting point has been decided, you’ll need to figure out where your ending will be. The end of your story is not “I got better and went off into the sunset”, it is more along the lines of “because of this episode in my life I have changed for the better and here’s how and what I did as a result.”
Think of the story of “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” It’s the story of a hiker whose arm got caught under a rock and who then had to cut his arm off in order to survive. The caught arm is the life changing event. How he ultimately dealt with that loss (which triggered healing from previous losses) and how he grew in self-confidence is the ending. The pages of the book tell of how he went from “here” to “there.”
When you know where you are starting and where you are ending, then like any kind of effective journey EVERY SINGLE scene in that memoir needs to help you on the path from here to there. If it doesn’t then it’s simply filler and you need to get rid of it.
Pretend your story is like a game of Candy Land. While you might spend some time along the way in places like the Peppermint Stick Forest or Lollypop Woods, your job as a writer will be to keep your journey moving forward until you reach your ending (which in this example is that lovely gingerbread house we all wanted to live in as children.)
Oh sure, you might slide into a back story (Rainbow Trail), or you might jump ahead in time (Mountain Pass) to make a point, but everything, absolutely everything you write should propel you forward and eventually lead your reader to your ending.
Piece of cake right? Or should I say peanut brittle?
If you’re a memoir writer, the next time you get lost in your story take a look at a Candy Land playing board to remind of you of where you’ve started and where it is you still need to go on your journey.
Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.
Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.
My brother, a videographer by day and a playwright by night.
For creative types with demanding day jobs and hectic lives, a writing residency can offer much needed sustained quiet in which to work. My brother, a videographer by day and a playwright by night, is just such a creative who’s ceaselessly busy, if not with work or writing, then with some other demanding pursuit, like supporting his friends’ creative endeavors, cooking with intense focus, or sea-kayaking in San Francisco Bay.
My brother is also tremendously generous, and as soon as he learned he’d
been awarded a month-long writing residency at Djerassi, he called me up and said, “Hey, Deb, do you want to use my apartment for your own writer’s retreat?” And so the Do-It-Yourself Writing Residency was born.
When I had two jobs and three kids under four, I applied and attended formal writing residencies. Both RopeWalk and the Vermont Studio Center gave me weeklong escapes from the chaos at home, These residencies were terrific – until I returned home and had to play catch-up. It was after a second residency at the Vermont Studio Center, where I was given a ten-by-twelve studio with a window overlooking a river, that I wondered if I could recreate that kind of physical and psychic space at home.
The desk in my writing studio.
In 2011, my husband built me a ten-by-twelve cabin, where I’ve worked hard to maintain a retreat-like writing practice. But life happens. Writing assignments pile up. I don’t even have time to apply for residencies, even if I were interested in them.
But one of my children recently moved to California; I haven’t seen her since May. I started to imagine a retreat where I could write by day while she worked, then meet to talk, walk, sightsee and dine. The clincher is that I’ve been gathering steam on a new book for which I’ve done a lot of groundwork, but I’ve been too busy with my day-to-day writing to give it the concentrated, uninterrupted attention it requires at this point.
So, I’m going! I’m even writing and scheduling this post before I leave. It feels great to clear my desk ahead of my departure – something to keep in mind for when I return. I’m taking just the one project with me, to give it my full attention. [Check out Diane’s recent post about The Joy of Focusing on One Thing.]
This is my cousin’s cabin in Maine where I wrote this summer, sidelined by my broken ankle.
Meanwhile, why not try a Do-It-Yourself residency? Use a friend’s house or apartment on weekends they’re away, or during designated hours they’re at work. Check into a motel for a weekend – or a week. Locate a rustic cabin with a wood stove before it gets too cold, or use someone’s beach house before it’s closed for the winter.
These DIY residencies provide work time and solitude. Some artist colonies do the same, and some provide communal meals and social hours – which can be fun and/or distracting. If going off solo is too lonely, there’s always the possibility of finding a few writing buddies and renting a place together, with a plan for meals, solitude, and social time worked out in advance.
I’ve done quite a few double-takes in reading the past few months over two words that sound similar, look similar, yet have quite different meanings: than and then.
Than is used for comparisons; then is used for sequences in time.
Image credit: prnbloggers
For example, which term is correct in each of the following?
I have a lot less office space than/then you.
She was much skinnier back than/then.
You reacted a lot more rationally than/then I would have.
Pumpkins tend to be bigger than/then plums.
Summer is later than/then spring.
(Answers: than, then, than, than, then)
Than is a comparison word.
I would rather get outside than watch TV.
Her reports are filled with more errors than mine.
He prefers fresh flowers from his garden more than fancy arrangements from a florist.
How about jogging rather than walking today?
Twenty is much less than a thousand.
Dogs need a lot more attention than cats.
Then refers to sequences in time. It tells when something happened.
He rinsed the dishes, then dried them, and then put them away.
Finish studying for your test, then you can go out to play.
I booked my flight, then checked my calendar and found a conflict.
Her son ran into the house with muddy shoes, then looked back and saw the mess.
Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, and then they live happily ever after.
Until then, stay where you are.
A couple of tricks that may help:
Remember the phrase “rather than,” as it emphasizes that ‘than’ is used to compare one thing to another. Or the phrase “and then and then and then” (which is a familiar way for kids to tell a story), and it can trigger ‘sequence’.
“Then” relates to “time” (both words have an ‘e’). “Than” is a “comparison” (both words have an ‘a’).
Was this helpful? Search for these terms in your work-in-progress and see if you find any issues.
What other grammar topics would you like help with? Let me know in the comments.
Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with manufacturing, software, and technology businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.