NaNo 20 Questions featuring Girlfriend Anne

by Jon

It’s October, and that means getting prepped for NaNoWriMo! This year, my girlfriend Anne and I went to a plotting workshop run by our local Municipal Liaison. We didn’t get much from the exercise, but one of the activities was to come up with your most productive writing environment. So we sat down later and expanded that activity into a twenty question interview about our own different writing styles.

It’s a fun exercise. We worked on our answers together using EtherPad, and she’s already posted our answers on her blog. I’m replicating that here. Enjoy and maybe try answering the questions for yourself!

1. In what location do you write best?

Jon: I’ve tried writing in a variety of places, but I’ve done my best at home on my couch, or lying face down in bed. I’ve tried coffee shops, but I’m usually too distracted or worried about being kicked out. My first year of NaNo I wrote the majority of my novel on the bus to and from work; not easy in the snow!

Anne: I can write pretty much anywhere. I can be productive writing at home, but it’s harder because that seems to be the only time of year that I actually want to fold laundry. Anything to procrastinate. So often times, I leave and crash at Boyfriend Jon’s place or at a quite location. Coffee shops and bookstores usually have too much stimulus since I’m one of those people that talks to everyone. Other than that, specifics don’t matter. Floor, couch, desk….I’m flexible.

2. When is the best time for you to write?

Jon: My best hours are usually after 10pm. There’s nothing more satisfying than burning some midnight oil, especially when the words are just flowing. There’s also less distractions: either I keep writing or I go to sleep. When I write during the day, I’m much more likely to take long breaks, or work on some other projects.

Anne: I write very well when I can sit and be uninterrupted for a while. But I guess my best breakthroughs come either when I first get up in the morning or in the later evening; 7-12pm or so. Don’t tell my boss but sometimes my lunch hour of writing goes a little longer than it should.

3. How do you structure your writing time? Do you prefer short sprints or long marathons?

Jon: I need the long haul. I usually spend the beginning of every writing session reviewing what I wrote the last time, and when I’m done writing I review what I just wrote. Sometimes I even leave notes for myself for when I sit back down. That overhead doesn’t lend itself to short sprints: when I do write in short bursts, say on the bus, I usually lose a lot of time trying to get myself into character.

Anne: I can do both, it mostly depends on what I’m writing about. If I’m trudging through some tedious dialogue, I have to take it in sprints or I get sick of it. But when writing action, I can’t just stop mid jump kick!

4. Any other environmental factors? Light? Temperature? Noise level?

Jon: I prefer writing in the dark, maybe a single lamp, but that’s mostly so I can see any written notes. If it’s too cold I get jumpy and distracted, but then again, too warm and I’m just as likely to take a nap, especially if I’m working in bed. Slightly cool air with a blanket works for me. As for noise: the closer to silence the better.

Anne: My eyes start to hurt if the only lighting is my laptop screen. Also, I rarely turn on my heater, so I prefer to have it cold enough to need my slippers and maybe a light blanket or else I’ll start getting sleepy. One other item that always seems to surprise people is that I have to have some background noise. I’m not talking music or white noise; but I flip on some uninteresting TV show and leave it on in the background. And somehow, I’m able to ignore it and write.

5. Do you like to listen to music while you write? If so, what kind?

Jon: I can’t listen to anything with lyrics while I’m actually writing. But I’m a big fan of instrumental music, especially electronica and movie soundtracks. I’ve a selection of soundtracks I return to regularly while writing: Gladiator, The Lord of the Rings, or more recently the Tron sequel. I used to think listening to movie soundtracks would distract me; far from it. I usually listen to the music just barely above a whisper, the way background music should be. But I’ll admit, sometimes, right before writing session I’ll listen to a playlist of loud, up-tempo, and high-energy rock music to get me in “writing shape”.

Anne: Ironically, I have a lot of trouble listening to music while I write. Lyrics end up getting written into my story and often times I get some mellow calm music when I have a really intense scene to write. Then I spend ten minutes trying to find the right music for the scene and by the time I get back to being able to write, I’ve forgotten what I was going to write. Occasionally I’ll get lucky with instrumental music like Spanish guitars or soundtrack music, but overall…I just put the TV on and ignore it. Someone once suggested that I get a white noise machine and try that….but those suckers are expensive.

6. Do you like to write with others around you, or do you prefer to fly solo?

Jon: I honestly prefer to write alone. I need time to hem and haw over my words, talk myself through scenes, or otherwise not have to worry about anyone else around me. I don’t get much writing done at social writing functions: I’m usually way too interested in hearing about other’s stories, or bouncing ideas off the other writers.

Anne: I’m definitely a social person. I like to have other people nearby that are doing either the same thing or something quiet so I can concentrate. It’s something about the camaraderie that I like. But I can write just fine on my own.

7. Do you keep any drinks or snacks handy?

Jon: Nothing in particular. I just try to avoid anything that will get my hands sticky. I keep a water bottle close by, and take breaks to go eat elsewhere.

Anne: I’m a pumpkin seed fanatic. I generally fill a gallon bag after Halloween with baked pumpkin seeds…and they’re gone in a couple of weeks. That and my handy camelback water bottle and a fresh supply of ice cold water. I avoid caffeine in general, but I drink a cup first thing in the morning during NaNo so that I’m not falling asleep at my desk from burning both ends of the candle.

8. What’s your preferred writing medium? Are you on the computer, or rocking the old school pen and paper?

Jon: Computer. I grew up writing on the computer, it’s just too powerful a tool for editing. I’ll write a lot of notes on paper, but usually those get transcribed if I’m really serious about them. The bulk of my writing gets done on a little netbook with a whopping 14 hour battery: I can use it all day without worrying about finding juice.

Anne: I type about 70 words per minute. My mom was a stickler for home row being a computer teacher so the computer is natural for me. I haven’t had my laptop very long and you can already see the rub marks on the spacebar from my right thumb.

9. So you use the computer, which program?

Jon: I’ve tried a bunch of writing programs, even written some of my own. When it comes to straight-up, get-it-down-on-paper writing, I use a free program called FocusWriter. It let’s me have a full screen with a large font, just a paragraph or two on the page at a time so I don’t get the urge to edit. It also lets you set and track writing goals, so you can see when you’ve hit your quotas for the day.

Anne: Microsoft Word is good enough for me. I already know all of the formatting hot keys, and when I maximize the screen, it eliminates distractions. So I never needed a special program. The only thing I wish Word had was a bigger buffer at the bottom so I don’t run into the bottom of the screen. I feel like my words start getting crowded when they get too close to the bottom. They need room to breathe.

10. Do you allow yourself access to the Internet? Do you find it to be a distraction?

Jon: When I’m on the netbook, I usually turn off the WiFi while I’m writing. But, occasionally I’ll need to look something up, something I can’t just put in a placeholder for, and then I try to keep myself limited to research. I do however, like to keep tabs open to various name generator sites, just in case I need a quick name.

Anne: I have so much trouble turning my internet on and off…that I just leave it on and close down all windows except the one I’m writing in. Also, I back up my document to Google Docs so I need to be able to paste it over at a moment’s notice in case I need advice from my sounding board.

11. Do you have any other must haves? Good-luck writing charms?

Jon: My feet get cold. I have a pair of old man house slippers that I’ve adopted as my official writing shoes. They give me about a 20% boost to my word counts.

Anne: I have one of those tray tables from As Seen On TV. It’s very helpful for my posture to lean back in the sofa and not have to reach far for my laptop keyboard. Also I have to have something to put my hair up, even if it’s a pencil. If it’s down, I’ll play with it and effectively not type.

12. How long have you been doing NaNo? Why did you start?

Jon: Four years: I started the same year as Anne. I’ve been writing creatively with my friends for years, and that October I had an idea for a story much longer than anything else I’d ever dreamt up. I don’t remember how I found out about NaNo, but I remember really pushing myself that year.

Anne: This will be my 4th year in the NaNoWriMo team. My 3rd as a Write In Host. I started because my best friend told me it would be great and that it would be great for me. Of course that was the year he abandoned NaNo (silly things like 400 level physics classes…psh!). However, he was right. The community, the friendly competition, the built in cheering squad, it all worked for me. And that was the first time I had EVER actually finished a novel. After that, I was hooked.

13. Do you like to use writing prompts?

Jon: Yes and no. I’ve never found them to help me get further along in my own works, or even get me in the mood to write. But I do enjoy the exercise, if anything I love taking a breath from whatever I’m knee-deep in and just write something else for a change.

Anne: I love writing prompts, but only when I get them before or after NaNo. They have a tendency to spawn plot bunnies like nobody’s business. Three of my stories came out of plot bunnies that just grew and grew until they became fully fledged ideas. I even managed to weave plot bunnies in a few more to those stories. They’re great devices to get the creative juices flowing, but I have to be careful that I don’t drown in them.

14. Every writer hits a creative wall now and again. What are your top three techniques for getting unstuck?

Jon: First, I sit back and recall what all of the characters are doing at that particular moment in the story, or what they were doing the last time the reader saw them. That usually gives me a few new openings. Secondly, I get up and act out the scene. Standing up, moving around, and saying the dialogue out loud helps me better grasp what the scene is trying to accomplish. Finally, if I’m still stuck, I’ll just start writing completely out of character, sometimes even out of genre. It doesn’t take long before I say to myself: “Of course the character wouldn’t do X, they’d do Y instead.”

Anne: 1) I have to talk it out. Since other NaNo-ers are fully engulfed in their stories, I have a couple of non-NaNo-er friends who are willing to keep up with my story and offer advice to help get me unstuck. Sometimes the tiniest phrase in the conversation jars my roadblock loose. 2) If my sounding boards are unavailable, I walk away from my computer and do some mundane task. Last year, I had a eureka! moment while scrubbing my tub. And 3) if all else fails, I skip ahead.

15. Do you like to plot out your story in advance, or do you write more by the seat of your pants?

Jon: I’ve been writing creatively for about five years now, mostly short stories, and I’ve experimented with a variety of ways at approaching writing itself. When I pants a story, I end up with five pages about a goat chewing cud. So I’ve come up with a level of planning that I’m comfortable with. I write out an outline with all of the scenes I want, just a one-liner like “introduce Hester”, or “reveal about the cat”. Afterward, if I don’t have enough scenes to make a story, I flesh out in between scenes to pace everything appropriately. Then, each writing session I look ahead a few scenes in the outline and make sure they still make sense with what I’ve been already writing. I usually end up changing 10-40% of the outline as I go along, as add, delete, or move scenes.

Anne: I’m about 90% Pantsing and 10% plotting. I know my characters very well, and set up the setting, and I have a handful of bullet points that I want to cover before I reach the end. I think my biggest problem is that I don’t think out the climax at all. I have gotten to Thanksgiving Day and not had a clue how my story was going to end. That makes for one exciting Turkey day.

16. What aspect of writing do you think you’re best at? Worst?

Jon: Pacing, and keeping the story interesting. I want to like my own writing, and if I can’t get excited about a piece, then I need to fix it. Because I plot and plan so much, I also like to think that I give readers plenty of things to look out for, or rewards for even moderately reasonable attention. It bothers me when I read stories that have so little long-term arcs, or so much unnecessary fluff, that the story could have been pared in half, without damage to the plot or the characters’ development. But all that planning and plotting has a downside: it’s sometimes hard for me to keep track of exactly what I have and haven’t said, and judging how much the reader can reasonably be expected to remember. I have it all in my head, often many versions, and combined with minimal descriptions, sometimes I don’t say enough and the reader gets lost. A scene that makes perfect sense to me is confusing to the reader, because of information I’ve forgotten to emphasize or even put down in the first place.

Anne: My strength is writing intense, thrilling scenes. Also I think I do a good job of not having characters that are invincible emotionally and physically. My weakness is definitely dialogue. Many of my characters end up being the brooding quiet type. Sometimes I can work it to my advantage, but most often not.

17. What inspires you to write? What inspires what you write?

Jon: Sometimes I having noting but a bit of dialog, or single image in mind, that I want to see, that I want to justify existing. Then the exercise is to figure out a story that will make that dialogue or image happen and make sense. I don’t care about getting published, or making money. I think everyone should so something creative, not professionally, but just well enough to share with friends. As for what inspires my writing: real life, books, movies, video games, even some of my stranger dreams. I rate my media not just on it’s own merits, but if after experiencing it all I can think about is doing something creative. I’ll watch a terrible movie and call it great if afterward I feel like writing.

Anne: I write because I have an overactive imagination. It’s a way to get all the random images I see in my mind’s eye out so I have time to make sense of them. Also I come from a long line of Italian story tellers. The need to entertain has always been strong. In addition to an overactive imagination, I have an overdeveloped sense of justice. And I know in this world, too often the bad guy goes free. So it gives me immense satisfaction to have my villains get their comeuppance.

18. How does competition affect your writing?

Jon: I’ll admit, the first two years of NaNo I enjoyed competing with Anne, and keeping up a playful game of chase on the website. Last year I wanted to hit 100k for me and for my story, it wasn’t a matter of competing with anyone but my own goals. I just want to write the stories, I’m doing it for me. I’m not competing with anyone.

Anne: I’m the youngest of four children and I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys. To say I’m competitive is an understatement of a major degree. I don’t hate other people when they win, but I’m still gonna do my darndest to come out on top. I think my original friendly competition (along with a healthy dose of flirting) with Boyfriend Jon is what got me through my first year. Without that added incentive, NaNos 2-4 might never have been.

19. What incentives do you have for completing NaNoWriMo this year?

Jon: I’ve been editing last year’s novel for six months now. This year, NaNo is almost a fun break from that, a chance to explore some of the other ideas I’ve left on the back burner for a while.

Anne: The same ones I did the other years. A pedicure and a foot massage – one of the few girly indulgences that melts me completely. Also, Boyfriend Jon and I might have a little bet going on, but I’ll leave that to the imagination.

20. Are you planning on trying anything new this year?

Jon: I’m going to write two independent short stories instead of a single novel this year. I’ve got one idea I really want to put down, and it’s rare I can think of something that can be so self-contained. But also I want to continue my series with the next short story so I have something to look at while I give my novel a breather. Practically speaking, I’m also trying to have a more scheduled writing time, something I can turn into a habit to keep after the month ends.

Anne: This year, in addition to finishing my story again, I’m aiming for 60k words. I definitely think it’s doable and I think it will give me enough room to flesh out my story adequately. Also as a Write In Host, I’m starting a Black Friday Write in to counteract the lost time on Thanksgiving Day. Hopefully that will be a big enough hit that we can make it an annual event.