A misapplication of NaNoWriMo powers

At the beginning of the month, I laid out my plans to use the month of November, in which I usually participate in National Novel Writing Month. This time I wanted to spend the time editing my first Guineawick Tales novel, Hester and the Kookaburra King.

The result: I hardly made any progress, and not for a lack of trying.

I thought I could use the energy of NaNoWriMo, the community of writers and the dedication to crossing the finish line to make a serious dent in my editing. Didn’t happen.

But, I think I have a much better understanding of what makes NaNoWriMo work, and how horribly misaligned I was to attempt to bend it toward editing my novel.

First, the goal is to write 50,000 words, and everything, all the help and support of the website and community, is bent toward making that happen. Every moment you, the writer, have an immediate measure of your progress. The charts and the status updates; they nag you when you’re behind, give you props when you’ve made quota, and give you permission to stop for the day and unwind.

Editing doesn’t have that. There’s no way to evenly divide the work into predefined daily chunks, no word-sprint or prompt equivalents to make quick progress. My progress is measured in chapters, kind-of, but each is unique and there’s no rhyme nor reason toward estimating how much work still lies ahead, or how much work I just did.

Some chapters need just quick-and-easy stylistic updates, others take weeks to reshape, or require painstakingly returning through the text to update little details to avoid inconsistencies.

What it means is it’s hard to find a quantitative measurement on an editing session’s success. The end result of a great editing session can be one chapter polished off, or ten sentences spread across five chapters that get me out of little plot snafus later on.

I had a three hour session that resulted in one tiny paragraph being rewritten, but that I felt was a huge victory for the story.

Not to mention the plans for future books that I have to keep in mind, keeping an eye out for those innocuous, but often important, details that might be difficult or impossible to live with in later stories.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to complain about editing; this is what editing is all about. Nothing worth doing is easy, and I think this story is worth doing right.

The big mistake I made was in trying to shoehorn the energy and excitement of NaNo into editing a book. Don’t do it, it’s a bad idea. The site, write-ins, they’re made for rocking out that precious first draft.

Now, to be fair, I did make some progress editing: pushed through some difficult chapters, made a lot of world building decisions I’d been on the fence about. It wasn’t a bad month, just slow. And I’m not giving up on Hester.

But… it might be time for a short editing break, to recharge those creative juices. In a couple chapters I’ll be at a good pausing point, then I think I’m going to mini-NaNo a couple weeks and maybe write a short story or two, vent off some fun ideas that don’t fit into Guineawick.

And for the future, I’ll use NaNo for what it’s good at: jamming out first drafts in record time.


Something different for NaNoWriMo 2012

It’s 12:01, and for many writers on the Pacific Coast, National Novel Writing Month has begun.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo for four years, starting with 10,000 Butterflies back in 2008, and I’ve won every year I’ve participated. But this year, I plan on doing something different.

Not-really-only-kind-of participating.

You see, I’ve been editing the first Guineawick Tales novel, Hester and the Kookaburra King, since I wrote Draft 0 during NaNo 2010. Last year I peaked at 20 hours a week of editing, a part-time job in its own right, and ended with a fancy new Draft 1. After NaNo 2011 my life got pretty packed though, and so it wasn’t until May of this year that I began work on Draft 2.

Since then I’ve gotten a third of the way through Hester, not far as I had originally hoped for, but still pretty impressive, considering everything that’s happened in the last 12 months.

So here we are, the start of NaNoWriMo 2012, and what the heck am I doing?

I have been tempted to start something new. I’ve had brainstorms on a half-dozen other writing projects. They’re all very tasty, very promising little universes.

But they’ll have to wait, because I can’t stand the thought of not finishing Hester. Minus a final once-over sanity-pass, I fully intend Draft 2 to be the final draft of Hester and the Kookaburra King. It’s not that I’m tired of the story- it’s that I’ve finally captured its essence, its purpose, and I’ve seen how the next two novels will play out. Not in exquisite detail- we’re talking high altitude here- but I finally know how each must end, and why, and Hester is the first act in a story I can’t wait to finally read.

I have to see it out of my head, and making progress on that is more important than any other story idea I have bouncing around my skull.

NaNo 2012, I’m going to keep editing Hester. I’m going to take advantage of the energy of NaNo and the community of writing peers for whom setting a entire month aside to writing is perfectly understandable. I won’t claim to have participated in NaNo this year; I can’t even fathom how I’d munge the add/change/delete of editing into a plausible word count, but I most certainly will be working my butt off.

Now I don’t think I’ll be able to finish editing by the end of the month, but I do hope to get over the halfway hump at least.

Anyway, best of luck to those really participating this year. Just keep writing!


P.S. It’s both odd and kind of funny that I refer to the text as Hester. Odd because I’m 99% sure the next two books will also start with “Hester and the…”; which will just be confusing if I refer to one particular book as Hester. Kind of funny because at home, Hester is what Girlfriend Anne and I use to refer to the book, and given the long time that I’ve worked on it, it sometimes feels as if it’s a real person with a life all it’s own that we’re talking about. Well maybe not a person, but at the very least like a mostly unruly pet that sometimes does the most amazing things.

Plotting vs. Pantsing: A Plea to End the War

National Novel Writing Month is just around the corner, and I’m filled with giddy anticipation for another whole month dedicated to enabling writers. But after four years of successful NaNoWriMos, both as a participant and sometimes co-host of a local write-in, I cringe at the inevitable revival of the civil war:

Do you plot, or do you pants?

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the gist of it:

A “plotter” is someone who spends some significant amount of time planning out their story before they write it. That might mean making notes, writing rough outlines, or sitting on the floor in a sea of sticky-notes, arranging and rearranging their plot, characters, arcs, what have you. Only when that’s out of the way do they start writing the actual story.

A “pantser” is someone who doesn’t plan their story in advance of writing it, who “flies by the seat of their pants”. They may start with just a single scene, character, broad idea, or perhaps even nothing at all; when the time comes to write, they just go where their minds take them.

They’re two different styles, so let’s get this out of the way now: neither is objectively better than the other. They exist on a spectrum, and great stories can be found on both sides and everywhere in between. Each and every writer needs to discover for themselves where on the spectrum they produce their best work.

I wish that’s all that I need say on the topic, but believe me, some people just can’t leave it at that. Every year writers on both sides rear up and slash at one another, each trying to claim superiority while intimidating away potential new writers. So if you’re new to the struggle, let me lay down everything you’re going to hear so you can sidestep the war until its veterans grow up or burn out.

Let’s start with two straw-men on the extreme ends of the spectrum: the absolute plotter and the absolute pantser.

The absolute plotter doesn’t start writing the story until they’ve written the story. Their outlines are so complete, they literally read off a line of outline, and write it down verbatim into their manuscript. There are no surprises, nothing decided on the fly. If you, as the reader, read the outline, you’ve read the story.

The absolute pantser doesn’t even know they’re writing a story until they start writing it. They don’t think about anything in advance: every word, every line, is a straight stream-of-conscious live stream onto the page. You the reader can’t possibly know where the story is going because the writer doesn’t even know.

I submit that for a story of non-trivial merit (define that as you will), neither of these extremes succeed in the real world. And that every writer, no matter what side they may self-associate with, actually exists somewhere on the spectrum between these two extremes. No plotter’s story is a line-by-line copy of their outline, and no panster writes free from the knowledge of the lines they’ve just written.

So if everyone is somewhere in the middle, what are the arguments for veering toward either side?

Plotter arguments usually fall around the structural benefits of early notes and outlines. Outlines help ensure plots are complete (beginning, middle, end), and that subplots don’t get left behind. Outlines let us stage longer story arcs, seeding items early on that will come up later, and let us identify pace and plot problems before writing them. Outlines also help us avoid the threat of writer’s block, by giving us a road-map to follow. Notes keep our world and characters internally consistent: Blueberry Hill is always east of town, the main character always has green eyes, etc.

Pantser arguments usually fall around the aesthetics of the writing, and benefits of the spontaneous creative tradition. Story writing is as much a journey for the author as for the reader, and not knowing what’s going to come next is part of the fun. The act of writing itself gets our best creative juices flowing, and when “plot bunnies” – new story ideas that nag at us until we write them – arise, there’s nothing stopping us from running with them. We also get to start writing right away, as ultimately we can’t know for sure if a scene or story idea will work until we try it, and see it on the page.

That’s all fine and good, so where does the bad blood come in? Let’s start with what plotters have to say about pantsers:

Pantsed stories tend to meander and lead the reader nowhere. Stream-of-conscious writing taxes the reader, and it’s harder to interleave multiple story arcs without some kind of plan as to how and when that interleaving will happen. You’re more likely to forget about subplots and even whole characters, leaving the reader questioning why they were involved to begin with. You’re more likely to introduce inconsistencies if you don’t have some easy reference for the things you’ve already established. When you get writer’s block, and everybody does at some point, you won’t have the benefit of knowing where you’re going to help you get back on track. A series of random happenstances with no impact on the future might entertain, but ultimately don’t reward the reader for paying attention. Pantsers will waste a lot of time rewriting to fix all the problems they introduced while writing, problems they might have avoided by just thinking ahead and sketching an outline in advance.

So the, what do pantsers have to say about plotters?

Plotted stories are rigid and preordained by the outline. If you the writer can plan it out in advance, it’s that much more likely the reader will know where the story is going, and your “surprises” won’t be as surprising as you think. Having an outline doesn’t immunize you from making mistakes, but it might give you a false sense of confidence that blinds you to your own inconsistencies, plot holes, character disappearances, and unfinished subplots. Following an outline risks locking out any new ideas that arise while writing- either you plow ahead with the original plan, or waste time restructuring your outline when you should be writing. Worse, you might get so obsessed perfecting your outline, that you never even write the story! How many stories are never written, simply because the plotter wasn’t confident enough in their outline? Pre-planning is a lot of work that might not be your best, and even if you follow the outline to the letter, who’s to say you won’t have to re-write the story anyway?

Finally there’s one attack from both sides that I feel I need to tackle separately:

If you don’t use style X, you’re not making art, where X is whichever side the attacker uses.

It’s judgmental, elitist and downright insulting to artists everywhere. No one has a monopoly on the definition of art, and in the digital age, with its explosion of creativity, such attacks only serve to divide and belittle others. It’s legacy, country club, “there goes the neighborhood” thinking. It hurts fledgling artists, at best intimidating them into using a style that doesn’t work for them, at worst scaring them away from trying in the first place.

If you’re guilty of using “it’s not art”: cut it out. It’s bullying any way you slice it.

Here’s the secret, your ace-in-the-hole argument to shut up either side: revision and editing. Your first draft is just the beginning, so find the style that enables you, and gets you that first draft. NaNoWriMo is all about first drafts, and it’s a great time to experiment. Just remember that in the end, no matter how good of a writer you think you are, if you’re serious about writing and of the piece you’ve just written, you’ve still got a few more drafts to go. The real work is still ahead.

Now to the war veterans, fellow NaNoers, and experienced writers everywhere: November is coming around the bend, and a whole new generation of writers are eager to test their pens. Many will be scared, nervous, and unsure; many will seek our help and guidance.

Let’s put an end to this pointless civil war. Let’s treat attacks from both sides for what they are: trolling at best, bullying at worse. Let’s say the attacks aren’t acceptable any more. Let’s encourage experimentation across the spectrum, and not try to browbeat others into our own styles.

Maybe even try a style outside of your comfort zone- the experience might surprise you.

Okay, time to get off my soapbox and get back to writing. See you in November!


P.S. Because I know people will ask, I probably align more on the plotter side of the spectrum. I keep copious notes, and I use a rough outline of scenes, each summarized in a single sentence. As my girlfriend often says: “There has to be a plan. The plan can change, but there has to be a plan.” (Ironically she identifies as a pantser- go figure.)

But just because I have an outline, doesn’t mean the outline has me. I’ve signed no contract: if the story is the ocean, and the climax is the shore, my outline is but one route to land. I’m neither tethered to the route nor floating adrift; I’m a surfer cutting my own path, adjusting to new ideas, plot bunnies, bad planning, and all the spontaneous waves and currents that come once the writing has begun.

The outline is not sacrosanct: I add new scenes as I need them, stop mid-story to re-tool and re-architect the outline when the story is going in a new direction I like. When the story meanders away from the outline in a way I don’t like, I stop the tangent and start the next scene according to plan, leaving a note to fix things later.

I didn’t start with my current process: I’ve experimented all over the pants-plots spectrum, with success on both ends. Where I’ve landed works for me, where I feel I do my best work. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

I sincerely hope you too can find a style that works for you.

P.P.S. Thanks to Girlfriend Anne for her feedback.

The evolution of Pawsgaard

It’s been several months since I published Pawsgaard, the first story in the Guineawick Tales universe. Since then I’ve been heads down editing the third draft of its sequel, Hester and the Kookaburra King. I got to thinking about all the drafts I go through before publishing, and thought it might be fun to revisit some of my earlier Pawsgaard revisions.

Here’s how the story started in the original draft back in 2009:

Autumnal clouds blanketed the skies over Guineawick, thick and white and holding back the valiant efforts of the midday sun. The town bustled with a crowd of farmer-mice: the squeaks and chatter announced harvest time had come at last. A steady stream of strapping young mice marched in from the outer fields, passing through the heavy doors of the East Gate. Some carried bundles on their backs, others pulled wood carts; but collectively they bore the smiles of a good day’s work and the promise of a comfortable winter.

In the next draft, I dropped the occupation-mice formation, and massaged some of the sentence structures, but not much else changed.

Thick white clouds blanketed the skies over Guineawick; holding the midday sun at bay. The town bustled with a crowd of mice: their squeaks and chatter proclaimed the beginning of the harvest. A steady stream of strapping young farmers marched in from the outer fields, passing through the heavy doors of the East Gate. Some carried bundles on their backs, others pulled wood carts; but collectively they bore the smiles of a good day’s work and the promise of a comfortable winter.

And here’s how the final draft of Pawsgaard started:

Thick white clouds blanketed the sky, blocking the hot noon sun. The walled mousetown bustled with twittering whiskers, bouncing tails, and the rapid chatter of hundreds of mice. Merchants shouted from the shade of their stalls; mothers ran errands with little ones circling their feet. A constant stream of farmers returned from the fields, marching in from the East Gate with carts overstuffed. All bore the smiles of a good day’s work and the promise of a comfortable winter.

Harvest had come to Guineawick.

This time, I focused on smoothing out the flow of the scene, and as well as boosting the  imagery with the shouting merchants, the mothers and the children. I also push mention of harvest and the name Guineawick to their own single-line paragraph. This helps emphasize them, without requiring the reader to remember those details from the dense first paragraph.

It’s just a peek into the process; but I know I enjoy reading about how others write and edit their work, so I hope someone else finds this interesting. You can download Pawsgaard for free at Smashwords and wherever finer ebooks are sold.


The next great HatKK edit begins

In February of last year, I started editing my Guineawick Tales novel “Hester and the Kookaburra King”. It took me until October, but I produced a functioning draft before NaNoWriMo. Starting a couple of months ago I re-read the entire story end-to-end, and took extensive notes as to what still needs to be done.

There aren’t a lot of major structural changes, though I will be moving a couple of chapters around and dropping some unnecessary subplots. The majority of the work will be aligning the first half’s style with the second (where I made more concrete style decisions to change the feel of the work).

I’ve also begun planning out the sequel (you can never start too early), and as such have a short list of things I need to change in HatKK. The plan is to get HatKK ready to publish well before this year’s NaNoWriMo, so I have time to wrap up the sequel’s planning, and maybe even work on the interim short story “Aman”.

Let the editing begin!