NaNoWriMo 2017 Post-Mortem

Notes on what I did well and not-so-well after completing NaNoWriMo 2017.

Hi! I’m finally back with another writing update. I completed NaNoWriMo again this year, and here’s my assessment of my performance.

Summary

This year’s novel is code-named “Survey.”

It’s a science fiction/fantasy set many thousands of years in the future, in a time after a long war between humans and aliens has finally resulted in a treaty.

A human captain leads a ship on a mission to survey a planet, where a lost colony had once been established thousands of years before. They find a struggling pre-Industrial human society, and alien ships in orbit.

The captain’s ship is shot down, and an alien plot that leads to the brink of war unfolds.

What I Did Well

First I like to highlight what I did well, so I remember to do them in the future.

Workmanlike Effort

I’ll be perfectly honest. At no point during the writing of this draft did I feel particularly inspired or excited about this novel. Don’t get me wrong, I feel like it has potential, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out.

What I’m trying to say is that I was never driven by a “muse” or “divine inspiration” or a “need to tell this story” or a “personal connection to the characters” or anything like that. Every day I had to force myself to continue writing, because I wanted to give up on it pretty much every single day.

This was a very valuable experience.

Minimal “filler words”

During the gamified NaNoWriMo event, where the focus is on quantity, not quality, there’s a very strong temptation to just put *anything* into your NaNoWriMo draft. This is a fairly well-known, joked-about phenomenon. I call them “filler words.” They might be ideas for another story you’re thinking of, the weather, “I don’t know what to write” over and over, the complete works of Monty Python, things like that.

My personal favorite filler material is breaking the fourth wall to have the characters talk about the story they are involved in, or brainstorming notes about what to write next.

This very blog post could conceivably be used as “filler words” for my draft. I am starting this post on Day 30 with 48,407 draft words completed, instead of writing words to finish up my draft.

But this year, I’ve added very few filler words. I counted only three days that included “filler” content, and I kept it relatively focused on brainstorming for this particular story. I didn’t ever venture into discussing the weather, for example. (The weather was chilly for most of November, incidentally.)

That means that for 27 out of the 30 days of the event, even though I never really felt like I quite knew what to write next, I buckled down and figured out what was appropriate to write for the story.

I finished the story

If you’ve done NaNoWriMo more than once, you probably know that you can’t write what would be considered a novel today in 50,000 words. My personal target for a debut novel is 90,000 words. I’ve read repeatedly that 80-90k words is roughly the point where publishers are willing to “take a chance” on a new writer. They aren’t likely to publish a debut author’s 200,000 epic fantasy, in other words. Get a few successful books out first, then we’ll talk.

(Incidentally, I still consider traditional publishing the best route for me to follow in my writing career. While it would be relatively easy to self-publish, and in fact I *have* self-published a book on Amazon, I just don’t have the mettle to deal with marketing.)

Getting back to the point, there’s a strong temptation to simply stop writing at 50,000 words on Day 30, even though one knows quite well the story isn’t over yet. For me in particular, once the month is over, I really don’t want to write any more. The “special event” is over, and there’s no more social motivation to continue writing. One has to go back to internal motivation and self-discipline, which is what we in the writing biz call “work.”

In the past, I have ended drafts unfinished. Last year, in fact, when I got to 50,000 words of my historical fiction, I felt like I had only completed perhaps one of three parts in the overall story.

But this year I determined that I would complete the story. I knew I could not write the 90,000 words required to tell it fully in November, but I knew that if I did not at least summarize the end of the story, I would never get back to it.

So over approximately the last five days, I stopped trying to “show, not tell” and reverted strictly to telling. This allowed me to dilate huge swaths of time down to paragraphs, and resolve most of the plot threads that I had started earlier. Later, I will be able to come back and expand those paragraphs out into chapters, instead of scratching my head wondering how to finish an unfinished manuscript.

What I Did Poorly

Of course it wouldn’t be much of a post-mortem unless I had criticisms of my performance.

Procrastination

I procrastinated a *lot* during November. I had plenty of time for writing, but I did not use it wisely. I could have easily written 100,000 words or more in November, if I had really set my mind to it. On good writing days it was easy to achieve 2,500 words. Pushing further to 3,000 or 3,500 would not have been difficult with some discipline.

Grammar

I don’t think the quality of this year’s writing is very good. It will require a lot of editing.

It’s not unusual for my first drafts to be poor, because I am more focused on getting down the ideas in my head before they fly away, but I think it was worse than usual this year.

Improving the quality of my first drafts is a point that I want to work on, because I don’t enjoy the revision process as much as the writing process. Once I know how the story is going to turn out, it’s less of a creative process and more of a crafting process. (Not to say that there isn’t a lot of art in grammar, it’s just that I am not particularly good at the more literary styles of writing.) I think of it like sculpting: Chiseling and filing away at the words and sentences until they look right.

If I can improve the quality of my first drafts, it will make the revision process that much faster. I don’t really know how to get better at it except to keep practicing.

August Writing Update

My last post was some time ago, so I thought I would update everyone on my writing progress. Um. Well. You see. It hasn’t been great.

My last post was some time ago, so I thought I would update everyone on my writing progress.

Um. Well. You see. It hasn’t been great.

I did participate in NaNoWriMo 2016, and I did win, so that was something. I wrote 50,000 words on a historical fiction novel set in Belgium during World War I. I’ve never written historical fiction before so it was a big stretch. I felt completely unqualified, but I pressed on and tried to stick with what I knew and avoid obsessing about the little details that I was sure I was getting wrong.

For most of the writing, I felt like it was terrible, but I thought there were some good moments here and there, particularly toward the end. (There was no end to the story. I just stopped at 50,000 words.) Perhaps one day I will read it again and try to edit it.

Since then, I have been telling myself that I will work on editing a fantasy novel I wrote in 2012 called Kubak Outpost. I haven’t gotten very far on it. I don’t seem to have a very good workflow for writing anymore. Since I’ve moved into my new house everything feels very temporary and chaotic and taking the steps necessary to make permanent work zones feels like a monstrous chore that I don’t know how to tackle.

Anyway. I’m attempting to move this blog to a different location. There should be no change for visitors, but it’s hosted somewhat differently. I’m trying to consolidate a bunch of disparate online things together so I can perhaps save some money and make things easier to administer. This is the first post under the new system, so we’ll see if it publishes correctly.

Spelling Right: On Standard Spelling

Rambling thoughts that are somewhat related to Anne Trubek’s article on spelling.

Reims Bible, Wikimedia Commons. Spelling was pretty important for monks.
Reims Bible, Wikimedia Commons. Spelling was pretty important for monks.

Spelling is important, right? I saw a post on Facebook about this Grammar Girl article, which was a response to a Wired article by Anne Trubek on spelling. I started to type a pithy comment about it, but then I realized I kept thinking of new things to say that went far beyond the scope of a pithy comment, so I figured I should turn it into a long, rambling blog post.

Reading over that Wired article, it’s not clear to me what Trubek’s trying to advocate. Spelling isn’t important? Computers make spelling harder? Auto-correct makes spelling worse? Spelling mistakes are okay? In the end I think her main point is that spelling rules are too hard for computers to enforce, so we should re-write the spelling rules to allow computers to work better. I agree that English spelling rules are incomprehensible and illogical, and if we were to set out to design a new language with a consistent set of spelling rules we could do a much better job, but I don’t think it’s realistic to think it would get any traction among the world’s population. I mean, Esperanto, Klingon, and Elvish are all newly-invented languages and they aren’t exactly taking off.

It used to make sense to write “l8r” instead of “later” because numeric phone keypads made it impossible to type out full words. I never did any texting back then and I’m glad I didn’t. Now I don’t think there’s much of an excuse for not typing out full words because we have QWERTY keyboards available to us on our phones. (Though admittedly it’s a lot harder to type on glass touchscreens than clicky keyboards.) Still, I tend to cut people some slack when they’re sending messages from phones because, instead of making things better, auto-correct makes it quite difficult to avoid bad writing. I agree with Trubek on that. I’d rather send out misspelled words than replaced words.

I do think that writing (and communication in general) should be tailored toward your intended audience, though. If I’m typing a message in an IRC or IM-like environment (like say a video game chat), I’m generally not going to capitalize anything but “I” and I’m probably not going to use proper punctuation. When I do that I’m tailoring my message for my audience, which covers a wide range of backgrounds anywhere from full-blown grammar police to 10-year-olds who can’t spell. To me, lower case without punctuation is a nice balance between targeting readers who prefer proper grammar and readers who prefer “l8r” and weird emojis. It’s not too pretentious to more, ahem, “casual” spellers, and it’s not too horrifying to, ahem, obsessive writers.

Away from the Internet, if I’m writing anything for work, I’m going to figure out who is going to be reading my documents and tailor my writing for them. Presumably they are all adults with a reasonable level of education. If it’s a technical document, I’m going to use acronyms and jargon but relatively straightforward declarative sentences. If it’s a presentation for people with no sense of humor, I’m going to try to sound like a Harvard professor and use denser sentences. If it’s a government document, I’m going to try to write sentences that sound like they are filled with information but actually have no intrinsic meaning at all. If it’s marketing copy, I’m going to jump off a bridge and kill myself because I don’t like writing marketing copy. But in every case, I’m going to use proper grammar and proper punctuation and proper spelling because it makes me look like a professional instead of a hack. Believe me when I tell you that people in the business world will judge you if your writing does not look professional.

(In blog posts, by the way, I write very casually, in a mixture of voices, with plenty of errors because I don’t have an editor, and I’m okay with that. Because quite frankly I consider every blog post I write to be a practice session of creative writing without being paralyzed by an inner editor.)

To me, the way you choose to spell things determines how you want to present yourself to the world. The way we write says a lot about us, whether we want it to or not. If someone doesn’t care about choosing standard spelling or decent grammar, it makes me wonder what else they don’t care about. Don’t they care about doing a good job in their chosen craft? Don’t they care about bettering themselves? Don’t they care about learning? Or are they just showing up to collect a paycheck? If I see someone’s resume, that’s what I’m thinking about when I read their sentences. (What else do I have to go on?)

So back to the Wired article. The author makes a good point that language evolves over time, and that standardized spelling is a relatively recent invention (1800s+). I don’t feel like that’s a good argument to avoid proper spelling though, because back when spelling was all over the place (say, the 1600s), it was because nobody knew how to read and write. It’s not that they were exercising creative license with their spelling, it was because they didn’t know how to spell. I don’t feel like the author is intentionally advocating a return to an illiterate society, but that’s what is going to happen when you stop teaching people how to spell. We’ll return to the days when only monks in monasteries could write books. (Future monks will be writing web content, and hopefully they will be paid handsomely for their rare skill.) Sometimes it feels like we’re already there. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve shaken my head at how few of my peers in the working world can communicate complex ideas in writing. I’m working on a project right now that is suffering badly because of a simple lack of documentation.

Overall I would agree that it doesn’t matter what kind of shorthand we write in text messages or Post-it notes to loved ones. However when we’re writing for a larger audience of potential strangers, proper spelling and grammar is pretty important if we care about being understood.

UPDATE: I installed a new WordPress plugin that does some SEO analysis, so I made some slight changes to improve this blog post’s marketing copy.

It’s July!

It’s July again and I’ve completely forgotten about Camp NaNoWriMo.

Oh crap! It’s July! This is Camp NaNoWriMo month, and it’s Day 3, and I haven’t started writing–haven’t even thought of an idea. Didn’t even realize it was July until this third day.

Should I write something?

Coincidentally, I’ve had a story in my head for the last few days. Actually, I should say I’ve had a setting in my head for the last few days. It’s from an old idea I wrote down years ago, which was rekindled by running across The Conjunction Of The Spheres in the The Witcher 3 which I’ve been playing.

My idea was about the modern world being taken over by an invasion from a magical plane, and what that would look like.

Before that, I had also been thinking about another sword and sorcery idea that’s been floating around my head for years, which revolves (hyuk hyuk) around a single scene: A sorcerer conjuring a hurricane as a weapon in some king’s war against a rival country. (I like to go big and scary with magic.)

Years in Westeros

It occurred to me: The seasons in A Song of Ice and Fire are many years long, right? In the show, Old Nan said that men were born, lived, and died all without seeing the sun (presumably in winter, in the north). But when the characters talk about how long the seasons are, they use the word “years.” (At least, I think they do. I would have to comb through the books to be sure.) But since for us a year is defined as one revolution around the sun, or one cycle of seasons, how do the people in Westeros know how long a “year” is, since it would be some fraction of the length of their seasons? Why would they even have a concept for a fraction of time shorter than a season?

And how does their crop rotations work? Do they have to harvest and store food all through summer and fall because no food grows for years during the winter?

These kinds of things go through my head when I’m worldbuilding my own worlds. Things like, “Why are there 12 seasons months in a year? Why aren’t there 10? Or 15? There’s no astrological equivalent for months so somebody must have just made it up out of thin air. How would 5,000 years of civilization be different if that person decided to use 20 months? Or no months at all? Oh yeah, why did that guy pick 7 days to put into a week? Why did we need a week at all?”

Hrm. Maybe when they say the word “year” they mean a unit of measurement similar to our word for “month.”

April Camp NaNoWriMo

I’m off to a bad start in the April Camp NaNoWriMo event.

I am off to a terrible start in the April Camp NaNoWriMo event. I set myself a modest goal of 30,000 words (since I don’t think this story is a full novel), and I’m already about three days behind schedule. I’m just not “feeling it.” My story idea seems like an awful idea again that makes no sense. (Exactly what happened to me the first time I started writing it.)

Still, I’m hoping to get into the swing of things pretty soon. I spent a month preparing a reasonably complete (well, 75% complete) outline to work from, so that should help a lot. While working on the outline, I was pretty excited about the idea, so I’m trying to hold onto that sentiment and trust that this story will turn out better than it seems right now.

 

February Status, Part 2

How my writing went during February.

My last post was a “February Status” but it was posted at the beginning of February, so in reality it was more of a “January Status.” It’s now the beginning of March (sort of), so this writing update will actually cover February.

As of now my manuscript from November is over 80,000 words, and Scrivener says I wrote nearly 12,000 words in February. Not great, but better than nothing.

A couple of interesting story twists occurred in February: 1) I killed off a character that was no longer doing anything interesting, and 2) I came up with a new idea for an interesting group of people to encounter in the post-apocalyptic wilderness.

I feel like this story is no longer a book, but rather a series of short stories. There are very distinct “phases” that the main character goes through, and they are not necessarily connected to each other by an over-arching plot. Perhaps it might be time to take a break and dissect what I’ve written and figure out what to do with it.

In the meantime, Camp NaNoWriMo is coming up for April, in which I plan to resurrect my dismal failure from NaNoWriMo 2013. This time, I’m going to plan out an outline and make sure I know where things are going. Even though I hated most of what I wrote last time, I always felt there was still a kernel of a good idea in there. To prepare, I’m re-reading what I wrote in 2013. It’s not as bad as I remember it being, which is a good sign.

February Status Report

Continuing work on my post-apocalyptic novel, slowly but… surely?

Perhaps if I update my blog more often, it will inspire me to do more writing, so that I’ll have more to talk about in my blog. So…

As February begins, I’m still working on my post-apocalyptic novel that I started in NaNoWriMo 2014. I’m up to about 70,000 words, so you can probably figure out that I’m not writing very fast–typically I only put down about 500 words a night, somewhere around four a five nights out of a week. (I went from 50,000 words in one month to 20,000 words in three two months.)

On the plus side, I’ve discovered that 500 words is a very good “session size” for me. Sitting down to write 500 words does not feel daunting to me, even if I have nothing in mind to write. I can usually knock it out in a half hour, more or less. And by the time I’ve written 500 words, mentally I’m usually ready for a break. So chalk up another self-discovery finding there. For the next NaNoWriMo I participate in, I think it will go better if I plan to try to write three 555 word sessions per day, instead of one 1667 word session per day.

I’m pleased to say that I wrote the ending of the novel. By which I mean that I wrote what I think the final scene should be–at least the final one related to the main character. This was a tremendous accomplishment because for most of the lifespan of this novel I’ve had no earthly clue where anything was going. I wasn’t even sure who the main character was. This first draft has basically been a very, very long brainstorming session. I think it would be more appropriate to call it a zeroth draft, actually.

The biggest story problem I have now is somehow connecting where I was in the middle of the novel to the ending, which could be challenging considering that the middle part has nothing to do with the ending. There are still some issues to work out, in other words. I’m not very adept at solving problems like this, either. I think I’m just going to have to put my head down and power through it.