Research and Restructuring

Working out the details for a new story can be a time-consuming pain in the butt. That’s what makes the Internet so great: there’s a wealth of information out there to help you decide where your story should take place, what kind of weapon your antagonist should carry, or what is the perfect name for your main character’s best friend. During National Novel Writing Month time that information is compressed into a neat little bundle in the form of the “Reference Desk” forum on the NaNoWriMo website. On the Reference Desk, NaNo participants from all over the world help each other answer the tough questions, and give assistance and opinions based on their own personal experiences.

I haven’t made great use of the Reference Desk in the past because most of my NaNo novels took place in made-up worlds where I could write whatever I damn-well pleased to make my story make sense. This year, however, my novel idea takes place in the real world, and requires my main character to travel the world a bit. So off to the Reference Desk I went, to ask for help. What I was looking for was assistance in choosing a main location for my story. I wanted a place that was a little off the map, somewhere were things like cell phones and massive amounts of entertainment are more scarce, but also somewhere where the residents celebrate Halloween, or a similar creepy-stuff-abounds kind of holiday.

What I quickly determined from the replies I received was that there aren’t many places these days where my requirements make a lot of sense. A few people pointed out, for example, that even in less civilized areas, cell phones are abound, and that some of the least likely places actually have higher cellphone-per-capita numbers because they never caught up on land-line installations and instead skipped right to cell. As I continued to read through the replies from people more knowledgeable than me, scene ideas and plot holes ran through my mind, and I began to realize that there probably is no good location that will suit all my needs for this particular story. I had a moment of frustrated indignation just thinking about it.

And then I realized something. I realized that I’m a writer, dammit, and writers improvise. The world might not always conform to meet our needs, but we have the power to change the world.

All of a sudden I had a plethora of additional ideas fluttering through my mind. My story wouldn’t take place in the present, no…but in the near future, yes. And there would be a disaster of some kind – nothing that would completely destroy the planet, but would lessen the planet’s population and destroy many forms of present-time technology. It all began to come together. I could see how this would work, how it would enhance the story, and even how it would flesh out the background of the main character. The fellow writers who responded to my post couldn’t give me exactly what I’d been looking for, but they helped me realize that I can give myself exactly what I’m looking for, if I’m just willing to be a little more creative.

The take-away from this post is two-fold:

1. The writer community is huge and helpful. The Reference Desk at the NaNoWriMo website is not always active in the non-NaNo season, but you can always find fellow writers in places like the #MyWANA Twitter feed, critique sites like Critique Circle, and the multitude of writer blogs (like this one!). Point being, there is always assistance out there if you need it.

2. Writers are adaptable, and improvisation is often the mother of some of the best ideas. If the details of your story aren’t working out, reconsider them. What would need to happen in order to make the details work out? What do you have to do in order to make that thing happen? Now do it!

Writing has a lot of facets other than the literal sitting down and writing. Tons of research is (unfortunately) one of them, and adapting your story ideas as a result of that research is (unfortunately) another one. But neither has to be as horrible as they sound. Join the writer communities popping up everywhere, and the whole system will feel that much simpler.

Not to mention, significantly less lonely.

Are you a part of any writer communities? Why or why not? Have you ever recruited the help of others in working some of the details of your story? Did it help? Have you ever completely changed a story based on researched information? Please share!

Focus in a Sea of Distractions

We’re on the homestretch, and Week 10 of The Artist’s Way is about “recovering a sense of self-protection”. I’m not sure that “self-protection” was the right choice of words…I’d have said something more along the lines of “recovering a sense of focus on what’s important”.

Basically, week 10 talks about a number of issues that we deal with (and sometimes enforce upon ourselves) that cause us to lose our focus and drift away from our dreams. One such issue is not given an actual title in the chapter, but I would refer to it as the “I’ll Do It When…” syndrome. This is when we set arbitrary limits for ourselves that don’t really mean anything in the long run, but make us feel as though we’re protecting ourselves from pain. For instance, I might finish editing my manuscript this month and have it all set for self-publication and then suddenly turn around and say, “No, you know what, I’m not well-known enough to sell a book. I’ll wait until I have, hmmm…say, 200 followers on my blog before I publish.” The limit is completely arbitrary (what’s so special about the number 200?) and means positively nothing (number of blog followers, in the end, has nothing to do with whether the book will sell), so the only point of it is to hold myself back, and why would I want to do that? As we’ve mentioned before, the name of the game is fear. We impose limits on ourselves because we’re terrified of the unknown. In this example I might be terrified that if I self-publish I won’t sell any books, or worse, I’ll sell a few and then get a wave of horrible reviews. So I (hypothetically) give myself these little limits that I have to reach before I’ll be willing to make the leap, and then when that moment comes I find another reason to limit myself. The cycle continues.

procastinatorThe other issues addressed in week 10 are workaholism, drought, fame, and competition. Workaholism is exactly what it sounds like; the artist in question lets their entire word become awash in their day job, to the point that they can never “find time” to work on their art. This isn’t simply the normal situation where an artist has a day job and thus has less time to work on their craft; this is actively seeking out more work to do because the artist is scared to work on their craft (for any of the reasons previously discussed). And this doesn’t necessarily have to involve a day job with an employer; a house wife who longs to be a painter may insist that she has no time to paint because she has to vacuum the floors for the second time today, and remake all the beds, and cut up and wash all the fruit and veggies in the fridge, and…well, you get the idea.

Drought is pretty much exactly what it sounds like…writers might call it “writer’s block”. This is when you have no ideas, everything you create seems like crap, and you have no idea how to move forward. You begin to doubt yourself. Drought is a state that every single artist deals with at some point, but depending on what kind of artist you are and what kind of person you are, you could push through it and come out stronger on the other side, or you could give up entirely. Drought has been well known to be the end of many artist careers.

Fame is synonymous with ego in this case. Even if I’ve been successful so far (say, by self-publishing and selling my first hundred books), I get caught up in the fact that I’m not famous yet. There are certain things that we equate with being successful, and unfortunately “fame” is one of them. By becoming the artist we had hoped to become, we also expect to start being adored by the public, receive fan letters, get asked to do book readings or get invited to a convention. If these things don’t happen, we assume that we’ve done something wrong. It’s not enough to meet our dreams and maybe even make some money at them…suddenly we want to be a celebrity too, and now we’re focusing on that instead of our art. Our art gets shuffled to the background.

Competition is based in good old fashioned jealousy. It boils down to seeing others succeed and feeling as though they somehow beat you. For example, say I have a close friend who is also a writer. We began writing around the same time and we often write in similar genres and the like. Now say that I’m stuck in the editing process, while she has already pushed forward, self-published, and has recently landed on the bestselling e-book list on Amazon. My sense of competition kicks in and I begin to feel like I’ve “lost”. The possibility of succeeding becomes moot because I’ve already “failed”. I lose the will to keep moving forward.

This is a chapter that I actually found quite interesting because I have, in one form or another, experienced each of these issues. I’ve played the “workaholic” by finding a million other things that “had” to get done that weren’t my writing. I’ve created arbitrary limits for myself, like telling myself that my zombie novel has to be the first thing I publish, even if it’s not necessarily my best work. I’ve put myself down because others are out there achieving what I’ve always dreamed of…they “beat” me to it. I told myself that I can’t be successful because I’m not “famous” enough (via, not enough followers, never getting comments, etc). And I’ve definitely gone through the drought process…many times, in fact, and every time I consider that this might be the time I quit all together.

These are all things that I expect every artist deals with, because they all boil down to human emotion and instinct. We want to be the best, we want to be loved, we feel that if we’re doing things right they should be easy, and we hate being afraid. The key, as with many things, is to recognize the issues and move on from them, and it helps knowing that others are going through the exact same things. That’s why communities (like the #MyWANA Twitter community for writers) are so great. No one has to suffer alone.

Have you ever dealt with workaholism, drought, “fame”, competition, or a raging case of the “I’ll Do It When…” syndrome? How did you get past it? Please share!

Camping while there’s still snow on the ground…yikes!

This special weekend edition post of No Page Left Blank is brought to you by Camp NaNoWriMo, in which I will be participating for the first time this year.

I’ve mentioned National Novel Writing Month before; for those who have never heard, it’s a challenge to all writers across the globe to write a 50,000 word novel entirely within the month of November. The challenge is run by a group of wonderful peoplel at the Office of Light and Letters, and participating (which is free!) grants you access to a community full of writers of all ages, enthnicities, religious groups, skill levels, and whatever other group designations you can think of. It’s a wonderful challenge that has really helped thousands upon thousands of people to finally get that novel out of their head and down on paper (or computer screen). The community aspect is so supportive and helpful, and there are lots of fun little distractions on the website as well. There are even in-real-life meetings organized by Municiple Liasons (or whoever takes up the task) where writers can meet each other and have write-in events. All in all, it’s just a great and fun event that I’ve participated in several years in a row now.

Camp NaNoWriMo is a similar event that is also hosted by the Office of Letters and Light twice a year. It’s like NaNoWriMo, but a little less structured, a little more freebase, and a little more casual. This year they’ve pleased many people by making the word count goal variable. If you want to participate but don’t think you have a chance of hitting a goal of 50,000, you can tailor your goal to suit yourself. If you think you’re a superstar and you can double, triple, or quadruple that goal, then that’s what you can do!

I’ve chosen to participate in Camp NaNoWriMo this year because of the motivational advantage. NaNoWriMo always revs me up to write as much as I possibly can because I love the challenge of it, and that’s something I sorely need these days. While I have been writing quite a lot since my Wildly Improbable Goals post, my enthusiasm has been waning. I’ve been unmotivated to the max, and have been finding myself struggling to get through each sentence. I hope to banish these lethargic feelings by taking up the challenge that starts tomorrow on April 1st.

I don’t think I have it in me to get through 50,000 words, considering my work schedule and how active my daughter is getting, but I don’t think it will be pushing it to give myself a word count goal of 30,000 for April. That’s slightly less than 1000 words a day, which I did with some amount of success back when I first started this blog. Can I do it again for one month? I think so. I hope so. We’ll see!

If anyone is brave enough to take up the challenge with me, visit the website ASAP! The challenge starts tomorrow, people! Seize the day!!

Balance? Ha! Baby, the world is tilted!

A reminder: This post courtesy of Julie Jarnagin’s 101 Blog Post Ideas for Writers.

97. Finding life/writing balance

I’m going to confess something here: when I first read the words “Finding life/writing balance” I nearly died from the gut-wrenching laughter/hysterical crying that occurred. I may have gone just a tiny bit insane from reading those words. It’s okay now. I had a peppermint-Kahlua-spiked coffee that my husband made me and all was well. But it was touch and go there for a moment.

In all seriousness, this is something that I’ve been struggling with for years, and to this day I haven’t figured out how to manage it. Additionally, over the past year of blogging I’ve come to follow quite a few very talented bloggers/authors and it doesn’t really seem as though they’ve figured it out either. I’ve even Tweeted with writers – published and otherwise – who seem to react to the topic with the same mad hysteria/life-crushing misery as myself. It just doesn’t seem to be a subject that many find they have been able to work their minds around It’s one of those things…like trying to get a moment’s peace with 20+ members of immediate and extended family having a shouting match in your home. Possible? Maybe. Likely? Not really.

Finding a balance between life and writing is one of those mysterious things that most people don’t believe is possible…like leprechauns. Or unicorns. You’d like to believe, you really would, but in your heart you know it’s a pipe dream.

Okay, so maybe I’m being over-dramatic. Perhaps it is possible to find a balance, but I personally don’t know anyone who has managed it.

The problem is that most writers have a heck of a lot of responsibilities aside from writing. Many writers will tell you that the only way to truly become a successful author is to suck it up, grit your teeth, and focus 100% on your writing, even if that means that you’ll be destitute for a while during the interim. And while part of me agrees with that, it’s not exactly as simple as being willing to make life hard on yourself in the short-term for the hope of long-term gain. After all, people have important responsibilities. They have families, children, mortgages, car payments, other assorted debts, and any other number of things that require them to have an income that stems from something more stable.

So immediately we have that disconnect. We have the day-job life, and the writing life. Now add in a couple of other aspects of life that many writers have to deal with… In addition to the day-job life and the writing life you might have the mommy/daddy life, the (ever elusive) social life, the household-chores-and-errands life, the “I desperately need to lose some weight before I die of a heart attack” life, and so on and so on.

Personally, the only way I’ve been able to “balance” life and writing is by sneakily combining the two. When I’m at my day job I write between tasks and during breaks. When I’m in mommy mode I’ll pluck out a blog post (sometimes a sentence at a time) whilst braiding ponies’ hair and making Leonardo beat up Michelangelo. Sometimes I’ll pluck out a few words whilst keeping an eye on supper, or I’ll save a couple of sentences on my iPhone while waiting in line at the supermarket. And since it’s pretty much impossible to write while exercising, I’ll use that time to mull over a scene in my mind, which doubles as a way to distract myself from the burning pain all throughout my body.

(I’m not going to comment on my social life. It’s silly to comment on things that don’t exist.)

And that’s my two cents on that. If any of you other writers out there ever find a better way to “balance”, I submit to you that it is your duty to share it with the writer community (in the form of a comment on this post). 🙂