It's here! It's here! It's NOVEMBER FIRST! My enthusiasm is bubbling over as I contemplate the month that stretches out before me. Aside from being host to Thanksgiving, Veterans Day, Guy Fawkes day, "no-shave" November, Movember, and my birthday month, it is (above ALL else--imagine a drum roll here) that magical time of year when writers around the world drop everything else (or keep everything else, but still find a way) to write 50,000 words in a month.
The image to the left comes from the NaNoWriMo homepage, which is also where you can sign up to participate in this monumental annual event.
I'm doing a few things differently this year. Firstly, I'm doing my best to stick to the list that I created after my last novel. Secondly, I'm actually working (at least a little bit) on the whole "outline" thing that I completely skipped last year. I've at least made a list of some major plot events and created a brief sketch of my main characters. It's not much, but it's way more than I had last November. I now see the value of a road map, no matter how vague and inaccurate it may be. I'm still a pantser through and through, but I can now see the value in a tiny bit of foresight.
Some of my students are participating in the Young Writers' Program that NaNoWriMo sponsors. They're excited, too, and I won't be at all surprised if some of them write even more than I do this month. Here's to the journey!
Naysayers abound, but I personally believe that my participation in NaNoWriMo last year changed my life, and I'm so excited to start a new project this year. I recognize that this style doesn't work for everyone, but I'm the kind of writer (and person) who needs a bit of fire under my rear end to make me take the plunge, and NaNoWriMo provides just enough pressure and support to make an ideal situation for me. After participating last year, I now know (all too well) the hard work that lies ahead after the month is over, but the pressure and excitement that come with this month are enough to push that apprehension aside for now and celebrate this moment in time and the infinite possibilities that lie within it.
I'd love to say more, but I've got to get back to that novel! Happy writing to all of you who are starting this journey today!
I've been neglecting this part of my website recently, which reflects the general lack of significant progress in the creative writing part of my life. I'm still writing, of course, particularly during creative writing class and on the weekends during blog post times, but I'm not devoting nearly as much time to other writing endeavors as I should. It's so easy to let life get in the way of writing.
That will change soon. November is rapidly approaching, and with it comes NaNoWriMo. Although my current novel still needs massive amounts of revision, I'm going to use November as a time to take a break from my current project and create something new.
But enough about my writing woes! I'm focusing today on a writing activity we've been using in Creative Writing class recently: Word Sprints. I've actually gotten inspiration for this activity from a twitter event that occurs most days. Several writers who I follow participate in #wordsprints, which are short bursts of writing during a specified time period (usually between 15 and 30 minutes). As the "sprint" suggests, the focus of these writing periods is on writing as many words as possible during that time.
In class, we pair word sprints with writing prompts. The students create and submit prompts, and then I select prompts at random. For our word sprint activities, I typically choose 2 unrelated prompts. We'll write for either 10 or 15 minutes per prompt.
At the end of the allotted time, we examine our word count and reflect on our writing. The students write self-evaluations, where they give themselves scores from 1 to 10 in four specific categories. At the beginning of the quarter, we brainstormed the wide range of writing criteria that we could use to evaluate our writing time in class. These are the four categories the students ultimately chose:
(1) Style: The students decided that they wanted to focus on improving their own unique style as
writers. We often have a specific aspect of style on which we focus each time.
(2) Imagery: The students decided they wanted to focus on imagery throughout all of their pieces this
year, so they always reflect on how well they incorporated imagery and detail into their pieces.
(3) Effort: This category encompasses the way that the students used their time and the amount of
energy they put into the task.
(4) Creative Flexibility: The students decided that they wanted to always reflect on their creativity, but
that they also wanted to push themselves to try new things and to adapt to new challenges. The
result was this category.
Students give themselves scores from 1 to 10 in each of the categories. They come up with an average score that I record in the grade book. They also write reflections, commenting on what they did well and what they had trouble doing.
I like the word sprints because they wake up the brain and get ideas flowing quickly. I also like the sense of urgency that they create. I find myself interacting with prompts that seem impossible to penetrate, and the need to produce words quickly helps me make progress with them. I love the sound of people typing and writing frantically as they scramble to get their ideas down. It's a fun part of class, and it's also a great way to push past the feelings of staleness and inaccessibility.
Here's one of my latest word sprints, written from a prompt I found especially challenging. I feel the need to make all sorts of excuses, (like pointing out that I only had 15 minutes and that I haven't reworked it at all), but instead I'll just paste it in here:
PROMPT: Whales have mutated to fly in the sky. They also shoot lasers. It’s the whale-opacalypse. What do you do?
It started out like any other morning. My hologram alarm clock started projecting onto the far wall across from me and a hologram image of Eddie Vedder swooped down over me, singing me a good morning song. The blinds sprung open as the alarm sounded, signaling that it was time to get started with my day.
I forced myself to open my eyes and brace the reality. I had to get out of bed. I had to get to work.
Sadness crept in and I pondered what would happen if I didn’t show up today. The thought that nothing would happen did not exactly brighten my day, but it was enough to force me out of bed.
I realized a bit too late that the alarm was all wrong—the song Eddie was singing was far too late on the list of morning songs. I was going to be late.
I jumped down the stairs, two at a time, more terrified of the thought of the robot escort to the boss than I was of the actual conversation with the boss.
My coffee maker responded to my frantic voice, brewing me a giant latte that would help me cope with my day.
I was in such a hurry that I almost missed the sirens blaring, but when I stepped outside to jump into my hovercraft, I heard them distinctly piercing the air.
It was a disorienting experience, and at first I thought that it must have been just a test of the latest procedures for protection against bioterrorism or the other forms of weaponry constantly threatening our existence.
Just as I began going through the breathing exercises my yogi instructor had taught me to use when handling anxiety-inducing experiences, I noticed the shift from bright sunshine to sudden darkness.
The feeling of an ominous event washed over me as I craned my neck to look at the sky.
Something large and looming had crept over the sun, blocking out all light.
What could it be?
Around me, sirens blared and people screamed. I began to notice the traffic jam of hovercars as people stopped abruptly, frantically staring at the looming objects covering the sky.
It was then that I heard, amid all of the other distressing signals, the sound of a melodic, song-like wail.
I studied the sky again and realized that the objects, which I had initially believed to be blimps or warships of some kind, were in fact whales. The giant whales were covering the sky, and beams of light seemed to be coming from them.
I looked at my neighbor who was screaming as she stood on her porch. I started to walk toward her, thinking that we should at least take cover together. Just as I took my third step, a bright light flashed.
She was gone. Absolutely gone. The whale was shooting lasers and disintegrated her.
I looked up at the giant whale, remembering all too clearly how I had always admired those graceful creatures, and watched as more lasers shot out in all directions. One struck the ground close to me and I shuddered, suddenly remembering that I had to seek shelter.
The end was near.
505 words. I'd give myself an 8.5. I put forth considerable effort, and I definitely scored high in the creative flexibility area, since I never write futuristic stuff. However, my imagery could have been much better, and I was not pleased with my style. (However, my husband who is proofreading this gives it a 10 because it's exactly the sort of stuff he loves to read... Whales with lasers? How can that not be awesome??? ~Signed, The Husband)
The whole point is that word sprints are great ways to get your ideas flowing, and they are a quick, easy way to embark on new adventures.
(Truth: I had my husband, who always reads my blogs before I post them, read this, and he loved my little word sprint story. You have no idea how happy this makes me. I mean it when I say I truly thought it was terrible. Anyway, he also told me that I had to resolve this somehow--that it had no conclusion... So here goes. Here's a conclusion.)
You never know where the word sprints will go, or what will happen with the stories that you create. I don't have an ending for this one yet, but I'll be a lot more likely to come back to it and visit it again now that I've posted it somewhere. Check out my students' blogs, where they post lots of their word sprints and other writing, at their class website, derpinc.weebly.com.
Pulling at the memory of a dream is like yanking on the thread of a sweater. On rare occasion, you find the right piece to gently pull and it fixes the problem in the sweater, moving it toward a more perfect piece. However, most of the time when you pull, you simply watch the sweater unravel before your eyes until there is nothing left but the feeling of absence in the air and a long ball of yarn on the floor. That's what it's like with dreams sometimes. There is nothing left but the haunted ghost of an experience that was so real that it must have happened, even if it was to someone else somewhere else, and yet the memory is murky and faint. If only you could get to that place and tell that story, your life might feel more complete. And yet it always eludes you, moving just beyond the extent of your grasp.
And so it was with my dream this morning. It was a good one--a good story, anyway. It was not such a good dream to experience. In fact, I awoke with a pounding headache, feeling hot and frantic with gritted teeth. However, from what I do remember about it, it was full of time travel and mystery and a young girl who had to be saved in order to protect the world from an inevitable apocalyptic collapse far in the future, and so it violated several of the rules I've created since I wrote my first manuscript during NaNoWriMo last year: (1) No world building components--everything must be tangible and present right here in this world (2) No crazy savior attempts. (3) No parallel universes or other complicated crap that would be difficult to negotiate. (4) No overdone cliche tropes.
Now that I'm looking at that list, I'm considering the possibility that I might never again write another major fiction piece.
And so the truth, if I'm really being honest with myself, is that I am still taking time off from my manuscript. Oh, yes, I have tinkered with it here and there, and I've opened at least 30 different word documents in an attempt to rediscover the sweatery substance of that story, but it seems that once I started pulling on the threads, the whole thing began to unravel and I haven't been able to figure out how to heal the whole piece. I've been doing a lot of reading, which I do not consider a fruitless pursuit, but each time I've sat down to actually write--to really do something with my manuscript--I've found myself in a frantic need of doing laundry or cleaning or some other task that was suddenly so urgent that it could not wait the couple of hours (or days, as the case may be) that an initial revision process would take.
The story feels like the sand dollar in the photo above (though not nearly as lovely)--it's pure and (potentially) beautiful, but with the sand and the salt and the water, it's a bit hard to see it clearly. And even worse, as you try to take capture its essence in an image, what really happens is your own damn shadow keeps getting in the way.
Despite the current stalemate between the story and me, a friend shared an awesome post by Courtney Summers about what to do during the writing process. I found her revision tips to be extremely useful, and I particularly liked her idea about reverse outlining. Of course, my primary problem is that I don't in fact know what the point of my story is. As I discussed before, the story I thought I was writing (back in the days when I was pantsing it and loving every moment of the glorious word count frenzy) was quite different from the one that is now on the page. It's as if the story is still unveiling itself, but unfortunately as time passes, I feel farther and farther away from its secrets.
My current plan? To participate in the James River Writers Conference, and to have a draft and pitch ready by then. I have no idea how I will get there, but I figure it's better to have an action plan, especially with the start of a new school year and the promise of a busy semester.
How do you handle revisions? What do you do when you've lost your way? At what point do you seek out an editor? Are there any writing books that have helped you? I'd love any suggestions and feedback that you have.
They don’t tell you just how much time you’ll spend with your palms pressed against your head screwing up a perfectly good hair day as you mentally spin out a series of chess moves. They don’t tell you that you’ll be sitting in a restaurant smiling politely at your dinner companions nodding along as you pretend to listen while secretly asking yourself, “Does that thing I’m doing with the dog in Chapter Three really work?” ~Libba Bray
First, a confession: my summer is not turning out the way that I had planned. In fact, it is even busier than the school year, and I find myself missing the routine and predictability of school. (Though I’m teaching a summer prep program, I find that it does not have the same amount of routine comfort.) Additionally, as I know other educators do, I find myself feeling frustrated by my inability to get through the millions of projects that I had planned to take on this summer. I imagine you know the feeling all too well. But enough complaints—the point is that I’m working on being more flexible, both with my schedule and with my writing. I had planned to finish another revision of my manuscript by mid-June, and here it is a few days away from July, and I’ve hardly made any progress on the one I started.
As I spent the day last Sunday sweating and panting along a ten mile "strenuous" hike, I contemplated how hiking is like writing. When you’re first feeling your way along a new trail, everything is a bit uncomfortable. The pathway is there, but it can be hard to find and even more difficult to follow. It’s hard to know how to best utilize the bit of energy you have, and at times the task of simply moving one foot in front of the other can feel insurmountable. And yet you keep on trudging, and if you do the same trails multiple times, you learn the patterns of them. Though it doesn’t necessarily get easier, it does get much more manageable. And all of that time putting one foot in front of the other (while gasping for breath, as the case was this last weekend) helps to generate some new ideas.
This is what I’ve learned about the revision process: sometimes revision is not about writing—sometimes it’s about living. Sometimes it is about waiting. Most of all, it is about patience and endurance. I’m a pantser instead of a planner, so I love sitting down with no road map and writing until the story comes together. When I first began revising, I continued the pantsing method, which I wrote about here. However, I’ve finally realized, six months into the revision process, that without some careful planning and mapping, I could be revising ten years from now with little progress. A Google search about pantsing revisions (can you tell that I’m lost?) led me to this awesome blog post, which helped me confirm that I do in fact need to plan, and that a lot of the “revising” that I was doing earlier is still part of the writing part of the process.
As we hiked through the woods on Sunday, I found myself picking my friend’s brain (which is the brain of a bioengineer with a background in physics), and although I did no writing that day, some of the ideas that we discussed will likely have a fundamental impact on the framework for my manuscript. As I maneuvered around rock faces and between crevices, I was struck by the simplicity of ideas, the way they knock you over when you see a slogan you’ve seen a million times or, in my case, when you break the seal on a newly purchased item. I was amazed by the power of brainstorming and working through hypothetical situations.
The struggle with this latest revision has been a long one, and while I was wallowing in the doldrums of I-don’t-know-what-my-framework-is, a friend shared another great blog post by Libba Bray about the process. I found this one, aptly titled "On Writing Despair," incredibly consoling as I clutched my little laptop and stared at the screen for an extended period of time. It’s long, and funny, which goes a long way when you’re in the midst of the doldrums. The best part of that post is the fact that there is no clear solution. There is simply endless struggle to find and tell the story that is there.
As we came down the mountain at the end of the ridge hike last weekend, I found my mind drifting toward simple things like water and butterflies and deer. My story and all of our brainstorming faded into the back of my mind and I focused on my breathing (which had finally transformed from the harsh panting to a calmer breath). I let the ideas bounce around in my head, unattended, and I have let them continue to marinate this week as other tasks have taken my time.
And so, as summer stretches on in ways that are fun but fundamentally different than I had planned, I am working on being flexible and on forgiving myself for not meeting every goal I have set in place. I'm learning just how accurate the term process is when it comes to writing, and I'm realizing that many factors impact that process.
"that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have..."
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.