Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ethan's Top 7 NaNo Tips

Credentials: The first time I did National Novel Writing Month I was a junior in high school. I have done it every November since; it has seen me through the rest of high school, college, and graduate school, making this my 9th year in a row. I have written at least 50,000 words every November; some years I've made it to 75 or 85,000. (Last year I shot for a hundred thousand, but stopped at 75k. However, I considered that legitimate because I also did two drafts of my Master's thesis in November of last year.)

So as someone who has achieved relative success at this, I decided to lay out a few tips for conquering NaNo's ridiculous write-50,000-words-in-a-month challenge, just in case it helps anyone. I've designed these to be useful whether you're reading them beforehand (meaning, I guess, either today or farther in the future than I am comfortable thinking about), or during NaNo.

1. Keep in mind the actual goal of NaNo. The actual goal of National Novel Writing Month is to write 50,000 words of fiction. Now here are a few things the goal is not:

The goal is not to write good fiction.
The goal is not to write fiction with a coherent plot.
The goal is not to write fiction with well-developed characters.
The goal is not to write fiction with insanely clever hidden elements that only clever readers will understand.

If any of these things manages to happen over the course of the month, great. However, in order to achieve your goal, you must not worry about them. Just focus on getting the words written. Did you just write 10,000 words that you discovered just suck? Keep them. Did you just write three chapters that make the plot that came before them not make sense? Keep them. Just get the words written.

Now the trick here is that 1. quality will happen if you focus on quantity, and 2. even if it doesn't this exercise will have enormous benefits for you as a writer, as a creative person, and simply as a person.

2. Fix it in Post. The mantra of bad film-makers everywhere, this will be the mantra of the successful NaNo-er every time. Just keep repeating it to yourself, anytime that inner voice of Doubt and Nagging and You Suck A Lot comes up. Address that voice. Tell it:

I will make it good later.
I will make the plot make sense later.
I will make the characters interesting later.
I will insert the hints that will lead the clever reader to conclude that Bob Williams is actually the incarnation of Yog-Sothoth later.


3. Communicate with the people you care about. My good friends will know that this is something I am better at saying than at doing, but it is a huge help. And I have left this vague on purpose, because the people you care about will inherently fall into two categories: those also doing NaNo, and the rest.

By no means do I want to propose any kind of NaNo snobbery; remember that you're the crazy one. But those not doing NaNo will not understand your species of insanity. If you can, explain it to them, get them to help you. If they simply will not or do not understand, you may have to be blunt: I won't be available to play Mario Kart the next month. I will be writing about Yog-Sothoth. Sorry.

Those you care about who are doing NaNo may just be the most important element of your entire month. Writing is a sad, lonely business and NaNo can be very frustrating when your characters are all killing each other, or cheating on each other, or falling in love with each other, or all three and yet your boss still expects you to show up and sell shoes or make burgers or sell stocks or whatever the case may be. Those going through this also can be enormously helpful in providing sympathy, inspiration, tricks, encouragement, all that good stuff. Also, competition. I made it to 85,000 words to one year as a result of being in stiff competition with a friend of mine; we were beating each other's word counts all month, or I would have stopped at 50k that year.

4. Take Breaks. If you are like me, then every second during NaNo that you are not writing may feel lost, may feel like failure; you may feel like you need to pounce on every opportunity to write. However, breaks are important.

Take a walk for ten minutes. Watch an episode of a TV show. Go visit your mother, who just doesn't understand what you're doing this month but does understand that she feels neglected. Besides being important for not turning you into a chair-glued, catatonic wreck, these times allow your brain and your fingers to rest, to recharge, and to come up with ideas for what to write next.

Then, sit back down and get back to it.

5. Write in small chunks; carve them out of your daily routine. Life is busy. However, I bet you can find a handful of 5-minute intervals between classes, between clients, between whatever, where you can maybe write a paragraph. It may feel frustratingly stop-and-go, but if you can find, say, six to ten such intervals throughout a school or work day, you might get a thousand-plus words done, nearly two-thirds of your daily goal.

One thing I do is get up an hour early. (Actually NaNo is the only month of the year I can force myself to do that.) Some years this has meant simply losing an hour of sleep; take that with caution. Other, healthier years, that has meant going to bed earlier at night or taking naps during dead parts of the day.

6. Write in big chunks. Look at the major times you have off during a typical week. If you work a "normal" job, this may be the weekend; if, like me, you work the sort of jobs that accommodate others' "normal" schedules, maybe it's a weekday morning or a weekend afternoon or evening. Whatever. If you can find yourself a chunk of time--whether it's an entire day off, or all of an afternoon or evening--where you can not only be free from work/school obligations but free yourself from homework/housework etc., then claim it. Put up an iron fence around it. Don't let anyone tell you that you need to hang out with them, come to their party, rake their yard, or whatever during that particular time. Make yourself a pot of coffee or tea; grab your bag of remaindered Hallowe'en candy; put on your favorite writing music.

Then take a deep breath, kiss the world temporarily goodbye, and write.

7. Use Tricks. I have heard so many people say things like, "I thought about using this to boost my word count, but that felt like cheating."

Here's the thing. If something feels like cheating, ask yourself this: "Will I still be writing fiction? My own fiction, using all my own words?" If the answer is Yes, then you are not cheating.

I've used all kinds of tricks over the years. Some years I have deleted all the hyphens so that hyphenated words would count as two rather than one. I decided against that this year, because that's always a mess to edit later and I don't think the words I gain are worth the mental anguish. Here are some other tricks:

-Find an excuse, or make one up, to use really long names and/or honorifics. One year I had a part of a chapter devoted to The Queen Of All Faerie and of the Undying Lands Beyond, and I made it a convention to use her full name every single time.

-Invent wordy characters.

-Never hit delete; if you have a significant passage you realize you don't want to use at all, hyphenate it and delete it in December.

There are plenty of other such word count tricks; head over to the NaNo forums for more. The other important thing, though, is the psychological tricks:

-Until I reach 10,000 words I don't get any more Hallowe'en candy.

-I'll stop and eat lunch once I finish this chapter.

-My friend Terence Mann has five hundred more words than I do. I'll write a thousand so she has to catch up to me.


There are tons of other tips and tricks I could give, but this seems like enough to be getting on with. I'm always happy to answer questions or share what wisdom I've stumbled across, so feel free to ask. The great thing about NaNo is that as well as the novel itself being an exercise in imagination, actually getting it written is as well.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Essay on Christian Light

It's insane that it's a platitude that our world has gone insane. Gone from where, we are tempted to ask? Was it really that much better in the middle ages, where Europe was a collection of robber-barons holding the majority of the population hostage, where the Middle East was a collection of warlords holding the majority of the population hostage, where Japan was a collection of robber-barons holding the majority of the population hostage?

Of course the world has never been a picnic, but to restate something at which Marx aimed, there is a definite psychological peace which occurs when one starts a process, sees that process through, and reaps the benefits of that process. Gardeners are some of the most peace-filled people I know. Writers seem to be the longest-lived. To take a world, robber-barons aside, in which the majority of the population was involved in the processes of creating their world and sustaining the community around them and to shatter it into a world whose tendency is toward isolation, a world philosophically, physiologically and metaphysically dedicated to chopping us into discrete units--even pairs are discrete units, when they are separated from a larger community--and then heaping such responsibility on the shoulders of those single units as would stagger a Starship Enterprise: what else can this be but insanity?

Until the Revolution, until the spirit which was given to us two thousand years ago reasserts itself and the first peace comes, we are seemingly stuck with this world. The Christian, then, as any human, has a choice. When the world's tendency is to instill instincts in us toward selfishness, toward treating certain other human beings (sales clerks, wait staff, prostitutes, anyone who disagrees with us theologically, philosophically, politically, or who is engaged in acting out an ideology we despise) as though they are less valuable or simply not valuable, we can choose to go along, limp our limbs and float in this river of insanity, give in to the tendency to hate those we serve or who are serving us, to treat them as a means to an end. Or. Or we can fight the tendency: we can fight the urge to treat the person giving us attitude while he takes our fast food order as if he is a malfunctioning cog in a machine. We can resist the urge to feel and act as though the staff of a retail store exists only as a sort of active furniture to make our lives more convenient, the urge when we are the staff to assume that a customer has a superiority complex, or, if they do, we can resist the very strong urge to make them suffer for it.

Put positively, we can choose to flood our surroundings with light. We can choose to beam a ray of sunlight into every situation, to be unflaggingly kind and polite (which, done correctly, is simply a synonym of kindness), in the face of any given situation.

Certainly you don't have to be a Christian to make this choice. But there is no better motivation for making such choices than our secret knowledge which is no secret, that the reason that there is anything rather than nothing, the very act of existence itself, did the most loving thing possible on our behalf. The reason that there are rainbows and deliciousness and love, the very thing from which all of these good things emanate, became one of us sad broken little people and then, in the face of all possibility, died so that we don't have to.

Try this, the next time you're standing in a fast food line, your break is running out, the people in front of you are not only slow but snotty, and when you finally get to order the cashier not only has an attitude but gets your order wrong and acts like it's your fault. Think, The reason that there is anything rather than nothing, the very reason there is being, incarnated and died on behalf of each one of these people. Try it even if you don't believe it. See what happens.

Of course, you will fail. I fail all the damn time. But when you do, the solution is simple: remember that that reason for being, the one that loves all those annoying, insane, horrid people, loves you too.