Saturday, October 31, 2015

Lucky Number 13: Thoughts on the Eve of My Thirteenth Year of NaNoWriMo

I remember the first time I heard about National Novel Writing Month. At the time, I was a member of a rather large online writing community, and suddenly there was all this chatter about an event where people wrote a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

Sheer craziness, I thought.

What is this madness, I thought.

No way could I ever do that, I thought.

But somewhere way back in the dark corners of my brain (and okay, okay, so there are a LOT of dark corners in my brain) something was happening. Wheels were turning. Thoughts were…well, being thought. And at some point I realized something even crazier: I wanted to do this thing. This crazy, mad, maybe downright bonkers thing. And I not only wanted to do it. I BADLY wanted to do it.

After all, hadn’t I always wanted to write a novel? (And no, I absolutely refuse to count the godawful piece of melodrama I called a book manuscript back in high school.)

So way back in 2003, what feels like a lifetime ago, I signed up for my first year of NaNoWriMo. I would attempt it, I thought.  And then, as it approached, I told myself: I was not going to ATTEMPT it. I was going to DO it. 

Why leave room for doubt?

So not only did I attempt it…I completed it, and I loved every minute of it. November 30th of that year, I typed “THE END” on the completed first draft of a book manuscript. I printed it out and I handed the printout to my husband, proof of what I’d done. That I’d written my first book.

It’s now 2015, and maybe for the first time I’m really looking back at, and reflecting on, my years participating in NaNoWriMo. So I thought I would share some of my stats, and also some of what I’m thinking tonight.

I have completed twelve successful, back-to-back years of NaNoWriMo (plus one unofficial novel-in-a-month challenge that I embarked on with a small group of real-world writing friends).  Since I began in 2003, I have never missed a year, and I have never NOT completed a manuscript or reached 50,000 words. (Confession: NaNoWriMo has become something of an obsession for me. I don’t know, at this point, if I could skip a year without having a complete nervous breakdown.)

I have written as few as 50,023 words during the challenge, and I have written as many as 98,860.  My lifetime NaNoWriMo word count is 749,653 words.

One year, I began the NaNoWriMo challenge the day after my husband and I separated. I decided I would be damned before I let that stand in my way, and I think it was the best decision I ever could have made. For one thing, I think it saved my sanity that year. For another, it was the book that—years later—got me an agent.

Come the last week of October, every year I still get that same fluttery mixture of eager anticipation, impatience, and absolute dread just like I did the very first year I attempted this. It never gets easier for me, and there’s something I love about that.

Most years, I have no idea what I’m going to write about until I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) on November 1st. A few years years, I have restarted several times with new ideas until one stuck.

There are books I’ve written during NaNoWriMo that I will never, never, never let anyone else see. Ever. They’re THAT bad.

One of the novels I used to say that about is the novel that netted me an agent. It is also the novel that…  (Sorry, can’t say more about that just yet!)

Of the NaNoWriMo books I've written, I've revised four of them enough to the point that I felt they were ready to query.

Several of my NaNoWriMo books originated from failed short stories of mine.

The high-speed approach to novel-writing opens me up to creativity like nothing else. During the month of Novembers I feel like there are ideas just hanging in the air around me, ready to be harvested. The craziest place I've ever gotten an idea from during NaNoWriMo is the local movie theater restroom. The material used for the stalls, a black surface with white speckles became the cave of the night sky in my 2004 NaNoWriMo project.

I look at NaNoWriMo as my chance to stretch myself, to try new things…maybe a new genre or a different style, perhaps weaving in multiple points of view or writing for a different age group. I see it as an opportunity to work on improving a weakness or to practice a new technique or to do something absolutely crazy.

More than anything, NaNoWriMo is the month when I can forget about the business of writing and can remind myself what it is to just create. It is when I remember WHY I do this in the first place.

My writing life has changed in so many ways since I decided I would attempt National Novel Writing Month for the first time, and I am grateful that those initial whisperings awakened something inside me, something that has turned out to be unstoppable. Something that has ultimately brought me back to who I am and who I think I was always meant to be.

I love this event. With my whole heart, I love this event. I can say with confidence that it absolutely changed my life.

And so tonight when the clock ticks its way past midnight, I will begin again. I don't know what I'm going to write about. I don't know where it will take me. I don't know if it will be viable, or if it will ever see the light of the day. What I do know is that the joy is in the beginning. It is in the writing. It is in creating for the sheer joy of creating. It is in the potential and it is in the possibilities.

To everyone who is embarking on this amazing journey with me this year, good luck and happy writing.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

In Defense of Setting

In conversation with other writers recently, I heard someone say (totally paraphrasing here), “I hate setting. It’s boring. I just want to write the good stuff, like characterization.”  It is, of course, not the first time I’ve heard such a thing. In fact, what’s that old saying about if I had a nickel for every time…?

Still, it hurts my heart to hear this, because I am a setting kind of gal at the core. I have a heightened sense of place. I tend to fall deeply in love with places: Niagara Falls, Provincetown, Fire Island, Laupāhoehoe. For me, there’s nothing quite as inspiring as somewhere new, somewhere beautiful or dangerous or intriguing, and I’ve written many stories with plots born of places I visited. So for me, setting = place = inspiration. But apparently this is not true for everyone.

So I started to really think about why people are so quick to dismiss setting as a necessary evil, something to simply get through and move on to the 'good stuff.' Why don’t they see it as an integral element of story (which it is)? Why isn’t it considered the good stuff (which it absolutely, absolutely, absolutely is)?

Maybe it has to do with the feeling that writing setting is just dressing a stage, creating props, that setting itself is little more than a painted backdrop against which your characters will act out their drama. To many writers, setting is nothing more than the rickety wooden sets of a play, hammered and nailed, glued and painted into a facsimile of real life.

But oh, setting is so much more than that

Setting is the world. It’s your childhood home and the cool, deep thicket out back where you hid for hours, reading your favorite book. It’s the sun just peeking up over the ocean and the shooting star you wish on at night. It’s the ebb tide pulling sand from beneath your feet, and leaving hollows that tip you off balance.

Setting is the Eiffel Tower and the view from the top of the Empire State Building. It’s Grand Central Station and craggy island bluffs and the aurora borealis.

Setting is spring, summer, winter, fall. It’s rain and snow and the way the wind sounds like voices when you’re home alone late at night.

Setting is the creaking floorboard in the abandoned house on the hill and the single drop of blood on a white-tiled floor. Setting is the beep-beep-beep of machines and the smell of antiseptic and the horrible coldness of cement-block walls when someone you love is dying. Setting is the ancient, gnarled tree carved with the initials of a thousand first loves.

Setting is everything you love about home and also it’s everything you hate or fear. And for science fiction and fantasy writers, setting is what bubbles up at the outer edge of your imagination, the wonder of a world being created for the first time.

At its best, setting is another character in your story, maybe even the dastardly villain.

So the next time you write, take a minute to close your eyes. Picture where your story takes place, whether it’s in a souvenir shop on a busy boardwalk or a fiery dragon’s lair. Let yourself be there in that moment. See it. Hear it. Smell it. Taste it. Touch it. Live it. Embrace it. Then write it, and bring it to life, because if done well, setting is anything but boring.

Setting is transformative.

Setting is dynamic.

Setting is memory.

Setting is atmosphere.

Setting is solace.

Setting is danger.

Setting is love.