About writing and reestablishing momentum

It has been a long time since I have written. A really long time. Like since the writing retreat I’d attended last year in September long time. Hell, I’ve barely journaled in that time, and after seeing the massive quantities of paper that I recycled after scanning in my old journals, that is saying something. And you have probably noticed a lack of major activity here on my blog. Another victim of my writing funk.

I am finally at a place where I can look beyond the “I’m not writing” thoughts to get to “Okay, well what do I do to fix that”?

During my funk I would go and look at different writing challenges – mostly flash fiction prompts, and then not do anything about them. I would talk with my friends who were also writers, and tell them that I hadn’t written anything. As guilty as I felt during those check-ins, I had accepted “not writing” as my current state, and so I didn’t do anything. Some of those days were so bad that I backed out of even attending the online meetings, because I couldn’t handle the guilt and I knew that I wasn’t at a place where I could change it (hello depression, so frustrated to see you).

Then with the new year came a plan. In a forum created for participants of an online workshop I had attended (and students of subsequent iterations of the course), the instructor mentioned Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin, and how there was a new version, and did anyone else want to do the exercises in it, and report back each week.

This was it, I thought. I read the first chapter, and posted the first exercise two days late, but darn it, I had written, and shared actual words on page.

I was one of two to post. And no one even mentioned week 2. I read the chapter, but didn’t do the exercise.

Fast forward to the end of January. I saw people on Facebook starting to post about A Month of Letters in February. I’ve tried two previous years, and was going to let this one pass, but on February 1st I saw a friend who I had never associated with writing ask for people she could write to. She was my husband’s friend from high school, and I didn’t really know her well, but I wanted to encourage her, so I thought “Why not.”

A Month of Letters aka #LetterMo

A Month of Letters aka #LetterMo

So I updated my LetterMo profile and wrote my first card that night, failing right off, because I had missed sending anything out the Feb. 1. But I didn’t care. Over the month I have started to hang my hopes that the act of writing cards to friends and strangers would help reconnect me with a daily(ish) writing habit.

And it is working. It isn’t fiction, but I’m writing.

This week I have also resumed listening to some writing podcasts, making an effort to catch up on both I Should Be Writing and Writing Excuses. In the last Writing Excuses case I listened to, the hosts were talking about the momentum of writing, and how it is easier to remain not writing if you are not writing. I think the letters have helped kick me past that initial momentum hurdle.

Today I actually logged in to a different online meeting, designed for people to have a few minutes to chat with each other interspersed with 1/2 hour writing sessions. I was late, and they were in the middle of a session when I logged in, so I did exercise 2 of Steering the Craft. It is currently the second timed writing session, and I have written this blog post, remembering that there are other people besides those on the initial forum where I got the idea that I can use as an accountability stick.

Steering the Craft - Ursula K. Le Guin - 2015 edition

Steering the Craft – Ursula K. Le Guin – 2015 edition

Below I am posting the first two exercises from Steering the Craft.  They are not great works, nor are they designed to be. They each focus on a different writing tool or technique, and they are very much homework like. But look, I’ve written!

Exercise1

Exercise2

 

 

NaNo WriMo 2015

NaNo-2015-Participant-Badge-Large-SquareSunday the calendar switches from October to November, and with it comes the start of National Novel Writing Month (NaNo WriMo). The goal is 50,000 words in 30 days – or an average of 1,667 words a day.

For some this seems like a Herculean feat, particularly in a short month, and one where (in America at least) we are dealing with Thanksgiving as well as the prep for the impending winter holidays.

I speak from experience when I say it is doable. I have won NaNo WriMo* seven times.

You may say “Amazing” but here is the kicker. My last win was in 2011, and I stopped writing the story about half-way through the month, and made up the rest of the words with notes about the story. Yes I did write the required amount of words, and yes they are about the plot and characters, but it wasn’t actual story on page. So my last legitimate win was 2009.

I have signed up for, and participated in (at least nominally) NaNo WriMo every year since 2003, but these past several years have been less than stellar. I think, in part, this is because I stepped down as municipal liaison for my region. In theory this meant I had more free time in November to write as less of the time would be spent organizing and running the local events. In practice it meant that the obligation I felt as a leader figure to meet the goal was suddenly lifted.

Honestly, I thought about not signing up a few of these most recent years, but I had friends participating, so I made at least an effort for the first few days. Recently I came to realize that my depression might be part of why I wasn’t winning – I couldn’t bring myself to care about much of anything, so why should I care about writing 50k in a month?

This year, well, I’m not as excited about NaNo WriMo as I have been in past years. I know I can win, if I put my mind to it. I also know I can fail spectacularly (just a little over 1,000 words one year). Yet I have signed up for it again, in part because my online writing group has done so, in part to stay connected with my new writer friends from the Out Of Excuses Retreat 2015-On A Boat, and in part because my sibling has signed up, and I want to be an encouragement to them, as well.

The last part, the one that I am having to remind myself, is that I like writing. When I write, I feel better. And, honestly, I haven’t written much this year. Like, at all. I hate that I have to trick myself into writing – to use my group and my pseudo-obligations as an excuse, but that part of my brain where the depression lives is quietly whispering “what’s the use?” So in part, my participation this year is a bit of a “screw you” to my depression.

Because if I want to continue to call myself I writer, I need to get my butt in the chair and write.

So ask me about my word count – keep me honest. And maybe, by the end of the month I will have reestablished my writing habit, or, in the very least put up a good fight my depression.

____

* Wins mean writing 50k+ words- though not not necessarily finishing the respective stories- in November

Character Development – Writing vs. Gaming

In a conversation with my writing mentor yesterday, I came to the realization that I use the same approach to character creation whether I am designing a character for a role playing adventure, or crafting the protagonist of my next story.* I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, a character is a character, regardless of where it will be used.

So, for me, what does creating a character involve?

 

Initial Idea

When I am creating characters, there is usually some aspect about the individual that I feel is important to the upcoming story. For D&D,** it is a mix of the character race and class, as defined in the Players Handbook, but also something that draws me to them, a personality quirk, or something of a juxtaposition between the “typical” rendering of a specific type of character – why yes, I am playing a lawful good thief, and I have the reasons why that all makes sense.

Similarly, when I am sitting down to write a story, I have an idea of the role my character is going to play in the story, and how I want them to impact their environment, and at the same time be changed by it. So, for a character to be impacted by, and able to affect LGBT legislation in her city, I need her to have some contact with that community, and to have a role in the government in some capacity. For me, these are the big ideas, the seed from which I begin to build my character.

 

Naming

For all the baby-naming sites and books available (and don’t get me wrong, I’ve got 3 separate baby name books on my shelf, and BehindTheName.com bookmarked on multiple machines), I find the resource I turn to most is my copy of the Character Naming Sourcebook.

I’ll approach searching for a name in one of two ways. Either, I am going for a certain “feel” for the name, and I’ll start browsing certain lists (which are language and/or culture centric). For important characters, I may have an idea of what I want a name to mean, and I’ll start at the reverse index at the back of the book, trying to find a name that sounds right that also carries some sort of secret meaning (either apropos to the character, or contrary to their nature).

 

Getting to know them

Over the years I have had access to many character development tools. The one I keep going back to for all kinds of characters is one I found for gaming. “The 100 Most Important Things To Know About Your Character (revised)” (Originally posted on GeoCities, the site is now defunct, but with the magic of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I present to you the last active version of the page where I originally found this resource.)

When I’m building a D&D character, I tend to fill out the whole 100 questions, for writing, sometimes I’ll fill out the basics section, then randomly pick 5 other questions per character (another great use for those percentile dice) to answer. For me, the key to this phase is to answer the questions as if I were the character sitting in an interview. If there is something I know about a character, but it is not something that they would tell to a nosy interviewer, I may note it in parentheses, but the reply to the question will be a snarky comment, a diversion away from the question, or even an outright lie. This tool lets me explore the character voice, before they even get to their story.

Thad

Thad – Elven Monk from 3rd edition D&D

Darah

Rendering of Darah (a tomboy main character from a WIP) as dressed for a royal banquet

 

Images

Sometimes I like to see what my characters look like. My favorite tool for that is Candybar Doll Maker– I fall back to version 3, though later versions have different options, most of the clothing is contemporary, so I make do with what’s available, and my imagination.

 

 

What I’m left with

When the time comes to start an adventure in an RPG, or a novel, I have a fairly complete picture of my character’s backstory. I know what happened to bring them to the point where the story starts, and I (usually) have some idea of how I expect them to develop as a character over the course of the story. I know the basic character arc I am shooting for, and while that may change, either due to unexpected elements brought into the game by the DM, or by story elements that arise during my discovery-writing a book, I have a complete character that I get to watch grow and adapt as the story develops.


*I uses these techniques primarily for novel-length works; for short stories the backstory isn’t as important to me, and I let the character evolve as I write the piece.

**More exactly, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons – anywhere from 2nd – 5th editions.

Writing To-Do List

A few weeks ago I was going through containers in my office, and I decided to pull out all of my journals, morning pages and writing notebooks.  When I was done, I was surrounded by no fewer than 40 various sized notebooks, plus another 30 or so “fit in your pocket” notebooks I habitually carry around. As I was thus surrounded my husband passed through the room. I looked up at him from where I was walled in and said “You know, I’m beginning to think that I’m a writer.”

Notebooks I carried with me today.

Notebooks I carried with me today.

For me being a writer is just part of who I am, and it comes across in how I choose to spend my leisure time, the obligations to other writers and writing groups I take on, and in my job.  My obligations and feel-I-shoulds vary across this range, and I find that right now I am facing a great number of things that fall on my writing and writing related to-do list.

  • Finish Minion Handbook
    • Finish entries
    • Create Table of Contents
    • Add illustrations and maps
    • Final edits
    • Send to customer
  • “Wedding” story – write first draft from outline (for online writing group)
  • “Troubled Teen” story – figure out new ending (from short story intensive class)
  • Outline “donor” story for new site with sister, presumedhuman.com
  • Review & update outline for “fox boy” story; send outline to writing mentor
  • Finalize new online writing group from Short Story Intensive class
  • Prepare for “How to Critique” workshop with local writing group
  • Prepare for “Critiquing our Critiques” session with online writing group
  • Work with local writing group to set up spring writing retreat
  • Follow up with “off line” critique group
  • Beta read novel for author friend
  • Write training course for Introduction to UF’s Institutional Repository
  • Write presentation for USETDA conference (co-author)

Obviously these all have different levels of importance and time commitments, and they range in tasks from writing to reading, from creating PowerPoint Presentations to corresponding with group members.

All in all, I think I may have enough writing to keep me happy for a while 🙂

Reading, Read, Writing (or not writing, as the case may be)

I am at one of those weird places where I am simultaneously reading 3 books, and don’t know what I want to read. I am also feeling unsure about my writing.

About the books I am reading:

  • The Name Of The Wind  by Patrick Rothfuss- audiobook. I started this one on my drive up to Chattanooga for the Writing the Other retreat and workshop. Interested in finishing it, but got some books from the library I needed to get through first.
  • Partials by Dan Wells- a reread of this books so I have the background to read the second book in the series, Fragments. is my nightstand book
  • The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker – audiobook – checked out from library, based on in-podcast recommendation from Howard Taylor of Writing Excuses

Books I just finished:

  • Shaman Rising –C.E. Murphy – last in the series of The Walker Papers – author did a great job wrapping up the story, and bringing characters back from earlier books to get resolution
  • The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennett– by Bernie Su and, Kate Rorick – See my blog post

Seeking Book to Read

bookshelf-closetAudiobooks have their place – car rides and housecleaning. My nightstand book is a book I leave to read before bed. I usually also carry around a book in my backpack /purse / grubby-little-hands to read when opportunity arises. Having finished Shaman Rising and the Lizzie Bennet book, I stopped by my bookcase this morning to try to pick my next read. (Yes, with the exception of top shelf, they are all two deep. And yes, that used to be a closet – my husband is quite handy 🙂 )

I skimmed the shelves of books I’ve read and books I’ve not yet read, and I nothing struck my fancy. I know myself well enough that if something doesn’t jump out at me as “ooh, I want to read that,” and instead I go with “I guess I could read this”, I either read the first 3 pages and put the book down, or carry it around for several days without cracking the spine (so to speak), or reading a word.

And this morning I began to wonder if my feeling antsy and uncertain about what I want to read is in any way tied in to how I am feeling antsy and uncertain about my writing.

What I am Writing, or What I am Creatively Procrastinating from Writing

My current work in progress is a retelling of a fairy tale in a modern setting.. I had a very specific end goal, and I had trouble starting the story. I gave myself permission to start the draft with “Once Upon a Time”, and was able to go from there. And get stuck again. And again. I finally got a 7 point plot outline I mentioned, and thought I was good to go.

Nope. While I had identified main plot points, I still wasn’t making time to write my story. I took two very productive walks while visiting my in-laws this weekend that let me think through some of the issues, and resolve some character stuff.  I emailed a reference librarian with questions about how local governments worked.Yesterday, I sat down with the 7 point outline, and made a new outline of all the events that need to happen to get from the beginning of the story to the end. I ended up calling my sister part of the way through the 30 minutes I set for myself to write (the minimum “butt-in-chair” time I was aiming for), and in a 10 minute conversation worked through the antagonist actions that my protagonist is actually having to fight against (I knew *why* the villain was working against her, I just didn’t know *how*).

And will all those things done, and my shiny new outline, I called it a night. And wondered what to read.

And today I wonder if my being unable to find something to read is the subconscious part of my brain not wanting to take in more, because doing so will somehow spoil the work I’ve been doing on my own story. I wonder if my mind is percolating on all the elements, and tonight when I down for my writing date with fellow writer at the library, I should expect brilliance.

And I know that is not fair to myself. I should never expect brilliance, because getting the words down on the page is enough – I can clean them up later. And I wonder if that is what is holding me back. That I’ve been expecting brilliance from myself, comparing myself somehow to the books I’ve been reading – you know, the ones authors have spend time writing, re-writing, editing and agonizing over. And I am somehow expecting myself to create something I feel is on par with that – in a first draft.

So even if it is not my subconscious trying to tell me anything, my sitting down to analyze this had taught me something – well reminded me. Tonight, when I sit down to write, the only thing I need to expect of myself is that I will write. The brilliance can be worked in later.