Monday, July 29, 2013

NaNoWriSpr & NaNoWriSum Remembered: The Composition Process

I loved working on the whole process of writing this novel manuscript that I'm about ready to shop out, even though it felt at times like I was never going to get there. I'm so glad, in retrospect, of everything that happened with the composition process.

A few examples:
  • I'm glad I was teaching while I drafted the first third of the manuscript and did the bulk of my research. The first part is always the hardest, and the hardest to do without other things to balance it out, so teaching 2 classes was just about right during this time.
  • I'm glad I took my creative writing class during this same period. Since I'd done so much academic writing for so long before this project, the class helped me transition and gave me vital instruction and feedback as to how to provide the right amount of tension and information in those vital early chapters that help to sell books and hook readers. And most importantly, they helped encourage me that I was on the right track when my confidence was lowest.
  • I'm glad to have so many delightful volunteer readers and others to encourage me and listen to my crazed ramblings about the research and characters of my novel. Having patient sounding boards helped me during my deepest immersions in the novel, and having readers who needed to read the novel by specific times gave me much-needed deadlines in addition to crucial feedback to help me revise.
  • I'm glad I was able to immerse myself in writing the last two-thirds of the novel this summer with few distractions. Yes, I know, I know--as late as May I was warning people that I might become completely incapable of socialization during this period, and was scared of it. But the truth is that as the book grew longer, frequent complete re-reads and revision sessions became necessary, requiring long chunks of time. In fact, in the last two weeks before the full draft was finished, every time I sat down to write I re-read almost the whole thing first every single time (this was why I was up till 5 a.m. every other night during that time). I'm convinced that without this immersive experience of writing a lot of story in a short (but not too short) period of time, the end of the story wouldn't read nearly as fluidly.
  • I'm glad I did all that obsessive re-reading and re-drafting of the whole story toward the end of the first draft. Because without my obsessive re-reading, on the last day of initial drafting I would never have been able to make that gigantic push (35 pages in less than 24 hours! by far a personal best!). Certainly not without feeling confident that my big climax and resolution scenes actually wrapped up most of the story threads. Sure, I had to go back and revise some of the early parts to foreshadow the exact details a bit after the fact, but that's been a joy and delight as well.
All in all, I'm pleased and grateful that the process has come out as it has. It's been a bit painful at times, sure. But really, in retrospect, has gone pretty quickly overall. Especially considering how happy I am with the results. And here I am toward the end of the process--transitioning into the seeking publication part of things. And it feels good to be here.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Done! (or, the Novel Is in Others' Hands)

I just looked back at this blog and was a little appalled my last entry was on May 20. At the same time, I have an incredibly good "excuse," in that my absence here has translated into excellent progress on the novel project.

Back then, if you'll remember, I had 130 pages, or almost 31,000 words, of my first-ish draft.

Now I have (and this deserves some bolding) nearly 95,000 words, or around 350 manuscript pages, in a third draft that's out to readers for further feedback. This is a beautiful thing. I've already gotten (largely highly encouraging) feedback from half a dozen readers, and I'm waiting to hear back from more while I'm preparing all the appropriate materials and feeling my way into the path toward seeking publication.

This deserves a huge huzzah. So huzzah huzzah huzzah! Thanks to all those who have provided me support and feedback already on this project that's felt incredibly quixotic at times. One thing is sure: it's been a lot of work, but also a ton of fun. I'm profoundly thankful to have had an opportunity to undertake it!

Until later, Cheers!

Monday, May 20, 2013

NaNoWriSum: Week One Report

I'm encouraged. at this time last week I had 103 pages. I was pleased just to break triple digits before my grade submission deadline ended the semester.

Today I have 128.

If you count the work I did last weekend, that means I finally hit the 30 pages in one week mark this past week. Huzzah!

While I love teaching and I'm immeasurably glad it was there to give me some variation during those early chapters, I'm pleased the cage match is over for a few months. It's really nice to have some time to focus almost solely on creative writing. I of course still have other things to do than the novel project--I'll be spending at least a day or two per week on writing academic articles, for instance, beyond the fact that I plan to see non-fictional people every so often, get lots of exercise, and do other more usual life stuff like cooking and cleaning and attending farmer's markets.

But I'm beyond thankful that I have a summer to primarily focus on this project. To finish telling my story. To layer in everything that needs to be layered in. To simplify what needs to be simplified. To complicate what needs to be complicated. To get it ready to go out into the world.

Storytelling is such a privilege. The time to do it, and do it well, doesn't happen every day. You are witnesses: I pledge not to take it for granted. Hold me to that, eh? Thanks for your continued support!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

On Transitioning from NaNoWriSpr to NaNoWriSum

So it's been a long time since I updated my blog followers about my progress on my novel-in-a-few-months experiment. From back-to-back academic conferences at the end of March and beginning of April to submitting my grades this past Monday, life has been the usual end of semester blur since my last post.

The good news is that my novel has moved forward tremendously during the blur time, if not quite as much as I'd hoped. Grading always takes more time than one thinks it will, traveling is exhausting, and I've spent this past week sick with a cold/sinus thing.

But at one of the conferences I got to go to a museum related to my topic, picking up some great background info to get deeper into my characters' experiences not only in the museum itself, but also in the attached library. I even picked up a few useful books at the gift shop.

And since the conferences I've done a lot of revising and expanding of the first three chapters in response to feedback from all my wonderful readers this semester. Plus I wrote most of a fourth chapter, and read that to a friend and incorporated that feedback.

By the time the grade submission deadline (this past Monday at 3) signalled the end of the semester, I had officially broken the double-digit barrier by three pages.

It felt so good to be in the triple digits--more than a third of the way through!--that I wrote 6 more today, which brings my current total to 109.

So NaNoWriSpr is officially done, and its successor--NaNoWriSum--has begun. The NaNoWriSpr experiment began as a crazy hope to write a novel in a semester while teaching 2 classes and taking an advanced fiction-writing class as support and encouragement for the NaNoWriSpr experiment. I ended up writing more than a third of one that I feel pretty good about. I know that it's not just an assemblage of pages pushed out as quickly as possible, but a manuscript on its way to being a viable manuscript of a novel. The plot's set up, and I know where it's going, for the most part. We've met most of the characters, and I now know the main ones well enough to generate realistic examples and scenes and dialogue for them on demand. The others are coming into focus, as is the setting and era and surroundings.

My goals for NaNoWriSum are as follows--I want to write this novel to its natural conclusion, revising as I go, by the end of July so I can get full manuscript drafts out to my other reader volunteers by that time.

It might seem like a lot--200 good pages in 2.5 months, when I just barely drafted 103 pages in 4. And yet without the teaching, it should be totally manageable. If I can write 3-4 pages per day (and today I sat down and read through the whole thing again before pounding out 6 new pages), I'll be there.

Congrats to team NaNoWriSpr for a solid start to the relay race! NaNoWriSum should be able to take it from here. Go team finish the novel!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

NaNoWriSpr: On Guilt, Conference Season, and Novel Writing

Okay, so no new pages lately--teaching and other academic endeavors have been winning the cage match lately, with two academic conferences this week and next at which to present my dissertation research, subs to get and prepare for when I'm gone, midterm grades having just been finished and handed back, various professional development opportunities to apply for, etc., etc., etc.

When it comes down to it, Livelihood has quite the right hook, especially just after spring break, when midterms coincide with Conference Season. It's a good thing an amazing stack of well-written midterms softened the blow. I love seeing my students learn and begin to grasp difficult concepts in depth.

But that doesn't mean Creative Writing and the DNiP are down for the count, by any means. For one thing, I just workshopped my third and last novel installment of the semester in my fiction writing class yesterday, and it went well. It feels good to know I'm on the right track. And I'll be taking the files with me while traveling in case of a spare hour or two. Hotel rooms can be good places to write.

Furthermore, it's not like my academic activities are really divorced or separate from my creative writing endeavors. My diss was about author-audience relationships in storytelling situations, after all, and I love that I get to go talk to others who are interested in the same things.

Plus, after a week away from the novel-writing absorption of spring break, I was reading through my current manuscript again last night and could see the benefits of the down time. I'm a bit worried about spending TOO much time away, but I'm in a really good place with it right now, so a couple of weeks of lower writing activity won't hurt, I don't think.

Plus, talking to other humans who are interested in similar things--and hearing interesting papers about a wide range of topics--will be good for me, and I'm sure to enjoy it. If there's one thing I've learned over the years, stimuli that doesn't always seem to move my immediate projects forward can inspire me in ways I would not have expected. And as I've been realizing more and more lately, one of the things I most love in life--that animates me the most, and drives projects stemming from all my selves, whether professional or creative or social--is a good nuanced dialogue about interesting and important things.

[With great effort, picks up boulder of DNiP guilt and sets it outside of the suitcase she's packing.] This will be a good week and a half.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How Teaching Has Helped My Writing, Part Deux

So I'll admit it--when I went on Spring Break a little more than a week ago, I was very ready to bid Teaching goodbye, to thumb my nose and bid adieu (or at least au revoir for 10 days). Other than a few necessary academic tasks, I wanted to absorb myself fully in my novel process, which was tugging me toward it with the force of a very insistent small child.

I assuaged my guilt about this treatment of Teaching by writing my most recent post. But while I meant it, I was thrilled that the DNiP* had won the Writing vs. Teaching cage match for a short while.

And I'll tell you, I thoroughly enjoyed my week with the DNiP. I dove in full force. I vised. I revised. I read source materials and writings from my era. While I never seem to be able to achieve the 20 pages per week I long for, I won through to 74 pages of draft and felt confident about the first 50 of them. It was great. I realized that if I stay on this pace I'll be at a very respectable 150 pages by the end of the semester, which would leave me on track to finish the manuscript this summer.

And then it was Sunday, and I emerged from my cave. Someone asked me a simple question. I'm pretty sure I gave an answer that might have made sense. I wasn't sure. But at that point the pit in my stomach clenched up a bit, knowing that the upcoming summer of time alone with my DNiP might become a problem. See, it's possible that too much time alone with one's fictional creations and absorbed in that world could potentially be a bad thing for my social skills.

After the summer, will I be able to pull out of this daze I develop in these hermit-like spates of writing? Will I remember how to interpret and create appropriate non-verbal stimuli? Will I be able to converse on normal subject matter?

These questions are real (if slightly hyperbolic). At any rate, they drove me to very much enjoy the sociability of my teaching interactions yesterday. It's good to practice stringing sentences together orally so that an immediate audience can understand them. To focus on subjects that aren't associated with this all-consuming project that has such strong pull. To have a break from some of the heavy subjects and emotions that come with the research and writing.

Yup, this might have been the biggest reason for Marilynne Robinson's aversion to the writing life sans teaching I mentioned in the last post. I'm going to have to schedule some good regular social time this summer to balance out the solitude and absorption inherent in my writing time. Yes indeed.

*Dear Novel-in-Progress.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

How Teaching Has Helped My Writing

I'll never forget what Pulitzer-prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson said once during an interview at Calvin College's Festival of Faith & Writing. It boiled down to the fact that she doesn't do well when she can't teach along with her writing.

At the time, not having had much experience with teaching, I thought it was sort of a funny thing to say. But now, having had several more years of teaching experience under my belt, I'm beginning to get it. I'm not sure that teaching is quite as indispensable to me as it is to Marilynne. But then, right now I'm deep into a particular project, and quite enjoy the times when I can be fully absorbed in its world.

But I can also see that my experience with teaching--and I do love teaching--has definitely helped improve my writing, both that for academic audiences and creative projects. This semester I'm really seeing the fruits of teaching in these seemingly non-teaching-related tasks.

Take my academic writing task for this morning. Since I'm going to present at the Popular Culture Association conference in a few weeks, I had to take an aspect of my nearly-300 page dissertation and turn it into an 8 page paper to present in 15-20 minutes. The fact that the last few years of teaching has given me experience in just how much complex information I can translate for students in a short amount of time helped me to complete this task in a short amount of time. (And of course the fact that I regularly teach public speaking didn't hurt either: I've planned several spots where I hope to draw the audience into the presentation through asking them questions, for instance.)

But academic writing isn't the only way that my teaching experience has been useful. In my NaNoWriSpr novel manuscripting project, I've noticed that my practice in persuading students to be interested in learning subjects they see to be boring or difficult has helped me in writing my novel as well.

After all, one can't assume one's readership comes into a novel automatically liking it, and so you have to make a strong case for their attention both at the beginning but also throughout the story while dispensing the right kind of background information at the right times. Watching where my students' attention flags--and knowing the same material strikes different classes in different ways--has helped me to be aware that my reader is likely doing the same with my writing at times.

Unlike with my teaching, I don't have immediate non-verbal feedback with my writing. My teaching experience has taught me, therefore, to get feedback during my development process from as many readers as possible to see how different types of people respond to my story. This, like my students' faces, helps me to see how well I'm doing to engage a range of people without relying too much on a single reader experience. And when a theme pops up over time in my reader feedback--as it tends to both in students' faces and in student evaluations--I know I need to consider how to adjust to better engage my audience.

Yup, I'm beginning to get a sense of why Marilynne Robinson said what she said about the teaching. Without the feedback, the practice in translating things for others, the face-to-face interaction with others in a setting like teaching, the process in writing can become a little disconnected from these crucial concepts. Like Marilynne, I'm thankful for the teaching experience I've been granted so far.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

NaNoWriSpr: On Vising and Revising

Here's the primary difference between what I'm doing this spring in what I'm calling NaNoWriSpr, in which I'm trying to write most of a 75,000 word novel in 4 months, and what is usually attempted during NaNoWriMo, in which writers try to write 50,000 words in a month: I'm researching, planning and especially revising as I go.

Of course, this doesn't mean I hadn't planned and researched in advance. I didn't have an outline, but I'd first conceived the novel (and written the first two paragraphs) in 2007. I've been researching on and off since then. And starting last fall but particularly over the Christmas break I tried to finish reading what I thought were the primary research texts, having all the supplementary ones (I thought) ready to go for when I needed them. I had a big picture idea of what might happen in my story, at least the first part, and the primary characters were coming into view.

And I am so glad I wasn't thinking I had done enough to plow this out in a month or two.

See, this is a complex novel, and as I'd mentioned, it's set in a different place and time. I had looked into the era a little bit--read a book or two--and had done a heck of a lot more research on certain aspects of the story and its genre, but that didn't mean I'd read enough memoirs of the time or the times before that my characters would have lived through or had read through enough books or articles about my setting and events of the period. I'd spent a lot of time developing my main character and getting into his head, but I still felt some distance from him and was still working to get to know the others.

And so the first stages and drafts of the early chapters have taken a lot of what I've come to call vising time: others might call it visioning or planning. I've needed to immerse myself by researching the era and reading memoirs and watching documentaries, much as one seeks to learn a language by immersion.

And like learning a language, I've of course tried writing about these people and their times and given the early efforts to a few other people to see whether they felt I was getting it right to communicate engagingly with the modern reader (which is of course the bigger trick, as in this case I'm learning a language only for translation to those who aren't familiar with it). The workshops in my fiction-writing class have been tremendously helpful in this, as have a few helpful friends.

As with learning a language, they've been kind in these early efforts to point out the places where I wasn't quite getting it right. This has supplemented the clarity a sleep can bring to my own distance from my writing to see where it can be improved. And both processes have encouraged me to go back and hone my writing to make sure I was going in the right direction. I'm still working on this, but I can already tell the efforts have borne fruit.

See, for me, I really can't imagine trying to make a draft without all of these processes involved at once, which is why NaNoWriSpr feels so much more reasonable and manageable than NaNoWriMo to me. At the same time, I'm thankful for the NaNoWriMo model, as it reminds me it's okay to push myself and that immersion in the writing act is a useful way to go.

So even though I haven't technically hit my "new pages" limits,  I'm pleased to announce that I've written 60 on-their-way-to-good pages with six weeks down and ten to go.  I'm thrilled about this, in fact, as the early parts of the novel are the most important to get just right in so many ways, and now that I know where I'm going and I've introduced most of my characters it will go faster, I hope.  But even if I stick to my 10 pages per week average (which wouldn't be surprising as I expect to continue to revise a lot as I go, and the amount of pages for revising continues to grow) I'll get to my goal within six or seven months, with a much much better draft than I had for my Novel in a Drawer after I finished the first draft in 18 months.

I'm getting better at this. And faster. I can tell. Which is encouraging, as this is a much more complex project than the previous one.

Man, this is fun. Exhausting at times, but fun.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

NaNoWriSpr: Character Bleed and Outlining

It's been a little while since I wrote anything here. It's also been a little while since I've been able to write a lot of novel pages. However, that doesn't mean I haven't been doing a lot of work on the story. Really hard work that is already beginning to bear fruit, thankfully. Because this has been a tough couple of weeks.

So this is what's been going on: Part of my research has involved reading and watching accounts of some pretty tough stuff that my characters would have experienced. The thing is, unlike the way counselors and doctors are allowed to distance themselves from what their patients are feeling, it's the writer's job to dive into at least some key parts of that emotional territory so they can express it as well as they can. Often, while the writer isn't necessarily writing at all autobiographical work, it can also touch deep corresponding emotional springs in the writer that they then have to deal with.

Virginia Hampton Wright talks about this necessity in her book The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life: "Emotions, when tapped, bring a dimension to a scene or a song that will make all the difference. [But] sometimes we pay a price for the emotions we work with when we are creating. It can be difficult to delve into an emotional scene while I am writing a chapter of a novel but then to pull out of it by dinnertime. An artist sometimes has to live with certain emotions long enough to understand what they mean to a creative work. This can be exhausting" (p. 113).

Actors who are using method acting, I'm told, experience the same thing, and they call it character bleed, which is a perfect term. That's exactly what it feels like. Talk about the ability of fiction-writing to build empathy. Sometimes it would be nicer if it wasn't quite so up close and personal. But it is. At any rate, in the last couple of weeks I've been experiencing a lot of character bleed. It's made me incredibly glad that I'm teaching 2 days a week this semester, which means that when I delve into my material in this intense sort of way over the weekend I have a bit of time to recover before being called on to do another thing I love that can also be draining if one's dealing with other emotions at the same time: enthusiastically presenting to my students. Thankfully the flexibility has worked well in allowing recovery, and I think the worst of it is over, for at least awhile, allowing me to step back and get more distance from my material, which is another important writing function to craft the story well.

The up side is that the very emotional territory I've had to deal with has brought forth some great material going forward. I've timelined out some key material that will be revealed over the course of the story, which will allow me to make more educated decisions about how and when it should be revealed going forward. I've created character sketches and referenced ways each character is connected to the central material. I know my characters better, which will hopefully make decision-making much much faster going forward. And while the background research keeps begetting more research, I've been making good progress in that area too. I'm hoping I can dive back in to the actual writing very soon--perhaps even today--with a much better sense of direction and strategy and control over what's happening next, so it all ties together well.

I certainly hope so. No matter what, I know all of this work has been crucial to moving forward. Not the most favorite part to deal with, nor the part that feels the most like making progress in terms of that page count I'm pressuring myself to put out, but it's such important foundational work.

Okay, I think I can actually go write new pages now. Thanks again for any cheers from the sidelines you're willing to spare. We're entering the part of this process where they're getting increasingly important.

Monday, February 11, 2013

NaNoWriSpr: On Getting to Know One's Characters; Or, Authorial Guilt

I realized this weekend that I was still avoiding something I rather had to do if I wanted to move forward in pumping out solid pages of interesting story.

I needed to sit down and get more acquainted with my characters. Especially my secondary characters, who are about to be introduced, but my main characters as well.

Please excuse the bad reality TV reference, but this makes me feel like the girls in The Bachelor who are always saying that they realized they need to take down a wall of self-defense and disclose more about themselves.

Interestingly, in this case, it's not me that needs to let my characters into the secret of my personality and past. It's the other way around. (Or one would think.)

What I realized is that I'm scared to dive deeper into some of my characters' lives and psyches. This is something I predicted earlier, but so far it's been pretty painless with the main ones--even gleeful. But since I'm writing from a first-person narrator, I've really only had to dive into my narrator's thoughts.

The thing is that the other characters are about to get more involved soon, so I need to understand them not only from my narrator's perspective, but from theirs as well, though ultimately I'll write it from his perspective.

I don't like doing this part. Some of these characters have deep dark secrets I'll have to disclose, or I wouldn't have an interesting plot. I feel like if I proceed I'll become the author character in Stranger than Fiction who is writing a story when her primary fictional character discovers she's creating and narrating his life. In the movie, the character blames the author tremendously for a raw deal. And I think I imagine that these characters might pop out of these pages and do the same to me.

Still, as with those I love in life, I can't protect my characters from bad things happening to them. Nor can I entirely protect them from themselves. (Nor, for that matter, can I protect myself from any emotional wells that may pop open in myself through writing about my characters' lives and emotions.) And so I must put my fears aside and get to know them better.

Especially since, let's face it, getting to know these characters better is much more statistically likely to produce a long-lasting and satisfying relationship than The Bachelor.

Okay, I've just received a date card for a group date with my characters. Hopefully if I persist, they'll give me a rose and allow me to finish these next couple of chapters.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

NaNoWriSpr: Ups and Downs

So it's been an eventful couple of weeks since I posted last. The honeymoon of writing 31 pages in the first couple was disrupted by a week filled with insomnia and panic at thinking I was losing key Interlibrary-loaned books to due dates.

I only wrote 1 page that week, and I was both pretty cranky and pretty hard on myself for it.

But then this Tuesday at my writing class (which officially began my 4th week of the experiment) we workshopped my first chapter.

Did I agree with all the comments? No. But I was able to apply grains of salt as required and it was exhilarating to get audience feedback. One can get so much in one's own head when one's writing that it can be a relief just to know that they mostly got what you were going for.

Plus, putting together the patterns of feedback can help you to discover where the reader gets stuck.

As it turned out, I needed to throw out my first 2-3 warmup pages, which weren't as active, and replace them with an actual scene that served the same purpose as the pretty warmup description had.

At my followup conference with my professor, I showed him the new version and got lovely lovely confirmation that I'm on the right track.

This--THIS!--is why I'm taking a class while doing this while I have the opportunity.

And so the workshop got me back on track and inspired again. So far this week I've written 12 pages, and there's a very good chance I'll get more done by Tuesday's class.

Plus, not only was I able to renew the key book I thought I would lose--I now have it until the end of March--but I discovered that the work I did during my seemingly dead week was intensely useful as it was a highly important source for me to get the gist of before going any further into the plot.

The insomnia? Now that, I have yet to realize the purpose for. Maybe I'll have some characters who will have it before the end of the book, and last week's experience will help me to empathize with and communicate their experience of disrupted productivity.

I don't know. But the great thing about being a writer is this: It's all potentially material. I love being back in the thick of the process because even on the down times, it never fully feels as though anything in my life will be wasted.

And I deeply, deeply love the way so much of my knowledge, skills, and experiences of the last few years are able to be applied in this particular project. It very much feels like I've been training my research and writing and narrating muscles for this moment.

There will be more weeks like last week, I'm sure--I won't always hit my page goals. But getting 42 pages of new manuscript, almost half of which has been revised into a second draft of sorts, down in less than 4 weeks is pretty exciting.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Week in the Life of NaNoWriSpr (Week 2)

Tuesday hits, which is the formal ending and beginning of your weeks (since that's when your writing class meets): it turns out you only have 15 pages when you wanted 20 per week. Since you are as neurotic as the next writer, you go between praising yourself for getting 15 done and berating yourself for not doing as much as you wanted to. Then you work to adjust your expectations while not giving yourself excuses. Delicate work, that. In the evening, you work on some teaching prep, trying to get ahead for the next week, since that's your first priority.

Wednesday/Thursday: Between teaching tasks, you finish up the first chapter and revise it, adding 4 pages in the process. You share it with a delightfully helpful friend who tells you she is engaged by it. You are simultaneously encouraged and in despair because you have very little idea what's going to happen in the next chapter, which now feels like your sophomore music album. Will it ever measure up? And what's going to happen in it?

Friday: You bury yourself in research into place and era, not exactly knowing what you're looking for but hoping it will help you see ahead into what the heck happens in the next chapter and how it fits with your overall plot arcs. You also brainstorm some of the secondary characters with a friend via chat. Things are still murky--oh so murky. On Friday night you start to seriously panic, since your week is half done and you've only written 4 pages. This novel will never go anywhere, clearly. Nevertheless, you try to hold firm. Ultimately, you go to bed, as you've learned that always helps.

Saturday: You awake to find that things have begun to come together. As you learned during your last novel-writing project (for your Novel in a Drawer), chaos periods always resolve in epiphany, and the panic fades into a funny story to tell about the writing process. You proceed to write 12 pages in a few hours, pleased as punch you've brought up your week's total to 16 pages as well as that you didn't resort to using cliches like "pleased like punch" often within those pages. Even though you now have a ton of teaching prep to do on Monday, you'll be okay with your weekly totals even if you don't have time to write more on Monday or Tuesday afternoon. Plus you know at least a bit of what's happening in the next few scenes, which makes you feel all luxurious, as though you can pick it up and put it down as you wish without being dependent on the fickle muse.

Sunday: You get to have a day of rest, and you take it gleefully, enjoying the opportunity to read fiction. Time to get to read just for fun for a bit and truly relax, though at the end of the day you sneak in a quick read of the stories you have to discuss in Tuesday's writing class so your brain can give them a mull. You also have to submit chapter 1 for workshopping by Tuesday, so you stay up a bit later than usual to revise your chapter a bit more, just because it's fun.

Monday: You throw yourself into finishing your teaching prep for the week, knowing that the more you get done today the more writing time you'll have the rest of the week. You have enough time to finish your teaching tasks, and you feel like you've begun to get the balance of the shifts between your teaching stuff and this creative task. You feel like you might make it through both these semester-long tasks without ruining the semester's transmission. And since you've already glanced at your writing class assignments that you need to finish up before your 4 p.m. Tuesday class, you have a shot at writing more chapter 2 on Tuesday after teaching, which means you could reach your 20 pages.

On the eve of week 3: You know there will be more peaks and valleys, but having plowed out 31 pages in 2 weeks feels good (10% there!). Beginning to (re)gain faith in the process, even while knowing there will be more low points in the weeks ahead. Getting started is hard, but worthwhile. Having conquered the first few challenges is lovely, especially since you managed to complete all your other responsibilities this week as well, even exercising 3 times. And good groundwork has been laid for future chapters.  Woohoo!

Okay, back to finishing the week's lesson plans. Almost there!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

NaNoWriSpr Goals and Challenges

Yesterday for my fiction-writing class, I was asked to write "a paragraph" about my fiction-writing goals for the semester. The following is an adjusted version of what I wrote:

My primary goal for my fiction-writing this semester is to either have a rough draft or most of a rough draft of a novel manuscript by the end of the semester, reaching roughly between 250 and 300 pages. In order to reach this goal, I realize I must write between 70-80 pages per month, or 15-20 pages per week (totaling between 3500 and 5000 words per week). This first week I reached my goal, but just barely, by writing 15 pages, for just over 3500 words. As per the syllabus, I want to revise 30-40 pages of this draft by the end of the semester and have it be more polished. I want to choose segments for workshopping and polishing more based on how important they are to get feedback for rather than merely what I have done. And so I want to work hard so I have choices about what to share and not share. That said, I know I’ll want my instructor and my classmates to give me feedback on the first 10-15 pages, and blessedly that’s already drafted after this past week. 

I don’t want to accept meaningless procrastinatory excuses from myself for not doing the work. I know I’ll have to change stuff after the semester—the primary goal is to get something down on paper so I can work with it further this summer. But while this draft is largely a “s***ty first draft” (cf. Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird) I also don’t want to push myself so hard to produce pages that the work has holes the size of Texas, especially at the expense of a logical and complex plot or characterization that goes along with that. Nor, since I’m writing a piece set in a different time and place, do I want to sacrifice key research that I must do and then have to rewrite large sections because of a major anachronism or something that wouldn’t happen in that place. 

So while I fully expect to make changes (and likely large changes) after the semester ends, I also want to think deeply enough about what’s going on in my opening acts that pulling it all together in the end will be relatively easy. That means I will have to be okay with going a little slower in the beginning when I’m laying the groundwork (probably in the 15 pages per week phase, with a lot of thinking and outlining time to go with it), but will hopefully have a little easier time once my characters have been established. At that point, I hope to legitimately expect more pages from myself to “make up time.” 

I’ll also have slower going in the beginning is because I’m still doing some of my background research. For instance, I just got a few more books through interlibrary loan that will provide me with useful background info for my era and setting. I know this specific set of research tasks will bear a lot of fruit in furnishing me with vivid and apt material for characterization and setting details, but I’ll have to work extra-hard both to get through this material fast and to not get too distracted by all the other research I could be doing. Thankfully I have a lot of experience in researching quickly. (God bless grad school.) Hopefully, if I can do this and still get 15 pages per week written in the next few weeks, I can get up to 20 or even 25 later on. 

Current word total, after one week: 3531 words. 15 pages. 

15 down, 235-285 to go. This may seem daunting, but through baby steps is totally possible. Go team NaNoWriSpr!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On Contentment; Or, When Things Go Well

It's amazing how easy it is to be content when things are going well. I taught my first classes yesterday, and am once again delighted to rediscover that I do indeed enjoy life more in second semesters, especially ones in which I get to teach in 75-minute class period. (Oh, how I love a longer class period in which to teach.)

And then I went to my first creative writing class.

I like creative people. I enjoy talking about creative writing things. It was fun.

It was a long day, but I went to bed with thoughts of the beginning of my novel--and woke up with them still there after a nice long sleep. This morning, to keep to my discipline of teaching first, I finished my slides for tomorrow's teaching (and they're good lessons, I think--I'm going to enjoy carrying them out).

But this afternoon I'm going to sit down and get some of the first scene down on the page. My goal that feels manageable: 20 novel pages per week average, spending at least 3 days per week pounding out 6-7 page chunks, which would lead, if all goes well, to a completed first draft by the end of the semester. I have the arc of at least the first few scenes in my head and at least some sense of how they tie into the overall story, so the first (and probably second week) should be fairly low on the "I don't know what the heck's happening next" scale. And hopefully by that time I'll have the next chunk roughed out in my head.

It feels like a gift, how the seeds of planning have taken root--how seamlessly my prep tasks for teaching and writing have flowed into the semester. My life, at the moment, is both balanced and fulfilling, and I know that doesn't happen every day.

I'm keenly aware of how privileged my life is right now, to be able to spend time doing things I love.

I know I'm blessed during the tough times, too, but today I'm feeling my blessedness more keenly than ever. And I wanted to get that down so I could look back later when things might not be going as perfectly and remember that this is a privilege, to be doing these things.

Monday, January 14, 2013

On Celebrating New Phases

I like to start things slow. I like to work my way into things. Dwell on them for as much time as it takes. Take my time.

While some delight in the early stages of dating, for instance, I wasn't a big fan at most points in my single life. No, for me the delightful deeper understanding of a long-term relationship.

Same with most things, for the most part. I don't mind going to new places, per se, or experiencing new things, but in the novelty vs. stability dialectic, I will usually vote for stability, at least when it comes to from scratch starts.

The fact that I'm loving the beginning of this DNiP* at this point is a misdirection, in a way. After all, it's been 5-6 years since I first conceived the idea for this project, and I just recently made a judgment call that I'd done enough research, let it simmer enough, and had enough slackening in my schedule of other responsibilities to commit it to paper with fear and trembling balanced with a measure of confidence for reasons I've already discussed in recent posts.

Which is to say that the type of novelty I absolutely adore involves entering new phases of larger projects once I'm into them. That's the kind of beginning I can get behind completely.

And that's the type of beginnings I'm entering on in this, my second semester of teaching at this particular university. In my teaching, I'm feeling profoundly blessed to be revising and extending courses and course concepts I've taught before, and in some classes teaching the same students I've already gotten to know and who have already gotten to know me. It's marvelous. While there are great parts to teaching a class the first time, I always feel like it's a first draft that had way too many things that ought not have been released yet, especially when I'm teaching it to a new set of students with an inevitably different student culture from the places I'd previously taught. First drafts, as Anne Lamott points out, are inevitably flawed. And so, in my opinion, are first semesters. On the other hand, second teaching semesters=fabulous opportunities to fix many of the most glaring flaws (and hopefully some of the smaller ones as well).

In creative writing territory, as mentioned above, while I'm not revising, I'm entering a new phase for which I largely feel ready. The fiction-writing seminar starts on Tuesday, and the way has been cleared. Five large recipes have been cooked in recent days, with the leftovers in the freezer to pull out as needed. My syllabi and lesson plans for the early parts of my teaching semester have been written. The online course environment has been set up with the most crucial documentation, and reasonable self-deadlines set up for other teaching-related tasks in the near future. The novel's background research has largely been completed, except for that which will be manageable to do during the writing of the first draft (and for that, the books and articles have been gathered for easy access). The plot and characters have been slowly forming in my thoughts and through notes. It's time--finally--to start writing the thing.

Three cheers for beginnings of new phases of projects already begun! Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!

*Dear Novel-in-Progress

Saturday, January 12, 2013

And the Word of the Year Is...Discipline!

The other day (in church, if you want to know) I was given a slip of paper with a keyword on it meant to guide my year. I laughed when I saw the word "discipline." I laughed because I wrote a catapult magazine article about the concept this fall, and have been working in that direction anyway.

And yet there was also a hollow spot in the pit of my stomach when I saw it. I almost wanted to give it back.

But I knew it was the right thing. I needed this. This semester I'm not just juggling two roles--teaching and life--like I did last semester. No, this semester, I'm juggling teaching and writing a novel and life. And while the teaching part is a bit less intense than it was last semester, sometimes it's as much about the number of roles that you're juggling as it is the individual--or even combined--intensity of those roles.

And in this case, I'm not just dealing with that classic work-life balance thing where the "life" part can be easily shoved to the side as needed, but the work/work/life balance thing where both works will be important, and very different. It's not remotely the same as when one is trying to balance teaching 4 classes with life like one did last year, because there it's still one large chunk called "teaching" that's involved primarily. It's teaching and writing a novel, which is something one is used to pushing aside because one's internalized work ethic from one's heritage classifies that as much too fun to devote time to, even when one knows it's worthwhile and has specifically signed up for a class so that argument wouldn't be allowed to hold water.

Granted, the novel might still be pushed occasionally to the side, as teaching will ALWAYS come first for me. The students are the most important, and I am so glad to devote time to their growth. And it is and will be my primary job. But still. The novel, because I'm taking a class that keeps me accountable for writing it, won't be able to be pushed entirely to the side. And that means I'll need to do my teaching-related activities with more--well, discipline--to leave it room. 

It's funny--I know I can do this. I've done it before, many times, the juggling act, in many different types of configurations. I worked more than full time and at the same time did volunteer work editing a couple of online magazines. I wrote a novel manuscript while working more than full time and, incidentally, applying for grad school. And I wrote a dissertation while teaching and being on the job market. Etc. Etc. It just feels new, every time one adjusts one's life and mindset and habits to a new configuration. One has to learn (and re-learn) specific disciplines to create new habits.

And it never, for some reason, feels like riding a bike. But it's always achievable. One remembers eventually what has worked in the past for similar configurations and that one gets the hang of it. For now, here are some largely recycled disciplines I'm working to (re)integrate into my life since I'm now entering into this new juggling act:
  • Removing a couple apps from my phone and giving myself stricter time limits when tempted by online and smartphone distractions
  • Breaking large tasks into smaller bits and starting with the easiest/least seemingly onerous part when there's not a time pressure indicating otherwise
  • "Procrastinating" using other things I need to do anyway (especially teaching stuff and life stuff like exercising, showering, cooking, and cleaning, since the novel will usually be the thing that tries to take over, I'm sensing)
  • "Procrastinating" using things that will help me deal with my issues (especially journaling)
  • Giving myself manageable self-deadlines that are believable, but sooner than ones others would give me, and will allow me to keep progressing on all tracks without ever (hopefully) having to go into panic mode
  • Sometimes making myself simply start that task I don't like because it has to be done soon
This list actually gets me excited about my year of (re)discipline. New challenges really can be fun! (Remind me of that in coming months, eh?)

Friday, January 4, 2013

On Telling People You're Writing a Novel

It's an odd, conflicted thing, this telling of people that you're writing a novel.

On one hand, it's something you must do (if you're me, at least): I need public accountability. I occasionally need people to think with me through a rough patch. I need a cheering section. Thus using this blog to think "out loud": I need a way to process through all the thoughts I have about writing a massive project anyway, so why not use the blog to do that for all of the above reasons?

But on the other hand, telling people you're writing a novel (at least in person) brings forth a wide variety of responses.

Some people say, "Let me know when it's on the shelf--I'll buy a copy." (Which provokes an internal wince, since you've worked in publishing, even though you have an inkling that this is a fairly marketable idea this time.)

Others say, "Oh yes, you've done something like that before, haven't you?" (Another internal wince, since it seems to imply that the last one didn't go anywhere, but then you remember that most good authors have several novels in a drawer and you brace yourself from the potentially implied criticism.)

And then there's the most useful responses: "Oh, that's so fun. I hope you'll let me read it!"--which inspires a mental note to further explore how much they mean it.

Ultimately, the usefulness of the response has less to do with the words spoken, though, than with the non-verbals that come with it. Smiling, cheeriness, expressions of open faces pledging confidence in your abilities vie with those who have pursed lips and narrowed eyes expressing doubt.

The latter wouldn't affect me so much if I didn't have my own internalized critics of the seemingly grandiose idea of writing a novel to agree with them. After all, I worked in publishing and have been in the game. I know many many people want to be an author of novels and with the state of publishing, many excellently-written stories never make it to print. I know others have inflated senses of their own writing ability and will never make it to print, having written, to echo Lady Bracknell in Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," "a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality" or something else that isn't that bad at all but simply isn't quite there yet.

Sometimes my having been "on the other side of the page" can be a hindrance, that way.

And then there's the connotations of the word novel itself. "Writing a dissertation," for instance, was something that sounded a bit grandiose and unachievable to some, but then there was the proof that you were enrolled in a program that helped you along (and some of them knew that previously you'd completed your novel in a drawer, so they were sure you'd finish it). But "writing a novel," yup, that evokes images, for readers, of our favorite novelists, whether literary or popular, and encourages comparisons between whether you'll be able to make it to that level. It helps a bit, for legitimacy, to say you've enrolled in a fiction-writing seminar, but even then, they're not sure.

Ah, the neuroses of the writer! One must constantly fight these narratives with the broader truth: that one's earlier novel manuscript was a good warm-up act that was a lot of fun to write, and it's okay to leave it in a drawer. That one's been researching this particular new DNiP* for a long time and finally needs to take advantage of the time to write it, as life changes quickly and one never knows when one will have another opportunity for a long time. That yes, this particular idea has a good chunk of marketability to it, and one's academic strengths in research methods and in writing persistence and stamina in other genres, as well as research into how communication and storytelling work, will help one, along with one's lifelong love of reading and the enrollment in a fiction-writing class.

Besides, it's a lot of fun to write a novel, most of the time. One gets to create. And practice empathy for one's characters, which in turn helps one practice empathy for other people. So while one feels one has a chance of actually completing it this spring/summer and thence getting it onto the market (cue New Year's resolution), even if that didn't happen, one would still use this precious time to work on this project and drive toward those goals, because one is able to and finds it a worthwhile thing to do.

One just tells people (and updates this blog) to give oneself accountability to others to increase the likelihood of meeting the deadline.

So please keep cheering away on the sidelines, faithful friends who don't mind hearing about my efforts! Thanks for your support!

*DNiP=Dear Novel in Progress

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Year Relief; or, Not a Fraud Quite Yet!

This week and a bit, thanks to the timely completion of the syllabi, has been sponsored by the letter H for Holiday-ing and the letter N for Novel-Prep.

Between hanging out with family and friends and reflecting on the blessings of the year past and the audacious goal of writing a novel in the year to come, I've been reading more source materials for my novel, delighting in picking up a lot of useful facts and a few highly useful facts.

Hoping against hope that this huge amorphous project would eventually start to jell and I could think my way into a few characters and plot points.

And finally, yesterday, little bits of a sentient, moving novel began to squirm and kick within me.

Woohoo for not being a fraud for telling people I was going to write something this spring!

It's coming, folks. I'm going to have something to write. Love it!