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!