Survive and Thrive during NaNoWriMo (part 4)

2009 NaNoWriMo Participant One thing a lot of people will tell you is that, if you want to succeed at NaNoWriMo, you have to find time to write. Sounds reasonable, right? Even a little bit “well, duh!” again.

Unfortunately, time is not something you can find under the sofa cushions like spare change or lurking in corners like dust bunnies. Your time is, in one way or another, completely used up, filled up, and taken up already. Finding time is not the problem. Allocating your time is what counts.

Thinking about re-allocating
I’ve written a whole article on how to re-allocate your time so that writing can fit into your schedule, but since it is now just a few days before NaNoWriMo starts, we don’t have time to work through the entire exercise. I’m going to present you with a condensed version of the idea so that you can use it in your November writing plan.

Most of your time right now can be categorized in one of three ways: non-negotiable, give-and-take, and free. Non-negotiable time is time that is filled with the things that only you can do: working, going to school, or, if you’re an at-home caregiver or fall into some other category, performing your primary and necessary tasks. This includes required take-home work, homework, sleep, and time it takes you to shower and get ready to go out. If you’re like most of us, this takes up the bulk of your time.

Give-and-take time includes the time you spend on things that you have some control over, or that someone else could conceivably sometimes do. Unless you live alone, this means household chores and housework, yardwork, grocery shopping, and food preparation (if you live alone and can’t pay someone to do them, these things have to go under “non-negotiable”). This also includes the time required for participation in any groups or associations, time spent with your significant other and children, and volunteer work.

Free time is the time you spend on leisure activities and hobbies. How many hours a week do you watch television? Read? Surf the Internet? Sort through e-mail? Go to movies, parties or other social activities? Participate in physical activity? Work crossword or other puzzles? Read the newspaper? This includes everything that you are absolutely free to do or not do as you choose.

What I want you to do now is to consider all the items we’ve categorized in these three headings, and think about how you can re-allocate time from any or all of them and turn it into writing time. Of course, the easiest of these is the time that you’ve already counted as “free” time. You’ll have to make a few sacrifices here, choosing writing over television, social events, and idle Internet surfing, but if you’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo, you’ve probably already thought of that.

How to “find” time
With some creative thinking, you should also be able to find writing time in the other two categories, too. For one thing, think about all the time spent doing things that are essentially mindless or do not require your full attention, or when you could conceivably work on your writing at the same time. If you commute by train or bus, you could be jotting notes, re-reading something you’ve written already, reading research material, or simply thinking about and planning your next writing session. You can also do much of the “brainwork” of writing while you’re in the shower, washing dishes, vacuuming, or mowing the lawn. You can actually write during your lunch break at work, free time between classes, and when your children are asleep or otherwise occupied.

Some people sacrifice an hour’s sleep each night, get up early and write. Some people scrape up the money to pay a babysitter for a couple of hours a week, or pay someone to mow their lawn. Some people negotiate with their families to take on a few extra chores (don’t forget bribes rewards!).

It’s not that you need more time during November (or anytime) to write. It’s just that you have to use your time differently. A little thinking and planning now, a little bit of resolve in November, and you’ll find you have exactly as much time as you need.

Next: Get the most of out NaNoWriMo…including your novel

Survive and Thrive during NaNoWriMo (part 3)

2009 NaNoWriMo participant Most of us will be dividing everything in November up this way:

  • NaNoWriMo
  • The rest of my life

It will be like balancing in the middle of a tug-of-war rope, trying not to fall into the mud puddle underneath. Or maybe a better analogy would be standing in the middle of a teeter-totter, trying to keep it balanced while children of varying sizes bounce on the ends…

Oh, I don’t know, let’s forget the playground analogies and get down to the bottom line. No matter how much you put into NaNoWriMo, you still have to go back to your “real life” in December. So (unless you’re heading off to that full-service writing retreat I mentioned in an earlier post) you have to find some way to keep the two things in balance in November. Here are a few ways to do that.

Remember that writing is not a shameful secret
There are many reasons people choose to keep quiet about the fact that they’re participating in NaNoWriMo. It has an admittedly weird name that they have to explain every time they say it. Being a writer (or aspiring writer) is not an easy thing to own up to, due to the unavoidable and insensitive questions such an admission invariably evokes (oh, are you published? have I read anything of yours? etc.). And then there’s the elephant in the corner–the fear of failing to write those fifty thousand words and having to admit it to all and sundry.

However, there are even more good reasons to tell the world you’re doing NaNoWriMo. It gives you an excuse for all sorts of outlandish and eccentric behaviour for one golden month of the year. Ditto an excuse for eating/drinking just about anything you want to eat. Sometimes people will even offer to buy you those things to eat or drink if you’ll tell them how your novel is going. Being a novelist carries with it a certain cachet–many people will instantly think you are smarter than they previously believed you were. And there is a certain power in that unspoken threat…that if they are not nice to you, you will put them in your novel.

There’s also the very practical reason that the more people you tell about NaNoWriMo, the more likely you are to succeed. Most of us will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid public failure.

Clear your calendar
This could be the most practical piece of advice I’m going to give you in this entire series. For that reason, I’m going to give it special emphasis:

If there is anything that you do not absolutely need to do in November, reschedule it.

Well, duh, you’re thinking. But I’m serious. Most of us operate on the assumption that there is always one more thing we can squeeze into any given day. You’re already squeezing writing time into those thirty days; give yourself a break and remove a few things to make room.

Get your hair cut this week. Don’t make appointments that aren’t vital. Wait until December to get that new pet. As much as possible, clear your desk at work or delegate as much as you can get away with. Tell your teachers/professors you’re doing NaNoWriMo and see if you can get a break on homework.

And for goodness’ sake, tell everyone in your social circle, so that they’ll understand when you aren’t available for coffee, movies, happy hour, Texas Hold’Em, or whatever else it is you do for fun.

Recruit your family
I’ve touched on this in an earlier post, but it bears repeating. Having the support of your family/roommates/significant others will make this much, much easier for you. Do not feel that you are above offering bribes rewards. Make sure they understand that what you will need the most this month is time, and that you are willing to pay for it. You will name characters after them. You will give them treats. You will take on extra chores after November. You will take them out to dinner when you reach 50,000 words. Find ways to make your success a good thing for everyone. If they are really on your side it will make an enormous difference to your NaNoWriMo experience.

The first year I did NaNoWriMo our kids were one and six. I got up an hour early every morning, stumbled to the refrigerator in the dark and poured myself a glass of juice, and continued stumbling to the computer. My husband helped with everything he could. Out-of-town friends came to visit for the weekend and totally understood when I slipped away from hostessing in order to write. My mom fixed dinners and sent them over. I felt completely supported, and it was wonderful. (Now, of course, after seven years, they know I can do it, and it’s just not such a big deal anymore. So if you get that unqualified support, relish it while it lasts.)

Be good to yourself
You’re going to be asking and expecting a lot from yourself this month, so don’t forget to reward you, too. Allow yourself to revel for a moment every time you reach that daily word count. Promise yourself a treat at milestones. Pamper yourself a little if you get ahead on your words. Participate with other Wrimos in your area or online. Have fun. That way, even if November 30th rolls around and you don’t have 50,000 words to show for it, you’ve had one heck of a great month and you’ll still go back to “real life” with a smile on your face.

Next: If only you could find time under the sofa cushions, instead of spare change.

Survive and Thrive during NaNoWriMo (part 2)

2009 NaNoWriMo Participant “It’s important to begin a search on a full stomach.”
~ Henry Bromel

It’s also important to begin–and continue–a novel that way.

I don’t know about you, but I get inordinately hungry when I write. I take it as a clear sign that writing is an activity which requires fuel. I may be breaking only a mental sweat, but I’m sure as heck burning off something.

No doubt you’ve already starting thinking about the emergency fuel you’re going to stash in, around, and under your desk or writing space for NaNoWriMo (in fact many of you probably have that stash started already). I’m going to make a prediction that for many of us that stash will consist of sugary and salty things in crinkly wrappings. All well and good. If I need a Mars Dark in order to make those last 250 words of the day, I’m going to eat it, and I know you’re thinking the same way.

However, you are not going to put out 50,000 (intelligible) words in November if those snacks are all you are putting in to fuel your brain. Those of us with families are not going to convince them to happily fend for themselves or go on peanut butter sandwich diets for the entire month, and I doubt that most of us can afford takeout for four straight weeks, either. You need a food plan.

“Plan” is the operative word
If you’re someone who generally makes a grocery run every day or so, and you don’t think about “what’s for supper” until you’re ready to eat it, shake off those habits during NaNoWriMo. You won’t have the time to indulge those practices (although you can plan your next scene while wandering around the produce aisle, it’s much better to actually be at the keyboard). Sit down this week and plan out your meals for at least the first two weeks of the month. This doesn’t have to be an absolutely detailed plan, but know the main ingredients you will need to have on hand and what you’ll be eating each day.

If you’ve never done menu/meal planning and have no idea how to do this, here are a few resources to help you get started:

But what are we going to eat?
Okay, you’re going to plan out your meals, and you’re going to lay in groceries ahead of time to save all those extra trips to the store. However, there’s another element to consider here, and that’s preparation time. You don’t want mealtime to take up huge chunks of time in preparation, so there may be some of your favorite recipes that you’ll want to set aside during November if they’re too time-consuming.

You’ll want to concentrate on meals that fall into four categories if you want to make the best use of your time: crockpot (slow-cooker), make-ahead, quick, and one-dish.

A few years back, I set up a mini-site called CoFoNaNoWriMo (Cooking For NaNoWriMo). I collected recipes and had friends submit some, with the caveat that they had to be healthy, delicious, and time-friendly. You’ll find them at the link, and they’re already divided into those four categories for you. If you have a recipe of your own that you’d like to see added to the site, please go ahead and submit it! And if you have a NaNoWriMo tip to go with it, even better.

In addition to these recipes and others like them, remember that keeping things simple for NaNoWriMo mealtimes is key. Soup, sandwiches, and a salad makes a fine supper. Order pizza once a week. You do not have to follow your usual food routines and rules during NaNoWriMo, and don’t feel guilty about telling your family or significant other that things are going to be different during November. It’s only for a month, after all! And if they’re prepared, they’ll deal with the changes much better.

Just remember to plan ahead, budget ahead, and make smart choices about time. It’s entirely possible to get through the entire month of meals that way. And you won’t be stuck with a poorly-fueled brain that can’t stick two sensible words together, or cranky, starving housemates beating down your office door.

Next: NaNoWriMo and the rest of your life~because you still want to have one, come December

Survive and Thrive during NaNoWriMo (part 1)

2009 NaNoWriMo participant Okay, we all know that NaNoWriMo is all about the word counts. Whatever way you want to break it down–by day, hour, weekend–you know at the end of the month you have to make your 50,000 words. There are innumerable resources to help you figure out how best to do that (starting with itself).

However, as a seven-time winner, I am here to tell you that there is a lot more to surviving and thriving during NaNoWriMo than just making your word count. Unless you have the luxury of spending the month at a full-service writing retreat, you are going to have to deal with work, school, food, laundry, housework, childcare, etc. In fact, all of the stuff that you usually have to deal with anyway. Oh yeah, AND write your 50,000 words.

Don’t panic. Whether this is your first noveling-in-November attempt or you’re already a pro, I have some tips to help you survive–and yes, even thrive–during NaNoWriMo.

Keeping your family/roommate/significant others on your side
Today’s tips are specifically going to help those of you who are at-home or work-from-home parents, and anyone who is responsible for some or all of the housekeeping where you live. (And yes, if you live alone, it still applies. You could choose to just let everything slide during November, but your writing experience will be greatly enhanced if you are not living in a pigsty by mid-month, and you will purely hate having to clean it all up in December when you’re already depressed because NaNoWriMo is over.)

It’s important to have the support of your housemates during NaNoWriMo. They cannot write your novel for you, but they can damn well keep you from writing it or make your life a living hell while you try to write it. So keep them happy. This generally means that you’ll have to keep your living quarters reasonably clean and tidy, ditto clothes for yourself and your family, and you all have to eat. We’ll cover eating in tomorrow’s post.

You’re already carving out 1-2 hours a day to write, so you don’t have a lot of time left over for cleaning. This is not a month for painstaking dusting and immaculate floors. For November, it’s important to concentrate on three areas: kitchen, surfaces, and your writing area.

A few years back, I was judiciously following the tenets of Flylady to get my housekeeping life in order, and one of her truisms is that (I’m paraphrasing) the kitchen sets the tone for the rest of the house. It’s true. If your kitchen is a mess, that mess will gradually infect everything else. Whereas if your kitchen is clean and tidy, the rest of the place is much more likely to follow suit. Maybe it is an unwritten law of the universe, but I have found it to be true.

So promise yourself that you will take care of the kitchen this month. This also makes it much easier to follow the food advice I’m going to give you tomorrow, and make it much less likely that you’ll overspend on horrible takeout food that will make everyone cranky and you less creatively-inclined. Load the dishwasher or wash your dishes after every meal (bonus tip: washing dishes provides a great time to plan out that next scene of your novel), take out the garbage, keep the table clear of clutter, and spend ten minutes before you go to bed making sure the kitchen is generally tidy for the morning.

This is about keeping surfaces clear of clutter. You do not need to waste precious time this month searching for lost keys, misplaced bills, work or homework assignments, or your novel outline, in the huge piles of mail, newspapers, sweaters, books, plastic bags, toys, research materials, unsorted laundry, video games, pet accoutrements, half-finished projects and whatever else it is at your house that seems to spring into existence on every exposed surface overnight.

Put your own things away. Encourage others to put their own things away. Get your surfaces cleared this week and keep them cleared every day of the month. The ten or fifteen minutes this might take every day is well spent and will save you time in the long run. In addition, putting things away is mindless work, during which time you can plan out the next scene of your novel. (Starting to see a pattern here?)

Your writing area
Whether you have your own cozy little office, a corner of another room, or a space for your laptop at the kitchen table, you need to keep it tidy this month. Even if you are a person who usually thrives on “organized chaos,” there is no room in November for any chaos other than that which you are creating in your novel.

Clean it up this week, and take five minutes at the end of every writing day or before each new writing session to tidy away your notes, books, coffee cups, chocolate wrappers, other dirty dishes, and anything else that has accumulated. You will have a clearer mind with a clearer desk–and yes, use your tidying time to plan out the next scene of your novel.

We haven’t discussed laundry yet, but laundry is pretty simple. Do not let it pile up. Do a little each day to keep on top of it, because nothing is going to make your family less supportive of your writing than a dearth of clean underwear when they need it. You don’t have to do perfect laundry–all that sorting and folding and putting away is secondary to at least having a basket of clean items to root through.

Bribes Reward systems
Even if all of these things are usually part of your job description, they don’t have to be during NaNoWriMo. Recruit your family/roommates/significant others as helpers during November, and be shameless about offering bribes rewards. Keep a stash of candy or chocolate (apart from your personal cache, of course) to reward those who will leave you alone for a solid half-hour or take on one of your chores for a day. Offer special treats or rewards when you reach significant word count milestones. In other words, make it worth everyone else’s while for you to have writing time. Who knows, by the end of the month, you may have helped them develop some worthwhile skills and habits.

Let go of the guilt
You are not going to be a perfect housekeeper in November. You are not going to serve gourmet meals. You are going to send yourself and your family out of the house in wrinkled (though clean) clothes. Accept this, and let it go, and don’t let anyone else make you feel guilty about it. You’re writing a novel in a month, dammit. Let’s see them try it.

Next: You can do better than cold cereal for supper, even in November.

Talkin’ bout NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo 2009 Participant I promised that in this post I would tell you a little about my novel project for National Novel Writing Month this year. I’m still very much in the working-it-out stage (which I don’t do every year!), but I can tell you a few things at this point.

Following the trend of the past few years, this novel is a bit difficult to classify, genre-wise. I don’t see that as a bad thing, except when it comes to talking about it, which proves difficult. So, let’s see…I was originally calling it “steampunk” but recently I’ve realized that it also trends toward “gaslamp fantasy.” Thus you will have to imagine it as a mixture of the two. Perhaps I’ll be able to describe it more specifically once I actually start writing it. It’s set in late 1880’s London, but an alternate London with the types of technology associated with steampunk as well as a magical element.

I do have a title. I love having a title before I actually start writing. I also love titles that are literary references. My working title this year is Spaces Sharp and Bare. It comes from a snippet of verse by James Stephens, part of “The Breath of Life”:

I yearned up through the spaces of the sky,
Beyond the rolling clouds, beyond the high
And delicate white moon, and up the height,
And past the rocking stars, and out to where
The ether failed in spaces sharp and bare.

How it relates to the tale in my head…well, you’ll have to just wait and see. :)

In addition to my FreeMind mindmap, I’ve started a page of notes and questions, which is as much “outlining” as I ever do. My last few NaNo novels were quite unplanned, so I’m having fun actually thinking things out a little in advance this time. How it will affect the writing…well, we’re both going to have to wait and see about that one.

Busy Times In Writerville

Lots going on in my writing life these days!

  • Last week’s presentation on “Writing Speculative Fiction” seemed to go over well. I think folks were interested, and the simple story-idea-generating exercise I did with them was fun. Soooo much more I could have covered, but I think what I had fit well into the time frame.
  • I sent out four stories last week (as I said on Twitter, “applying for rejections all over the place!”). That makes two novels and four shorts out at the moment. Might be some kind of personal best.
  • Yesterday morning a story idea I’ve been mulling over seemed to come together for me. I sat down and wrote almost a thousand words, so it’s a good start.

“Where do you get your ideas?” writers are always asked. The questioner is usually disappointed with the vagueness of the answer, so I’m always glad when I have a couple of concrete examples to give. This new story will fall into that category.

My brother called me a few weeks ago (okay, maybe a few months ago) and said, “I just heard this piece on Spark, and it gave me a story idea. You should write it.” He does that every once in a while. We had the usual exchange–Me: “You should write it yourself.” Him: “I’ll never get around to it.” Anyway, it was an intriguing idea, and I put it into the idea processor (my brain) to spin around for a while. I think it’s ready to come out now, so we’ll see what the next few days bring. I’m planning to try and write at least 500 words a day for the next two weeks, warming up for NaNoWriMo. The story doesn’t have a title yet, though. I hate that. I like to have the title from the outset.

Speaking of NaNoWriMo, the month of furious noveling is fast approaching! I’ve been doing some planning this year (imagine!), using the neat little mind mapping program called FreeMind. I showed my daughter how to use it yesterday and we both spent a lovely few hours working up ideas. I plan to blog my progress here this year, as well as tweet my first line every day, which should be fun.

Next post, I’ll give you a few hints about the story. Stay tuned! Continue reading

Reading break

I’ve read more short stories in the last few days than I have in the last year, I think. But no, it was not simply for pleasure. That was just a welcome side benefit.

In a couple of weeks, I’m giving a presentation on writing speculative fiction, to a group of writers who don’t write specfic as a usual thing. Some of them have likely never written anything in the speculative genres, and possibly never read anything in those genres, either.

For that reason, I thought I’d like to assign them a few stories to read before the workshop, just so that we would have a few more talking points and all be on the same page (no pun intended). I had a few criteria–the stories had to be of short-to-moderate length, available online, accessible to readers outside the genre, and had to exemplify a couple of the things I’m planning to talk about. For example, the importance of good writing regardless of genre, the difference between story and mere anecdote, a certain depth of characterization.

I found that “accessibility” was the most difficult criterion to fill. For readers who are unfamiliar with standard genre tropes, I felt that stories with a minimum of SF jargon and a setting that was at least somewhat Earthlike might be best. However, it becomes obvious that we speculative fiction writers expect a lot from our readers–or is it that our readers expect a lot from us? I begin to think that specfic writers tend to start invoking the “sensawunda” as soon as possible at the beginning of many stories, dangling a tempting hook for our readers so that we can quickly reel them in. For readers coming to specfic for the first time, however, I think many of these stories would be too unfamiliar, offering too much “difference” too soon, for non-genre readers to stay with them long enough to become invested in the story. To get their specfic legs under them, so to speak.

And of course, personal taste enters into it and can’t be separated from the selection process, so the stories I chose would not necessarily be the ones someone else would choose. Still, it was an interesting exercise. I’ve asked the workshop participants, if they begin reading one of the stories and don’t finish it, to make a note of where they stopped and why. Could be some interesting comments there.

Anyway, after a few days of (mostly) enjoyable reading, I settled on four stories to recommend. Three are science fiction, and one is fantasy. Since I’m recommending them in my workshop, I thought I’d recommend them here, too. They are:

SF Short story – “Jimmy’s Roadside Cafe” by Ramsey Shehadeh

Fantasy Short story – “Sun Magic, Earth Magic” by David D. Levine

SF Short story – “Ghosts and Simulations” by Ruthanna Emrys

The last piece is a novella, but since it won a Hugo award at WorldCon in Montreal this summer (and I was there to see it!), it is definitely worth the time investment:

SF Novella – “The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress

If you read any of the stories, please tell me what you think of them. Happy reading!

*Magazine cover art from

But when is it ready?

Yesterday morning I opened an email from a publisher I’d queried about The Seventh Crow. To my delight, they were requesting a look at the full manuscript.

Now, this manuscript has been pretty thoroughly edited, revised, redrafted, read by three trusted readers, run through the trusty Cliche Cleaner, etc. I made sure it was ready before I even thought about sending out queries.

Or so I thought. To make the submission, I had to convert the file to MS Word, so I thought, “might as well run it through Word’s spell/grammar check, too.” Two days later, I have just now sent the file out.

Now, much of this is due to the fact that Word’s grammar checker is…weird. I know, I know, this is one of the most difficult things to program because of context issues, style issues, usage variations–but still. Of everything it flagged, I would guess I changed less than one-eighth. Don’t get me wrong–I am not saying I know better than the program when it comes to strict right-or-wrong questions. It was useful to me in pointing out a number of things I’d missed along the way. But the vast majority of issues it flagged were non-issues. Hence the two days it took to go through 324 pages (and not counting kids, puppies, husband, laundry, meals, and sundry assorted other distractions, of course).

At any rate, the real point of this post is in the title…how does a writer know when a piece of writing is ready? Really ready to go out into the world and stand on its own?

Two answers spring to mind for me: feedback and critiquing. I think it’s extremely important to have some trusted readers (or at least one!) who will provide honest feedback on a story at various stages, and who have some facility with the technical end of writing–who can tell you that you’re using too many passive sentences, or semicolons, or that you’ve used the word “recalibration” three times in two paragraphs. And of course, you have to be willing to listen to them.

Conversely, you need to develop your own critiquing skills by reading and commenting on the work of other developing writers. It’s the best way I know to become a good self-editor, which is one of the most difficult skills to master; and in today’s publishing world, one of the most important. It is crucial to be able to bring your own work to a highly polished level before submitting it. By critiquing stories for other writers, you learn to view the work with a detached eye, and in time will be able to apply a similar level of detachment (although never quite the same) to your own stories.

But still…when is it ready?

Honestly–I don’t know. Some say, if you’re changing less than 10% of the words, send it out. Some say, when you feel like you can’t improve it any more on your own, send it out. Some say, when you can’t stand to read the damn thing one more time, send it out.

All good advice. I think the main thing to take away from this post is that you make the work the best you can, and then you send it out. And then…you cross your fingers and wait.

Personally speaking…

This fall I’m attending a writing workshop (as I often do this time of year). It will run for eight weeks, Saturday morning sessions, and we’ll be covering a lot of ground, discussing both assigned reading and submitted stories. For last year’s workshop, we were required to write a story in first person; this year, we were asked to rewrite that same story in third person.

Sounds simple, but it’s been a challenging exercise, and one which I would suggest every writer should take on at least once. It’s not a matter of merely swapping out pronouns. It’s a great way to gain a greater understanding of two very different storytelling modes. And although you may already have written stories in third person and stories in first person, it’s a much stronger lesson if you write the same story in the two different ways.

In the end, I think I still like the first person version of this particular story, but I was pleased with the new version as well. I think the storytelling modes highlight different areas of the story, which is a very helpful thing for a writer to be able to recognize, especially when making those first decisions about the best way to tell your story. The main character in this story is a hired killer, so it is very interesting to reflect on how the story will come across when the reader is merely an observer, compared to when they are actually in his head.

The best thing is–it’s done and submitted, and I can cross it off my to-do list!

*photo courtesy of kevinrosseel at

Editors Redux

So, following my recent rant about editors who are inconsiderate and impolite, I have (by pure coincidence) had two very nice interactions with editors.

One emailed me to let me know that a story of mine has passed into the next round of consideration for the anthology he’s editing. He was by no means constrained or even expected to send such a message, but it was so very considerate. The type of editor writers treasure.

And the second editor requested the balance of one of my novel manuscripts. Very nice indeed! Needless to say, I made a trip to the post office today…