Write What You Know?

Right. The answer to that is always research.

But there are so many things that even research can’t manage. How do we ever know what it is to ride a dragon or to travel through space on a generation ship?

It’s something about writing what I love. I love the impossible, the improbable, and the things I may never see in my lifetime. Those are the things I want to write. Those are the stories I see in my head and pester me until I put them down.

A man in my book club asked why writers write post-apocalyptic stories. The best answer from the other writer in the room gave was the idea that humans adapt and overcome the end.

I’m surprised he didn’t ask about dystopias, because I’ve been reading a ton of those lately. Those are also stories where people rise above their circumstances. It’s where the imagination takes us, and each story shows something that might happen – whether the society as we know it becomes problematic like a dystopia or collapses and needs to be rebuilt like a post-apocalyptic.

Sometimes I start to wonder about these not-real, not-true things, how we can be experts and write what we know about them. And yet, if we spend enough time in our imaginations, how can we not know them?

Dragons have been my favorite animal for nearly as long as I can remember. I don’t write them often, but I love to read a good dragon story. When my mother was tasked in her poetry class with creating a poem from a dragon’s POV, she called me. I’m thrilled to be the dragon expert in the family, and it didn’t take long until the dragons poured out in a story.

My next journey is among the stars. Sometimes my evil inner editor tells me we don’t see those stories lately, so they’re out of vogue. And yet- it’s what I love, so I must follow.

Does an Outline Prevent Discovery?

Plotters and pantsers make up the ends of the spectrum of writers about outlining. Some hate the word, while others live by the outline map. I happen to be someone who outlines. It wasn’t always this way, but I have come to find a way to outline that keeps me focused on the story ahead.

The biggest complaint I hear from pantsers (the ones who write by the seat of their pants) is that if they outline, they’ve already written the book. What’s the point?

Maybe we have too much thrown into the category of outline. I remember them from school with the Roman Numerals and the Arabic numbers underneath. Someone must still use that kind of outline, but not most of the writers I know.

What happens to me without an outline is that I wander far from the beaten path of the story. When I have my draft, I spend more time figuring out the threads and the pieces that don’t fit than anything else. Like, why did my protagonist wander off with her dragon here? That doesn’t fit the story! Did I really need to discover that for twenty pages? (Yes, I’m exaggerating here.)

But the key to a great outline is to allow enough to keep in mind the end while not tying hands too much to get through the story. And it isn’t like an outline is set in stone. If your characters mutiny against it, the writer had better understand what happened – and act accordingly. The choice is to change the characters so they’d choose to run through the outline, or change the outline so the characters want to travel that direction.

How much of an outline is enough? It’s what keeps the writer on track with the story. If it’s enough to have that vague image of an ending in your head through the writing – go for it. An outline can be as minimal as fifteen words or as detailed as a snowflake. It’s simply a tool to work for the writing.

So does any kind of information go against the discovery of the novel? Is it forbidden by the pantser to make character sketches or physical sketches of settings or to write out the history of the world before the story begins? Maybe because I write science fiction I struggle with this. I might have years to cover with changes to the characters, society, and technology to get to the point where I want to begin the story.

I might be able to do that off the cuff, but I might get left with questions like I did from reading books like Divergent: How do you get the factionless to work in factories or drive trains or do anything when they’re homeless and don’t have food? What did Voldemort do in the thirty or so years from when he left Hogwarts to when Harry’s curse zapped him away? Thirty years feels like a long time to be gathering the supporters, if only to try to take down the Ministry of Magic the moment Voldemort gets his body back. If he gathered power to terrorize people for thirty years, wouldn’t he be a little more patient? (And I know the Harry Potter novels were outlined.)

But then again, perhaps I just overthink these things. Maybe you have your own examples of those books that have those little questions that keep you awake at night. It isn’t really possible to answer every single question about a world, but the writer ought to know. Some of that is always discovered for me while writing, no matter how tight my outline becomes.

Some resources for outlines:

Minimalist- 15 to 20 words by Les Edgerton 

Seven Point Story Structure
Choosing an Outline Style by Writer’s Digest
Brainstorming
Rowling’s Method (There has to be a name for this somewhere, but I haven’t come across it)
Snowflake 
If you have a way to outline other than these, please share!

Day 501

I write every day. At least, I have for the last 501 days.

Yesterday was Day 500. It’s the last badge from 750words that is advertised on the ‘about badges’ page. So today, when I looked, there it was, that beautiful spacebird badge I’ve been working toward for longer than 500 days. I reminded myself I couldn’t quit when I was so close.

[Note: I have no idea why all of them are birdlike, but it begins with an egg at zero days, a turkey after 3, and we moved through a Pegasus and Phoenix to get there.]

Today is Day 501. It’s not time to quit today, either. I’ve practiced many forms of meditation with yoga, tai chi, and being seated with a quiet mind. Yet writing is one of the things that calms me and keeps me going, which makes it a form of meditation. It’s not how everyone uses writing, but it’s one reason I pursue it so doggedly.

New goals are ahead, and I’ve also been working editing into a daily schedule this month. I’m struggling with it for several reasons, but I’m slowly improving.

Another lesson from yoga applied to writing: The parts we resist the most also teach us the most. I know I read that type of article the first time and it spoke about the poses. A friend of mine hated chair pose so she taught it in class every week. When I started, my least favorite pose was plank. It’s hard to believe how long ago that was.

When I edit, I’m looking at my words again, changing them, tweaking them, sometimes ripping out entire pages of fluff where I wonder what I was thinking or how I could have possibly thought it would fit in the book. I’m also starting to see how it’s improving, the book is turning into something better, prettier, maybe good enough to share with a few trusted friends. Soon. After the rewrite.

What are you struggling with? How do you go about solving the problem and creating goals that you’re excited to reach for? I’m going to pick another number: 555? 600? Those numbers seem more possible now.

The End of the Poetry [Challenge]

I spent the last 30 days writing a poem every day. Most of them were free verse, a few of them needed to have some sort of form, and all of them had requirements about what to say.

What can I really say about it? I love a challenge. I love trying to do something that’s tough just to see if I can. [That might be part of the reason I like NaNoWriMo, too.]

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from using a different form to express yourself. Poetry that says you have to use a word like carbonated and forbids you to use a word like the. No, those aren’t things we use when writing something to publish, but to start looking at words differently? Mission accomplished.

A couple of the poems I really like. I didn’t expect that, because sometimes a prompt will make you hold to the boundaries so rigidly it wouldn’t fit anything else. I also had fun sharing my work with some of the other challenge-attempters. I would look at the words they poured out, and look at mine, and wonder if we truly did use the same beginning. Then you find the bolded words we had to use, none of the words we couldn’t use, and a minimum or maximum of lines. I’m still amazed.

Today it’s over, though I’m sure several of us held our breath around noon, ready to go look for another prompt. I hear it only takes about three weeks for a habit, and this challenge lasted 30 days. Then my friend who organized it said she might do it again in September. My history has only been to do any sort of poetry challenge about once every three years or so… September might be too soon.

Plus I have a novel to rewrite. More than one, even. Time to dig into that. 

Poetry Challenge

One thing I love about poetry is the way you look at words differently. I won’t call myself a poet. I don’t spend nearly enough time on it for that. I know little about forms. Meter and rhyme mostly serve to frustrate me.

But I read this op-ed, and I was thinking. I know some poets. They have beautiful words to share. One thing about those writer groups where you go and take something to read out loud – poetry is perfect for that medium. It’s also easy to print out 20 copies of a poem to share so they can find typos or anything else.

A friend of mine is running a poetry challenge this month, and every day we’re writing a poem. The challenge comes in finding something to say about the prompt – yesterday was Celestial Musings – and not using any of the forbidden words while using all of the required words and it was the first day we had the option of finding a form (any form).

I find it very intimidating to go find a form and just use it. I like it when someone tells me to try a pantoum or a tanka or a jozzonet. There are so many forms out there I’ve never heard of and I’m not sure where to go find them.

When the month is over and I have 30 new poems – because I’m not the kind of person who backs away from a challenge – I’m going back to my novel edits. I’m doing it to look at the words differently. To change how I see them in my head. To alter how they come out while I’m describing things. Wish me luck. I have 17 down and 13 to go.

My Character Took a Turn

While it isn’t my main character, a major character in the book revealed that he had something to do with one of the Bad Events. He seemed neutral at the beginning, a necessary bridge between protagonist and antagonist and someone who worked with both.

I suppose it all started when a different character – who was supposed to remain in the backstory – left traces of herself from the first page and arrived front and center when my protagonist needed an ally.

So much for my outline- except I’m still following the outline. I don’t believe in cornering myself with the details. I discover it as I write it, with the outline more like a street map. And just like my GPS system, every now and then it tells me to take a u-turn at 70 mph through a four-foot concrete barrier. I always choose not to follow that advice. I’m nearly at the destination now, and I know if I keep writing I’ll find my way.

I’m always amazed by well-meaning other writers who don’t know me well. They say “save it for later.” I’m not going to fix this guy. Except to make this reveal seem planned after the rewrite, of course.

Then, I thought, Man, your wife is way too cool for you. But maybe she also knew. I guess I’d better check in with her and see.

I hear it’s good for characters to get lives of their own, but they definitely make my book interesting. I also can’t wait to see how it turns out – even though I am following an outline. I’m not sure I could write this book without some kind of guide. I think I’m 125k words in, and I’m not sure where it will end.

A New Level

I write. Every day. I don’t take off weekends or holidays. I also write at least 750 words each of those days.

As my writing habit has grown stronger, I’ve really missed the days when it hasn’t happened. Part of it is the way I can see 750words.com tell me “You have written x days in a row.” But at the bottom of my statistics, I have a number. That number is 384, which is the most days I had written in a row.

I’ve been very proud of 384. Through that time, I moved twice and had a baby. When I broke that streak (July 2012), it was a regular day that went out of the regular routine. I learned through that it wasn’t the big things I could see coming that breaks my writing; it was the little things that you can’t plan for.

Once the streak was broken, the pressure was off to keep going. I even gave myself a month off (December 2012). Big mistake. I felt off the entire month. Like I hadn’t accomplished anything. Like some part of myself couldn’t be connected.

Today that number changes. Today my longest streak starts picking up again. Today is 385. 

I’m still struggling to put my editing into the same perspective. Maybe I’ll start putting star stickers on my binder and start a new row every time I break a streak. Any ideas?

Project Cycle

Every project begins with an image in someone’s head. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether it’s going to be ten thousand or a hundred thousand when I begin.

The first step is to spew out the rough draft. Sometimes, and with more regularity, an outline takes shape before that. I’ve been learning to get better about running through a draft until it’s done. When I stop things in the middle, I lose my place. I can’t figure out where I’m going. It takes forever to build the momentum back up again.

There is a need to let a draft sit, but not for too long. That rough draft turns into a pile of words on pages. The half-edited bundle of papers becomes something I have to re-read to connect to each time a long break happens. Yet I also get little tidbits of ideas about projects I haven’t worked on for a couple months. Sometimes those bits fit and sometimes it takes a change in the entire project to encompass the new idea.

How do you overcome that distance? What do you do to make yourself get through to the end without those long, awkward pauses of, ‘oh, yeah, I’m working on that book’? I’m also working through my resistance to editing. Somehow I will make progress.

Run

When I used to think about running, I remembered gym in high school. l had one teacher who loved calisthenics, and in his health and gym class you had to run, outside, in late November. Every time we passed him, he yelled that we had to go faster, a certain pace, or we’d fail. My lungs burned from the cold air and the only thing that kept me on that track was that I couldn’t fail because I could not stand to be in class with that guy again.

Something changed, though. This year, many mornings, when I wake up early to write – I also wake up wanting to run. This winter has been so much colder than that long-ago November, so I know I don’t really want to go outside. Yet I have that image of lacing up my shoes and taking off for morning run.

This morning I dreamed about it. I woke up too early, stayed in bed, and just imagined the scenery going by. How did this become something that I want to do so much that I dream about it?

Writing is often a sedentary pursuit, as was engineering. Yoga, while a fitness discipline, is often practiced in my home or at the gym at a stately pace. That static nature allows a lot of work on form and strength and patience. Yoga definitely taught me patience.

I’ve been reading Writing Down the Bones, where I finally understood the idea of a walking meditation. One foot raises during the inhale, comes down during the exhale. This slow pace brings focus to both the small movements and the world around. Finally that made sense, especially after attending a Tai Chi class this week. The slow, measured pace matches with the breath. You can’t hurry it. You use your yoga breath with a slow inhale and a slow exhale, which draws out those movements even more. All of it intended to make you relax.

Every morning since November, I have programmed an alarm in my phone that says “Sprint!” While that has been turned to writing, to pouring out my thoughts while my brain is still putting them together and allowing that creativity to drive my words, rather than allowing my analytical mind to drive order during the draft. Something has turned this into a want to run. To not just sprint after one kid or the other to prevent mayhem, but to really run with no other purpose than to go running.

While part of me is still recalling the grueling trek around the track, the rest of me is thinking it isn’t complete insanity to run. Just – maybe not outside. It is February and below freezing. And there’s always the possibility that it will connect things in my head for writing. If nothing else, I can make my characters learn to run, too.

One Million Words

I’ve only been tracking it on 750words.com since I joined. It took 2 years and almost 8 months: 1 May 2011 to 29 Dec 2013. That also only counts rough words, because I take them out of there when I finish and edit, rewrite, tweak, whatever’s needed elsewhere.

One million words feels huge. But when I count all the writing I’ve done before I joined, there might be a million words there, too. I know it’s hard to translate words into pages, but it would be about 4000. It might be 10 books worth, if it could be organized that way and was worth throwing together.  

My longest streak is 384 days, spanning two moves and having a baby. I’m creeping up there again, currently at 307 days in a row.

I’ve been told that writing a million words is more like an apprenticeship in writing than anything else. That it takes ten years to get good at something, and putting the time in is the only way to get better. I’m not sure I can say I’ve put that time into anything else. But writing, that I do, and I continue to do, every day. I’ve been writing more than ten years- it can be traced back to elementary school, though as I get older I get more dedicated to my craft.

What will the third million teach me that the first two didn’t?

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