The 7 Pillars of NaNoWriMo Wisdom, Part 6

Nearly there!


Thus the calming blue of today’s number.

Today’s post is easy, because I don’t need to convince myself to get more sleep. I’m already a believer.

The problem is the computer, calling to me late at night. The bright screen, those colors scintillating across my retinas, movies at my fingertips, games galore, websites that connect to other websites, Netflix, Twitter, blogs upon blogs. It’s the black hole of time!

It’s a wonder I get anything done at all. The other night my daughter moaned, “I sat down two hours ago to write something, and all I’ve done so far is read Facebook posts.” I tried not to look parental when I said, “Gee, I wonder how that happened.” But I’m just as guilty. My latest time-waster was watching NBC’s 30 Rock for the 5th time — the entire series, in about 3 weeks. There went October.

Several years ago I canceled my cable subscription and was stunned by how much work I was able to accomplish when I didn’t watch TV programs. That was before Hulu and Netflix. Now that I can watch programs online, I’m once again spending far too much time in the vast wasteland that is electronic entertainment. On top of that are the studies reporting that using electronic devices late at night interferes with sleep patterns (see this NYTimes blog post for details). Yes, we got Trouble in River City, with a capital T and that rhymes with C and that stands for Computer!

NaNoWriMo gives me the reason I need to cut the cord and use my time for better things. Cold turkey. It’ll be painful, but the results linger well into December.

Thus, my pledge: During November, I’ll use my computer for writing only*, turning it off at midnight, no matter what. I’ll read for an hour, and then fall into blissful sleep (with a notepad on my bedside table, for those middle-of-the-night brainstorms).

*Sadly, this has to include email — work and personal. I can’t yet completely cut myself off from the rest of the world, but I can limit time spent doing those social media things. I’ve put a timer by my computer and will set it for 1 hour of non-NaNo work before I start each day’s writing.

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The 7 Pillars of NaNoWriMo Wisdom, Part 5

The antepenultimate post of this series!

3150494-7873411214-5.jpgGet outside.

Everyday. I mean it. Like the mail carriers: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Even though it might be raining here in NYC on NaNo’s first day, and even though I’ll have no urgent errands to complete, I’ll start the month the way I hope to finish, with an early morning walk. (This way I won’t have to worry about the “gloom of night” thing.)

Getting myself outside isn’t really my problem, but with a well-stocked grocery store about 100 feet from my front door and the subway entrance at half that distance, sometimes “outside” entails about 30 seconds of scurrying from shelter to shelter. (What happens at the other end of the subway ride doesn’t count.)

Come NaNo, this will change. Ferris Jarr, in a recent New Yorker essay, writes about how walking helps us think. According to Jarr,

Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion.

This struck me as interesting because I bike on a fairly regular basis. I’ve trained myself not to think about my writing while cycling since I usually forget what I’ve thought about. (Same problem occurs in those moments at night just before sleep descends — any brilliant ideas are irretrievable in the morning if I haven’t written them down.) Also, since most of my rides are to and from work, work is what I’m thinking about as I ride.

Dickens walked every day, sometimes as much as 15 miles (northwards, that would get me into Westchester County). According to Jarr, Wordsworth (and his sister, ahem!) hiked the varied terrain of the Lake District, his lifetime pedometer showing nearly 200,000 miles. (Think of Dorothy Wordsworth as a 19th Century Ginger Rogers: in high heels and backwards.)

The point of all this is: I have to unleash myself from the desk whereon my computer sits and get myself out to the wilds of upper Manhattan. The Hudson is a 15-minute walk from my apartment (25 coming back, because the only route home rises 200+ feet above sea level in less than half a mile). Inwood Park’s minimally managed woods and the New Jersey Palisades are each less than 3 miles distant.

Or I can walk Broadway and get inspired by architecture old and new (see some truly lovely photos here).

Actually, why wait for November 1st? It’s still morning. I’m outta here.

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The 7 Pillars of NaNoWriMo Wisdom, Part 4

More advice to myself, during which we pass the half-way point of this not quite endless list:


(sounds of throat clearing) Try that again, please.


Much better.

Yes, yes, we’ve all heard that writing is hard work. Anything can be hard work if there’s something else I’d rather be doing. When it comes to writing, sometimes I’d even rather be cleaning house. But that doesn’t get the writing done (see Part 1 of this series).

So, to encourage the reluctant me to sit down and do the hard work, I need to have something else to look forward to. Ironing out a difficult turning point in the plot is rarely its own reward. Yes, I may feel like a genius when I succeed at this (until I reread it and realize it’s all worthless tripe), but pats on the back administered by self are very unsatisfactory. Rewards, tangible and tasty, are for me the embodiment of the metaphorical carrot.

Although chocolate ranks high on my list of carrots, there are other options: take-out delivered from one of my local restaurants (Mexican, Thai, Indian, Italian — NYC is the greatest!), homemade chicken soup, toast, even gorp (my recipe: roasted salted cashews, roasted unsalted sunflower seeds, roasted pumpkin seeds, roasted pecans, dried cherries).

And there’s my shopping list to replenish my pantry in preparation for next month. Chocolate, of course, will top the list.

Final word: Click the links for the health benefits of chocolate, cherries, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and nuts like cashews and pecans. Rewards that feed the body as well as the soul!

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The 7 Pillars of NaNoWriMo Wisdom, Part 3

More of the continuing series of advice to myself (and anyone else who cares to listen):


Wait. Hear me out.

Read something in a genre unrelated to what I’m working on.

This past month I’ve been finishing a fantasy manuscript, so my reading consists of reviews of books on history, politics, arts, biography — real people in the real world. Definitely not cheerful reading (the pessimist in me finds all my expectations about humankind’s future fulfilled).

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy reading these reviews and often track down the books themselves, but the seriousness of this reading makes me long to go back to my novel’s fantasy world, where I’m in control. Each time I stop writing for the day is an opportunity to never return to the manuscript, so reading that makes me want to finish that story is invaluable.

Also, when I read in a different genre, there’s no chance of suffering the anxiety of influence. It’s bad enough working in the same genre as Rowling, Le Guin, Cooper and others, but to have to create something they haven’t done yet? Is there anything they haven’t done yet? Reading nonfiction seems to clear my mind of these authors’ voices, allowing me to hear my own. I no longer have to try not to write like them; I can just tell my story.

So, on 01 November, as I start drafting a historical saga, my reading list will shift to comic novels: Augustus Carp, The Diary of a Nobody, Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures, and so on — watch for a future post about these. I’ve read all my book review issues, and now the optimist in me needs to feel better about humankind.

BTW, remember those secrets I hoped to find in X’s rooms? Well, funny story. I finished the chapter and there were no secrets. I looked, believe me, all over those rooms but couldn’t find anything revealing about X, so the chapter title has reverted to “X’s Rooms.” She must have hidden her secrets some other place.

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The 7 Pillars of NaNoWriMo Wisdom, Part 2

Today’s writing tip is a difficult one for me to follow, but it’s critical if I want to reach my goal.

2Don’t reread.

This always struck me as counterintuitive, until I started observing my writing behavior. My tendency is to write a few pages, take a break, then sit down and reread what I’ve written. That’s the first mistake.

The second one is letting my inner editor grab the reins (or keyboard) and do what she does best: delete. Six pages in the hands of my destructively picky reader (remember, this is me I’m talking about) wind up losing 50-60% of their content because it isn’t good enough.

During NaNoWriMo, “good enough” isn’t the goal. Word count is.

“OK,” I hear my readers asking themselves, “if that’s the case, won’t just any set of words do? Why not copy out the phone book, or perhaps your favorite novel? Even gibberish would get you to your goal.”

True enough. No one at NaNo is checking my actual words. I’ve been tempted to cheat, believe me, but what would be the point? I’d end up with a reproduction of someone else’s work.*

For NaNo I’m committed to telling my own story, but I never know how it will look when I’m done. I have to trust the process of writing to reveal the story to me. I know that sounds weird, but it happens during each writing session.

Don’t ask me how something that is not in my head when I sit down at my computer ends up on the page in front of me. Yesterday I had written two paragraphs of a chapter when I realized that its title needed to be changed from “X’s Rooms” to “X’s Secrets”. Where did that come from? I don’t even know what’s in the rooms, but now I can’t wait to find out.

James Britton** calls this “shaping at the point of utterance” or spontaneous inventiveness (after Heinrich Von Kleist). Rereading at this point only gets in the way of creation.

Turn the editor off. There are no bad ideas. Stop obsessively looking for the perfect word. There’s plenty of time for that kind of craziness later. For now, just keep writing.

*Can writers learn their craft by copying out other novels, the way artists learn to draw by reproducing other paintings?

**1980. You can find the article here.

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The 7 Pillars of NaNoWriMo Wisdom, Part 1

Just 7 days to the start of frenzied typing. Just 7 days to get myself ready for this year’s month of writing dangerously. As part of my preparations, I’ve decided to set myself a daily writing task: 7 bits of advice for myself that are useful during any month. With luck, this won’t be a case of “two would have been enough”.*

Award_numeral_1 Write everyday.

This one’s obvious, which is why it’s first on the list. I’ve quoted Tolkien before and happily repeat myself: “It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.”

The corollary is that a job frequently interrupted, delayed, set aside, or otherwise unattended to will eventually be forgotten and abandoned. I suspect we delay or give up on difficult tasks because the end point is so far away. It’s a bit like seeing a steep hill ahead of you as you cycle along a road. The climb to the apex looks impossibly steep, and you become breathless before you’ve even begun. You could turn back, but you want to reach what’s on the other side. Then you get to the start of the hill and it isn’t impossibly steep yet, and you keep going, your eyes NOT focusing on the hilltop but just a few yards before you, perhaps even counting pedal strokes, and then you find yourself at the top wondering what all the fuss was about.

NaNoWriMo doesn’t require participants to write every day, but the daily word-count goals (just under 1700, or about 6 pages) make the task seem doable. If I think about writing 50K words (180+ pages) in 30 days, my eyes cross and my computer recedes into a tunnel. But if I write just 6 pages, and then just 6 more — pretty soon I’m looking at a manuscript!

*Nabokov, in a letter to his wife, about T. E. Lawrence’s book.

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Character dilemma



So, I’ve been working on this new manuscript, involving a princess, whom I’ll call C in this and future posts. I’m about 60% done with the first draft, and it suddenly hit me: should I make C a commoner?

I’m afraid I’ve passed the point of no return with C and will have to keep going, leaving it up to a future agent or publisher to suggest I rethink using royalty (to which I’ll probably respond, like Bartleby, “I would prefer not to”).

If the protagonist is strong, realistic, fun, “easy to relate to”, then OK, no problem, green light. And I think I’m there. Although: one of my readers keeps telling me C’s a spoiled brat, which I don’t see and which also might not be a problem anyway, but the comment still rankles. There must be a thin line between feisty/independent and indulged/troublesome.



This is where advice I always gave my writing students is useful: Don’t argue with the reader. Just use the reader’s comments to understand the effects your words are having and decide if those match your intentions.

So, when I figure out what my intentions are, I’ll be able to use my reader’s comments.

Now I have to get back to my MS, where C is headed into some kind of trouble I haven’t figured out yet.

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