The greatest gift my parents gave me was hobbies.
My mother is an actress, but when she had me she stepped off the stage. She didn’t want to raise her daughter in the dressing room, she said. Instead, she started her own business working from home and producing a variety of crafts. In winter she would knit. In summer she would make beaded sunglass straps. In tourist season we’d do markets and stay up late into the night making stock. She was and still is always busy with her hands, always making something. Always creating. My childhood memories are peppered with occasions when she’d come bouncing up to me waving a new knitting pattern or some intricate beaded design that she wanted to make.
It was from her that I received a love of knitting. For years I would watch her needles clicking, wear the jerseys she made me, and get excited about the beautiful things she taught herself to create. I would sit with needles and wool and a scowl on my face and cries of frustration, wishing I could be like her, wishing it could be as easy as she made it seem.
And then all of a sudden it was. I graduated from knitting when I graduated from matric. That study time, in between pouring over history books and screaming at maths sums that refused to make sense, I sat in the lounge making a jersey and watching Dallas re-runs, laughing at shoulder pads and cowboy hats and shakey bottom lips.
Knitting was there for me again when my heart was broken; when my university degree seemed too difficult; when my first year of employment looked like it would end in me being fired; when my application for creative writing masters was rejected. Even when everything in life seemed to be going wrong, even when it seemed I was good at nothing else, I knew that I could do one killer cable stitch.
There’s something incredibly rewarding about pouring yourself into something and having a real tangible item to show at the end – something from nothing; the great alchemy of craft.
It was possibly this that first inspired me to draw, too. Although in that case it was my dad. My dad, with is fantastic imagination and library of art books, who would sit down with me as a very young child and take commissions.
“Draw me a princess!” I’d order.
I’d watch in awe as he sketched a beautiful woman in a shimmering gown upon the blank page. I wanted to be able to do it too. I asked him to teach me and he did. One of my earliest memories is sitting on the grass in front of our house on a hot Joburg summer’s day mixing colours. It was a kind of magic how the yellow and blue became green, how the green and blue became turquoise, how the colours changed as they dried, how the thick paint began to crack on my plastic plate palette as the sun beat down upon it. Even though he later lived far away and I only saw him for the long school holidays, we’d always at some stage sit down at the outside table – whether it be the outside table in Camps Bay or Port Edward or Fish Hoek or Sun City – and create worlds on blank pieces of paper.
For a long time I thought he was an artist. When people at school asked me what he did that’s what I’d say. I didn’t understand what it meant to be a stage manager or lighting technician. Whenever I saw him he was making art – cutting the translucent gels to fit the theatre lights so that colours danced across the stage, painting sets so that sheets of cardboard looked like house interiors. Years later he said to me, “I think you were right all along. I think I am an artist. What is art if not creating an illusion for the pleasure of the viewer? And isn’t that what theatre does?”
Theatre also tells stories. Falling asleep in dad’s lighting box and sitting doing homework in the dressing room when mom went back to the stage, I was shown all the elements that came together for a story. The dialogue of the scripts; the actions dictated by the director; the way that lighting can influence mood; how the way things are said can carry more meaning than the words themselves… and out of that was born my love of writing.
It is my dad’s theory that there was no help for it, considering how many times I saw the words of some of the world’s greatest playwrights come to life. I was doomed to either be an actress or an author (being trained as a journalist, does that mean I became both?). The truth is, however, that my love of story telling came long before the hushed audience and the rising of the velvet curtains. It came from the crib, when he’d weave tales of adventure and triumph for me. It came from those long days up in the tree with him, when a branch became a sailing ship and my teddy bear, a superhero. It came from the songs my mom wrote for me, the way she’d illustrate her domestic adventures, leaving no detail aside, no emotion unexpressed.
My parents could never afford to spoil me with the presents other children of my generation may have received: gaming consoles and computers, fancy rollerblades and eventually motorcars… but they gave me something much better. They gave me sanity and independence wrapped in their love.
For that’s what a good hobby is, really. It’s a safe harbour during life’s storms, an anchor when all around is confusion and doubt. An activity you love will automatically love you back and as long as you’re together, you’ll never ever feel alone.
No you’re not crazy, yes you should, (read why here).
It is a challenge, but it’s not nearly as impossible as it may seem at first. Here are a few pointers that have helped me cope over the years:
1. Embed yourself in the NaNo community
It’s more difficult to give up and it feels less like a chore if you have buddies doing it too. They say you need to isolate yourself from social life for the duration but you really don’t. NaNoWriMo can in fact be a very social time. Aside from the write-ins that will be organised in your area (you can find out about them on the forums), there is also an IRC channel and the forums themselves which are filled with people reaching for the exact same goal, willing to help you out and offer encouragement.
Some people prefer to skip this bit – they call themselves “pantsers” because they enjoy the thrill of flying by the seat of their pants. It has never worked for me. The first year I tried NaNo I failed because I thought that the plot would resolve itself in my head. It didn’t. I found myself getting hung up on small details and writing myself into corners.
That’s not to say you have to break it down into what chapter you’ll do on what day. Some people do this, but I find it takes much of the fun out of it. Just know who your characters are, what they’re risking, why they’re doing it and – this is the most important part – have some vague idea of how your novel will end so you have something to work towards.
3. Research before 1 November
Researching takes time. Hours of time. Time that, during November, you’ll want to spend writing. If your novel deals with complex subject matter, then get to grips with it before you find yourself getting stuck in the quicksand that is Wikipedia half way through paragraph 1 on 1 November. My dad is taking part for the second time this year. He started researching in April. (I, on the other hand, only started researching yesterday, so there’s still time!)
4. Have a “NaNo Book” or File
Keep this NaNo book with you from now until the end of November. Use it to jot down plot points, pieces of dialogue and ideas that occur to you in the build up to NaNo. During NaNo you’ll probably find they’ll pop into your head with increasing frequency the deeper you get into your story. Great ideas don’t keep to your writing schedule. In fact, they love nothing more than arriving when you’re in the middle of some other important thing for work or school. Having a book within arm’s reach that you can write them into will mean you have a handy reference when you need them later.
5. Don’t stress out if you don’ t hit 1667 every day
If you’re anything like I was, you’re going into NaNo thinking you’ll dedicate an hour or two every night to writing and you’ll hit your 1667 words before bed. Breaking writing down into little chunks is what makes the task of writing a novel in a month possible, they say. Unfortunately, in my experience real life doesn’t work like that. People go on having birthdays, work keeps on rolling in, you might get sick.
In reality my writing pattern is less like 1667, 1667, 1667 and much more like 0, 0, 5000 (that was a weekend), 50, 1000, 500 etc.
Don’t expect to keep to schedule. If you don’t expect that then you won’t feel stressed out when you fall behind, which you probably will. Just use the time you do have available to catch up. You have 30 days to catch up, that’s actually quite a bit of time.
6. Beware of week 2
The excitement will wear off. You will start thinking you’re crazy. You will wonder why you’re doing this. You most likely will think, at least twice, of giving up. Don’t. It’s called being “week twoed” and it happens to everyone. If you need to slow down with your writing, if you miss a few days, don’t worry and don’t give up. If you like, make a list of all the things that make your NaNo plot awesome while you’re still rearing to go now or in week 1, and use that to motivate yourself through the doldrums of the second week.
7. Write or die
There are some wonderful programs out there to help you. One of my favourites is “Write or die”. You type into a text box and if you stop typing for more than a minute it starts deleting your words. Talk about motivation! This tool is amazing for those sticky times when your cursor sits mocking you from the top of a blank page. Nothing gives your imagination a kick in the pants like blind panic!
8. Word Wars
Another wonderful form of encouragement, especially for the more competitive among us, is Word Warring. They have constant Word Wars happening on the forums and IRC channel where you compete for the most words in an allotted amount of time. Sometimes they do these at write-ins and you get prizes if you win, other times it’s just for the glory.
9. Avoid criticism
Avoid people who want to give you advice about your novel, unless you ask specifically for it (and when you do, be as specific about the problem you’re having as possible). The thing you have to remember is that your NaNo novel is your first draft. It’s not going to be perfect. The aim is to get it written. You can polish and fix it later. The most important critic to avoid, of course, is yourself. Your “inner editor” will have you second-guessing every line if you let it. One of the huge benefits of NaNo is learning how to shut up that editor, and it’s not easy!
10. Make it fun
The more fun you make the experience for yourself, the more likely you are to finish. Pepper your writing space with NaNo paraphernalia. Get a calendar that gives you daily challenges, get a schedule that calculates what your current goal should be, you can wear funny hats and even dress up to write if you want to. Last year I bought myself an advent calendar and stuck a NaNo wordcount over every door. When I reached that goal I got chocolate. It may be childish but seriously, who doesn’t want free chocolate? Laugh about the way your characters try to take over, keep a blog of extracts and funny things that happen to your characters and encourage your NaNo buddies to read and comment, have internal bets and competitions with them involving wordcount.
NaNo is not just about churning out a quick novel, it’s a festival of writing. Celebrate it.
Please leave any further advice you have for new Wrimos in the comments!
Around this time every year I wake up with a flutter of excitement in my chest. There’s something in the air. It’s thick with honeysuckle and jasmine, the sky is a bright cornflower blue, birds are singing.
Yes, it’s springtime.
It’s also almost time for NaNoWrimo.
It is widely said that everyone has a novel within them, waiting to be written and a group in the US took these words to heart. They figured that if one were to write a few pages every day for an entire month, and dedicate oneself whole-heartedly to the task, one would have a novel written by the 30th. It’s what they call the “seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing.” Out of this idea rose an annual international month-long festival of writing.
All over the world, including in your home town, people will get together to write novels this November. Volunteers, called Municipal Liaisons will co-ordinate meet-ups, hand out incentives, host parties. People who have never put pen to paper and published authors alike (such as Neil Gaiman) will hunch over laptops or PCs churning out 1667 words a day in a desperate attempt to complete a novel of 50 000 words by the last day of the month. Friends will compete for the highest word count, the forums on the NaNoWriMo website will come alive with writing advice and resources, and dreamers, with their busy schedules and other priorities, will finally have the much-needed excuse to follow their hearts.
You see, it’s not just about choosing to write a novel and sitting down and getting that done.
That you can do at any time of the year, alone. It’s about being part of one gigantic writing marathon, running towards the finish-line hand-in-hand with other writers around the world. Even if you don’t go to the meet-ups or chat on the forums or IRC channel, you will receive emails every week from famous published authors egging you on, giving you advice relevant to that particular part of the novel. Even if you don’t reach the word count, you have a legitimate excuse for trying, for putting writing first, for saying “I’m sorry I can’t come out tonight, I have a novel to write,” without sounding insulting.
I did my first NaNo in the middle of exams in my third year of varsity. I didn’t finish. I didn’t come close to finishing. But it didn’t matter. I had a taste of being part of something greater. The next year was my first true NaNo and it was one of the defining moments of that year. I met amazing people, I discovered what writing techniques work for me and, best of all, I defeated procrastination.
That’s right. After 12 years of school and four years of university, all it took me to learn time management was a month of novel-writing. I thought that perhaps it was a fluke, that I was attributing too much to the NaNo process and not enough to the fact that I had just completed what was essentially an Honours degree. Last year, my dad took part in NaNo for the first time, though, and he sounded like an echo of myself over the phone when he said, “It’s amazing, I never waste time any more, I’ve learned to get things done.”
Time management was not the only benefit I picked up from NaNo. Last year, a miserable year of my life that I would sooner forget, NaNo was the highlight of the year. Partly because, yes, the year had been sad and I was a sad individual at the time. For the greater part, though, because when I hit those 50k words at the end of the month, I had achieved something. In a year when I had otherwise been a complete failure, I had done something amazing. I had written… well, half a novel. It’s a pretty long novel. But I had hit that word count, I had reached my goal, I was not useless.
Another thing I learned from NaNo last year was the reason why I write. In the middle of November I was denied acceptance to a Masters course in Creative Writing. I would have expected to be put off, to have stopped working on the stupid novel and face harsh reality. Instead, I carried on merrily, realising what otherwise I may have never admitted: I write because I love writing and it doesn’t matter at all whether anything ever gets published, whether it all comes to nothing. The glory is in the process.
For the past three years Amazon’s CreateSpace has offered the incentive of a voucher for one free proof copy (plus shipping) of your finished book if you reach the 50k . Holding that novel, that you’ve written, in your hand, has to be one of the best feelings in the world. It doesn’t matter that you published it yourself, the fact is that your hard work has become something physical.
It was because of the desire to have a row of published works of my own on my bookshelf with covers I could be proud of that I started working on digital art, that I started taking art seriously. Perhaps I have not become and never will be a famous web cartoonist or renowned artist, but I have a new skill now and it feels wonderful.
If you are even vaguely considering taking part in NaNo this year, do it. Honestly, give it a go. You’ll never regret it. At worst you’ll give up half way through and simply go on the way you always have. At best… it will change your life.
And who knows, you might even write a best-seller.
If you want to sprint along beside me this year these are my details:
NaNoWriMo site name: tally1302
Writing journal: http://tallyfic.livejournal.com
I have never joined a writing group. And as some of you know, it took me years to convince myself to take part in NanoWrimo. Why?
Because other writers scare me.
Yes, I know that we can learn from each other. I know that a second opinion is great because so much of a novel happens inside the author’s head. I know that if you ever want to be published you have to learn to be tough.
Sure, they may not say it in so many words. More often it’s cloaked behind those terms that people like to bandy about so they seem to be knowledgeable and thus superior: “Mary Sue”, “Straw Man”, “Cliche”.
Sometimes it’s not even meant badly. In many cases people will try and encourage you by acknowledging that they know what you’re getting at with phrases like, “Oh wow this sounds exactly like this other story I read once,” or, “Such and such author does that really well.”
Then you get some who do say it in words; who pick apart your sentences and your plot and tell you plainly that it’s cheesy or ill-constructed. They don’t necessarily mean harm either. They say they’re trying to help and you feel like you’re supposed to be grateful. Sayings about diamonds (being cut into shape) and pearls (being rubbed into shininess) bounce around your head as you try to take their advice.
And somehow the story ends up in a folder somewhere on your computer, never to be looked at again.
We are told over and over again not to let our egos get in the way of our work, not to take it personally. But what of other people getting in the way of our work?
James Killick puts it wonderfully in this blog post: Five Brutal Truths about Feedback on Writing. He points out that feedback and criticism from peers and writing groups may actually do more harm than good.
Many writing books say that we get upset about criticism because, “When you say you”re looking for feedback you’re actually looking for praise”. I disagree. I don’t think that all of us wannabe writers are seeking strokes to our egos (though they are nice when the occur). Often, I think, we’re genuinely seeking help. We want to know that our story is clear and how to make it clearer. We want problems identified so we can solve them.
But at what cost?
After I completed my first Nano novel, I handed it out to friends and when people seemed to enjoy it, I thought about writing a sequel. My friends were keen. Some wanted to know the plot I had in mind. I had it all worked out in my head until a particular phone-call when someone insisted adamently that it would be better if I set my plot the way she imagined it.
Filled with self-doubt, I never went back to it.
“In an attempt to be a serious writer (you may be amused) I decided to actively involve a friend or two in the writing process of Savant. It started with two people. The list has grown to 5 serious critics and 2 casual readers and I’m really, really regretting ever bringing it up. It’s not that these are cruel people who delight in my suffering (I think) but they just like to note what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, no one has agreed on any one thing, and the divergence in opinion has led me to believe that there isn’t anything that is commonly enjoyed about the text. Now I’m not entirely sure that should or should not be what I’ve striving for, but it has led to a conundrum and writing reluctance akin to taking a bottle full of heated caster oil.”
You see, it’s not about ego. It’s not about believing that you are better than everyone else. It’s actually, at least for me, the exact opposite. For who is to say that my opinion is right? Who is to say that my idea is good? That my story is worth telling?
The muse, I have discovered, is a delicate thing. It’s so easy for inspiration to become bogged down with rules and suggestions, to become twisted out of shape by other people’s expectations.
There’s no doubt that feedback can be a good thing, that it’s valuable to get advice from people we respect. But one thing I have learned through my own experiences is that criticism is not inherently constructive.
People are different, they like different things. Many people love Twilight… but that doesn’t mean I want my writing to be like Stephanie Meyer’s. People think that Lord of the Rings is amazingly well-written, but personally I don’t like pages of description of trees. I love the way that Harry Potter is told, many people say to me – often – that they don’t get what the fuss is about. One of my favourite books is Cry, the Beloved Country. I see it as beautifully written and filled with hope. Zoe thinks it is a racist piece of crap.
And what if I had written Cry, the Beloved Country? And in its first draft I had given it over to Zoe to read?
It would never have been published.
And yet, the published version – which I, sadly, did not write – has seen worldwide acclaim, been made into a movie twice, is studied in schools and universities and has an average of 4/5 stars on Google Books (out of 1123 reviews).
That’s not to say that Zoe has bad taste or anything. It’s just to say: different strokes for different folks.
And so, I have come to the conclusion that the truth about criticism is that actually any novel in progress does not need it. That’s not to say that we don’t need assistance, another set of eyes.
What we really need… is a troubleshooter.
The thing is, I often am the first to know when there’s something wrong with my story – even if I can’t put my finger on exactly what.
It’s much like the Microsoft Help Troubleshooter feature. If you have a problem with, say, a printer (because, come on, we’ve all had problems with printers in the past), you know there’s a problem: your pages are coming out blurry or not at all. You don’t need someone to stand by the printer, point to your document and tell you it’s not good enough.
So you dutifully go into the help files and the system gives you options: what problem are you having? Have you tried these solutions? Stop whenever the problem is fixed.
As a writer I may have doubts about my characters, questions about my point of view and be stuck at a crossroads with my plot. I may acknowledge that I need assistance. But what I know I don’t need is someone telling me how they would write my book, picking apart everything they would make better. Another thing I don’t need is a teacher who’s sitting there with a rule book for writing (“there’s too much exposition”, “your character is a Mary Sue”, “your plot is cliched”, “your dialogue is cheesey”). My own inner critic is perfectly capable of finding those problems.
This previous NanoWrimo my dad and I participated together and I was introduced to the troubleshooting system. My dad proved to be the ideal writing partner. We hammered away at our plots together, excitedly exchanging ideas. And when I had identified problems with my work, I could say to him “so… what do you think?” and he would go “Hmmm… maybe you could try X?”.
He would say, “I read somewhere that Y is a good technique”
Rather than “You should do Y instead of X”.
He would say “I’m really learning a lot about Z.”
Rather than, “Have you considered Z?”
I could say, “I’m not sure what to do about A”
Because I knew he wouldn’t give me the solution. His response would be “Maybe you could…” or “What if…” or “Well in my novel I…” and I would come to the solution myself.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to be said for that final look-over; for the second set of eyes that know nothing about the novel or the characters.
But in my opinion that should come last.
That should come after you’re completely happy with your novel. In terms of the process… in terms of producing the best work you’re capable of… I’d say finding your own problems is one of the best skills a writer can develop. And having someone to help you solve them? That’s fantastic.
What are your thoughts?