Work in Progress

I’m currently working on two novels, and I thought I’d share a bit about them here.

The first is a collaboration with another writer, and that’s progressing steadily – we meet once or twice a week to plot and draft, and we aim to have draft one ready by New Year’s Eve. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this isn’t going to happen, but we haven’t set a new goal yet, so New Year’s Eve it is 🙂

This one is urban fantasy/detective type novel, featuring a new species of humans. The novel’s set in Denmark and Bialowieza in Poland, so we’re both on our home turf and out to sea writing this, since none of us have been to Poland. Fortunately we’ve had good help from one of my collaborator’s friends, who comes from Warsaw.

The second novel is an old monster with which I’ve been in an abusive relationship since 2009. It’s been locked down on a hard drive, it’s been revised, it’s been read by my writing group, it’s been shelved, and it’s been rewritten again and again.

Recently I figured out what to do with it, though. The main character never really had a voice of his own before, but lately I’ve been able to hear him speak in my head, and that has made his story much easier to write. So round about now, the book is becoming readable, page by page, and I even think it’s exciting to write it again.

I have two additional novel projects lying around, but I’m not working on them at the moment.

One of them is a YA novel in Danish, for which I just got a favorable batch of notes from beta readers. I’m still waiting for two sets of comments, but sometime this year I’m going to do a relatively quick revision and send it to a Danish publisher. An average publisher in Denmark receives about 800 manuscripts a year, and some of them publish only a handful or two. I’ll brave the odds and post about progress when there’s more news.

The fourth novel is thoroughly on standby for now, but it’s a new and dear friend whom I’m looking forward to spending more time with. I’ve only met this story twice, during NaNoWriMo in 2015 and 2017, but we’re getting along really well. And once I’m done with the other three projects, I’m going to finish the tale of how three very different people deal with being enslaved by a race of aliens who are also saving us from annihilation.

NaNoWriMo Experiences

You learn new things when you leave your comfort zone, and that’s just what I did while participating in this year’s National Novel Writing Month. I thought I’d share my experiences in case anyone wanted inspiration for increasing their productivity.

But what is National Novel Writing Month (orNaNoWriMo for short), and how does it put you under pressure? Well, it’s a challenge that takes place every November, and the goal is simple yet not easily attained: Write 50,000 words of fiction in 30 days.

Officially, those words are supposed to become a novel, but nobody is looking over your shoulder. You do it for the challenge, and if you end up writing an epic poem instead of a novel, you still win. Even if you only write 10,000 or 25,000 words, it’s progress on your writing project. You won’t get a winner’s certificate, but that’s not the point. The point is to write more and push your limits.

50,000 words amounts to 1,667 words every day, or if you’re like me and don’t write on weekends, it’s 2,272 words per weekday. For some, that may be a piece of cake, but for me it means I have to push myself beyond my usual writing pace.

So what did I learn?

1 – Forcing Productivity Increases Creativity

You have to know where your story is going to write it, right?

Except, during NaNoWriMo you may running short of material and good ideas during the process. Perhaps you wrote down all the good ideas, or perhaps the plot took an unexpected turn, leaving you with an outline that no longer makes sense.

On those days, I nevertheless sat down and reread what I had written yesterday, and started typing new words. And sometimes, the most outrageous ideas would arise after I had typed for a while. I would suddenly know how to solve a problem that I’d struggled with by deviating from the plan, and this would take the story in directions I hadn’t even wondered about before.

These sparks were usually connected to new insights about the characters and the worldbuilding rather than plot, but that didn’t matter. When I found new depths in the characters, they’d also face their situation in a new way, and that led to unexpected plot twists.

Sometimes nothing new came from all that typing. However, the great thing about NaNoWriMo is that every word counts, and if you end up writing something that’s not a good fit for the story, you can always start that scene over, or make up a new one. Getting the ‘wrong’ scene out of the system paves the way for the ‘right’ scenes.

So you can’t write bad words during NaNoWriMo. You can only write words. That takes away the frustration that usually hits me if I’ve worked an entire day on a scene that I suspect I’ll have to throw out later.

2 – Listen to Your Mind

A few days into NaNoWriMo I found that I could stop typing, but I couldn’t put my mind on hold. The creative energies were boiling even when I wasn’t writing. Brilliant!

I’m used to having ideas pop up and demand to be written. Grasping those idea when they surface is actually a skill I’ve tried to hone over the years, because the better ideas often rise up from the subconscious — all have to do is listen to them. During NaNoWriMo, I learned to listen just a little harder, and I think I became a little better at catching those subconscious curveballs. This is extremely useful for a writer, and I can still feel the benefit from this even though NaNoWriMo is over.

There’s a trade-off to being this deeply immersed in a project though. I’m much less sociable when I’m in my own headspace. During November I could feel my mind wandering when I was with other people, and for me that’s not a healthy habit, so I’m also glad it’s only NaNoWriMo once a year.

3 – Work Smarter Not Harder

I’m usually somewhat impatient with my work. When I write something, I want to finish it, get it out of the way and work on the next project. Finish a scene, finish a short story, finish a novel, just finish it. But I already knew that I wouldn’t finish the novel in November (it’ll be about 110-120K words in all), so I might as well adjust my expectations and try out a new way of working.

For me, working differently this November meant switching between projects several times per day.

Early in November I decided to alternate between two novels. The result was that I wrote about 10,000 words on a co-written project and 40,000 words on a solo project.

I also switched between scenes. My solo project has three point of view characters, so I could always switch to a different way of seeing the world if I got stuck.

In effect I threw away my impatience–never mind finishing a scene today, I could always do that tomorrow. Both types of switcheroo worked like a charm. Getting into a different mindset proved refreshing, and often resulted in a new burst of words. I’d do this perhaps four times per day, ending up with chunks of 400-700 words every time, and sometimes more.

It’s a practice I’ve chosen to continue in December, and it works like a charm. Maybe it’s because I had a ton of minor projects waiting for me after November, but it still feels more efficient.

4 – Timing is everything  

Around mid-November I had fallen a little behind, and so my daily word count had to go up if I were to make it. And if 2,272 words per day look intimidating, try looking at 2,600.

For this I turned to the Pomodoro technique of writing 25 minutes at a time, followed by a break. This had the nice effect of breaking the work into manageable chunks, because anyone can write for 25 minutes, right? It turned out I could, at least, and those sessions typically yielded 4-500 words. Suddenly all I had to do was write 5-6 times a day. While this was still high-intensity work, it nevertheless became much easier.

Incidentally, once I started timing those sessions, I discovered that my attention would start to wander after 22-23 minutes of writing, so taking a break turned out to be a good idea.

In conclusion, I can say that I’ll be using what I’ve learned in the year to come – and that I hope to be under considerably less pressure.

And also, if you have any productivity tricks up your sleeve, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Choosing what to Write (Instead of Writing)

Since January I’ve been working almost exclusively on a YA project in Danish, which is a bit removed from the US writing world. My daughter wanted a story, and I had one in the back of my head that seemed just right for the occasion.

That novel is now finished, and my daughter got to be first reader (of course). She liked it, thought the ending was really exciting, and was well entertained throughout, so I’m counting that as a huge success. And even better, she wasn’t too shy to point out my typos. I’ll make a grammar nerd of her yet 🙂

So what’s next? Finishing the YA novel and getting it off to a publisher has first priority, but while it makes the rounds to three or four other readers, I have to choose between a lot of other writing projects. So I’m weaving back and forth between committing to one of the following projects:

• Finish this round of revisions on a Space Opera Monster — which means rewriting a number of scenes from scratch because the existing scenes don’t make sense after the first half of the story was revised. They’re also out of synch because the revision so far has developed some actual personality in the characters, so their current actions and choices no longer make sense… I’ve been working on this story for a long, long time. I ought to just get it over and done with, but it’s also quite painful to go through it again and again. But the thing is, there’s a collective of characters that I really like, and a story about genocide and space colonialism gone wrong that’s exciting to tell.

• It would also be a lot of fun to devote myself full time to that new collaborative project with my writing buddy Mette. At WorldCon she and Arly Sorg talked about undead who lose their memories, and we have developed the perfect setting for a supernatural mystery that will bring this idea to life. And there’s shiny worldbuilding to develop and characters to flesh out, and a mystery to concoct, and it’s all new and glorious, so woohoo? Right. Except we’ve started the actual writing, and it’s not exactly looking like the notes in our heads, so at the moment I’m accusing my imagination of overselling the project. But I’m writing for an audience (of one, so far) and that feels… surprisingly glorious! And shared burdens are half burdens, so I wonder if this isn’t what I’ll be doing for the foreseeable future.

• Well, of course I also have a new short story and a novelette I should be finishing. They’re both more than halfway done, so they shouldn’t take too long to write. Right? Right! Because it’s not like I write short stories at half the speed I write novels, is it? And it doesn’t help that one of them is a story where chronology has ceased to matter… which makes it somewhat difficult to keep track of… but also fun to write… but difficult… but at least easier to finish than a novel, right?

• Did I mention that I spent two consecutive nanowrimos cooking up 80.000 words of another space opera novel? I looked it over recently, and it’s actually pretty good. In shambles, of course, and about 30.000 words from completion, but hey, I really should finish this. November’s coming up, so maybe this is where I’m going.

And meanwhile, back in the batcave, my mind is producing new ideas every week, every one of them more glorious and alluring than the next, and I really have no other way to deal with them than put them on a list of ideas.

I’ll figure it out, but I can’t help wonder if I’m the only writer with this problem.

Sometimes Writing Is…

Whether you’re writing a short story or a six part series, there’s no substitute for words. You need them, and you need them on the page in at least a semblance of order. You use them to shape a story, to write the important scenes, and to flesh out your characters with actions, choices and dialogue. After many, many words you end up with a story.

I love this part of writing. It comes relatively easy to me, and when I can write several days in a row without interruption, I get things done quite quickly. My daily goal is 1000 words, but often I end up with more. That’s what I’ve been doing the past few weeks, and I estimate that I’m about halfway through a middle grade novel about kids fighting monster surveillance on their school.

It’s easy to get in the zone with this story, and I think it’s because I’ve had the main character in the back of my head for nearly three years. I know him pretty well, and I know what he would do in most situations.  Moreover, I know his friends and his problems and his enemies, and figuring out how he solves his problems is quite fun.

Getting words on paper depends on my ability to ignore the nagging voices in the back of my head saying that the first draft sucks, or that no one is ever going to read the story, or that I could be using my life to do something much better. You have to ignore those voices. I mean, imagine a bus driver having that kind of doubts when driving . “Someone’s going to run a red light and hit the bus, so I better pull over.” That’s not going to get anyone anywhere, so the driver ignores those doubts, and so do I.

For me, doubts are always easier to ignore when drafting new material. Revising stories is where it becomes really difficult, because I start looking for all the mistakes I’ve made and all the things that suck.

But that’s a problem for later. Right now I’m writing a first draft, and I’m really enjoying it. Writing is always work, but sometimes it feel like really fun work.