Q & A On NaNoWri Mo

In which I interview myself on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

What are you doing National Novel Writing Month* this year, Deborah?
Cheering on my friends. I’ll be finishing up revisions on the next Darkover novel, Arilinn.  Revising is a very different process from drafting. I find that drafting goes better when I do it quickly, so I don’t get caught in second-guessing myself or editing as I write. Both are recipes for disaster and paralysis. Revising, on the other hand, does not reliably produce any measurable result in terms of pages or words. I dive into it and call it quits every day when my brain won’t function any longer.

How does NaNoWriMo compare to real writing?
Writing is writing! Every writer does it a little differently, and I think most of us change from project to project and also over the course of our careers. Challenges, whether novel-length or short-length, can be fun or oppressive, pointless, or a marvelous way to jump-start a new story.

Doesn’t it bother you when hundreds of thousands of people every year turn your career, the dream job you’ve worked at for 16 years, into some kind of game?
You say “game” as if it’s a bad thing. If some aspect of writing isn’t fun — and there are wonderful professional writers who hate to write but love to have written — then why do it? The community-building that happens during NaNoWriMo is one of its more attractive aspects. Writing is a solitary activity, so it’s wonderful to have those “hundreds of thousands” of compadres cheering you on.

Sorry. Do you think it’s possible to write a good novel in 30 days?
Yes and no. Some writers can produce a solid first draft in a month, so that’s the yes part. On the other hand, I’m skeptical of any first draft, no matter how long it takes, being “a good novel.” I suppose some writers do so much planning and so much reflection on each sentence that their first drafts-on-paper are really third-drafts-in-the-mind. In the end, though, the goal is not to produce a good novel but to write quickly and and consistently and to push through to the end.

Isn’t the emphasis on quantity over quality a bad thing, teaching participants to write crap?
Most writers don’t need to be taught how to write crap. We do that very nicely all on our own, thank you. However, writing challenges can teach us to get the story down on paper (or phosphors), which is a necessary first step to a polished final draft. The rewards of actually finishing a novel draft, no matter how much revision it will need, should not be underestimated. Even if that novel is indeed crap, it is finished — the writer now knows that he or she is capable of completing it. That in itself is worth celebrating.

Another thought on crap. If you aren’t writing it and you never have, you aren’t doing your job. You aren’t taking chances or pushing edges or just splatting out what’s in the back of your semi-conscious mind. You are allowing your inner critic to silence your creative spirit.

Eric Rosenfield says NaNoWriMo’s whole attitude is “repugnant, and pollutes the world with volumes upon volumes of one-off novels by people who don’t really care about novel writing.
I seriously doubt that what is wrong with this world is the surfeit of aspiring novelists. And I can’t imagine why anyone would put herself through NaNoWriMo if she didn’t ‘care about novel writing.’ Good grief, if you want to be irate about Bad Things In The World, there are plenty of issues out there, things that actually impact people’s health, liberty, and lives. Too many one-off novels is not one of them.

Well, what about Keith DeCandido’s post, wherein he says NaNoWriMo has nothing to do with storytelling; it teaches professionalism and deadlines, and the importance of butt in chair?
Can storytelling be taught? I’m not sure. Yep to the other parts.

Fine, what do you think NaNoWriMo is about?
Why is it about anything than a community of people hell-bent on crash’n’burning their way through a short novel in a month? That makes more sense than it being a nefarious conspiracy.

Any last words of advice, Ms. Very Important Author?
I’d love there to be a parallel track for those of us who have other deadlines, such as revisions or finishing in-progress novels. Certainly FiMyDaNo (Finish My Damned Novel) fits the bill, and I encourage anyone in mid-draft to jump in. Revisions, at least mine, mean taking notes, cogitating, making flow charts of structure, correcting maps, ripping out chunks and shoving them around, not to mention generating piles of new prose. These all count. The thing with revisions is that sometimes a lot of thinking and a small amount of actual wordage change — if it’s the right change — counts for a solid day’s work. It’s exhausting, too. So maybe the goal is, “I will think about my revisions every day this month.” 

Okay, Ms. Interviewer, if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, what are your goals for this month?

*November 1 – November 30

National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo is a month-long creative writing challenge that takes place every November. During the month participants from all over the world are challenged to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel.

Reading (and Writing) Warily

Somewhere fairly recently I was in a conversation with someone (can you tell I cannot for the life of me remember when, or with whom, the conversation occurred?) about the why of writing. The person I was talking with spoke pretty definitively about why writers write, and while her points (I can remember it was a woman I was speaking with, maybe by the time I finish this post I’ll remember her name) were valid, I thought they were also limited. As if she could not imagine reasons to write that were not hers. Which is the crux of why I write. I’m trying to figure out why people do what they do. It’s why I read, too: to understand.

I am the daughter of an alcoholic, which comes (at least for me) with a certain number of good and bad sequelae. One of those is a certain wariness, and the ability to zig and zag given immediate circumstances. Another, for good or ill, is to set up a series of actions, and create a story that explains why my characters complete those actions. Continue reading “Reading (and Writing) Warily”

Story Matrices, History and Fiction, and why I wrote them

There is a constant buzz around concerning new books, old books, favourite books.

I’m part of that buzz. I write about books all the time. I analyse story and describe narrative. If I were someone who was confident about her work, I’d tell everyone my list of things to consider for prizes, but I’m not, and my big work this year is a little book, Story Matrices, looking at story and how we transmit culture through it. For me, its big achievement is that I’ve finally managed to find a way of explaining important things so that writers and editors can work with some terribly important concepts. Too many have (in my presence) said “I can’t handle this” about these ideas. Some still will say that they can’t handle things.” But writers are now coming up to me and saying, “I think I understand.” They understand how culture can be more safely tackled in fiction. They understand how to weave culture into their writing, just as people who read History and Fiction could see how history is used and what research for story is all about and…

I spend so much of my life trying to understand and then explain, that these two books are very important to me. What I want is people to read them and to argue with them and to annotate them and to find their own understanding of story. I want readers and critics to take what I’ve described and say “But” and “I can do better than this” and “Wait, I have an idea!”

Awards help people find the book they want to read next (so nominate the books you want seen), but the biggest reward of all is someone reading my books. Intelligently, Argumentatively. Not arguing with me, but with what I’ve written. Finding their own path through this argument.

All my books are meant to be read actively. Maybe not all with argument – that’s the academic books – but with criticism and thought and feeling. And…

Maybe it’s time to do a blog series that introduces all my books. Today you’ve had Story Matrices and History and Fiction. Short academic works that people tell me are surprisingly readable. Over and over again I am told this. Every time, I hope that this means that the person telling me has frowned over one page and laughed at a comment and taken notes to find a book I mentioned and said, at some point, “Yes, this is what I needed to read right now.” And then they put the book down and think about what it says and how that applies to their favourite writers. And to their least favourite. And to the book they’re reading because the book club says to. And to the book they got from the library by mistake. And to the book their favourite bookseller says “You really need to read this.”

I love readers who think for themselves and have their own opinions. I won’t agree with all their opinions, just as they won’t agree with all of mine, but it’s such a joy to hear them. Of all my books, the two that were written to provoke interesting discussions are Story Matrices and History and Fiction. They’re short on character and plot, and long on research, but that’s fine, other kinds of books have character and plot.

I love it that some books are read because they’re like others and are comfortable, and we read others because they pull us into new worlds and light up our minds with concepts and humour. I’m not sure whether authors are the right people to describe their own books, but … I’m going to try. This post is the first in a series that may well last right up until the next author interview.

A Few Thoughts on Technology and Transitions

It’s always amazing and heartening how much inspiration we can draw from the next generation, whether they are our own children or someone else’s. In my personal life, my younger daughter dragged me, kicking and screaming, into the world of social media, into getting my first stupidphone, and later into video chatting (during her  years of medical school on the other side of the country). Now these technologies are part of my everyday and work life. They’ve saved my sanity during the pandemic.

I think it’s good to keep learning new things, to use our minds and bodies in different ways. One of the challenges of these new computer-based technologies is that they require us to use different methods of thought. The transition, for example, from keyboard-based word processing programs (like WordStar for DOS, the one I first used) to graphics-based (Windows) programs entailed a different logic and hand coordination. And both of them are a far cry from the typewriter I used to write my first published stories.

My very first stories (actually, my first umpteen attempts at novels) were written by hand in composition books or on scratch paper. I remember reading an interview with the British mystery writer Dick Francis, in which he described writing in ink in composition books (and that it had never occurred to him that a story, once written, could be revised!) so the method is definitely a time-honored one. Once I learned to type (in high school, on those really heavy manual typewriters) that became my preferred method, although when my children were small, I always carried a spiral-bound notebook on which to work on the Story of the Day in odd moments. Retyping a revision was a major chore, since I had to do it myself. I became expert in the application of white correction fluid. At least carbon copies were no longer necessary, but I had to take my finished manuscript to a copy shop because in those days no one owned a home copier.

I am of several minds about whether the ease of making changes as I go, being able to print out a manuscript at any stage, and so forth, have really changed how I write. I love the saying that the most important word processor is your brain. Perhaps I splat over the page, as it were, more spontaneously when I use a computer just because it’s so easy to tidy up my prose later.

That can be a good thing as I follow whatever wacky idea pops into my mind. Some of them are truly best expunged but others are quite juicy. In some ways I am more focused now than in 30 or 40 years ago; I know much more about how to put a story together, even if it isn’t one I’ve outlined.

Having multiple writing media available to me is a great thing. I often go back and forth when I’m stuck, especially between dictating and typing or typing and longhand. Dictation using voice recognition software is especially great for dialog or speeches (can you see me acting out the parts of the various characters?) Just as we don’t all write in the same way, I don’t write in the same way all the time. Sometimes words flow and then I want the medium that allows me to best keep up with them. But other times I’m stuck (or sulky, or distracted, or tired) and switching can help get things rolling again.

In the end, though, the only version that matters is the one in the hands of the reader.

Do You Outline Your Novel? Should You?

It cannot be repeated often enough that there is no single right way to write a novel (or to compose a symphony or design a house). All these artistic endeavors require certain elements (plot, characters, tension rising to a climax, or motif and variations, harmony, contrast, or foundation, walls, plumbing, etc.) They vary in the point in the creative process at which those crucial elements must be in place, of course. Within those parameters, there’s a great deal of flexibility that allows for individual differences. What matters is not when a writer nails down the turning points, but that they are present and in balance with the rest of the book when it ends on the editor’s desk.

Many writers attempt their first novels by the “seat-of-the-pants” method, that is, writing whatever pops into their heads. Sometimes they end up with dead ends (disguised as “writer’s block”) and don’t finish the work. Other times, they do finish, only to discover (either through their own perceptions or feedback from others) that the book has significant problems. So they write another draft and go through the same process until either the story works or they become so frustrated they give up, or they refuse to accept further critiques and self-publish it.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a spontaneous approach to the first draft. A good deal of the pleasure of writing is in discovery, in not knowing what will come next as the adventure unfolds. This is how children play. It does require a separate editorial, self-critical phase, at least for most of us. That’s neither good nor bad, it’s just part of the process. If you want to “pants” your first draft, you accept that you’re going to have to revise. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. Some writers loathe revision. I happen to love it.

At some point, it occurs to many of us that if we maybe thought about what was going to happen in our novel and how we were going to portray it, that we might save ourselves a bit of revision time. We might even jot down a few notes, reminding ourselves that this is just a tentative sketch and that nothing is carved in granite. We may and most certainly do change our minds when we discover that the actual story has diverged significantly from our strategy. I’ve been known to rework my notes, negotiating the borderlands between spontaneous writing and ill-thought-out plan. Continue reading “Do You Outline Your Novel? Should You?”