Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Block of Granite

From today's NaNoWriMo pep talk email:
"You know how hard it is to get granite out of the quarry? You have to carefully score the rock and put the explosive in to make the great granite block break loose from the face of the stone. Then you have to attach the block to the chains so that the cranes can lift it slowly out of the hole a nd put it on the waiting truck. That’s the first draft. It’s hard, dangerous work, and when you’ve finished, all you’ve really got is a block of stone. But now you have something now to work on. Now you can take your block down to the shed to carve and polish it and turn it into something of beauty. That’s revision."

– Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia
Great advice on not killing yourself over a bad first draft.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The 50,000-Word Monster

It's November. The weather gets brisk, the leaves turn those lovely colors I look forward to every year, and families join together in love and fellowship.

Thanksgiving? Nah. It's NaNoWriMo!

While we were basking in a nice afternoon on a family outing, one of Shell's friends, Lydia, mentioned that she had signed up for this year's NaNoWriMo. The National Novel Writing Month is a group event that challenges participants to write an entire novel in only 30 days. You can do all the research and prep work you want before November 1st, but you're only allowed to actually write it during the month of November. Not the best month to pick for writing a novel, but I think it's an absolutely fantastic idea, on which I'll elaborate in a minute.

Apparently Shell also thought this was a great idea. I knew this because after Lydia explained it, she sat bolt upright and said, "Wow! What a great idea. I think I'll do it, too." She's been wanting to write a western and I think she'd do a fantastic job of it. She has a keen sense of the genre and knows what makes a good tale of the old West. I guess she just needed the peer pressure to get to the liftoff stage.

And that's exactly what gives the NaNoWriMo concept its mojo. Peer pressure. The way it works is this: you register for a free account on the NaNoWriMo site, then enter some details about the book you plan to write. You actually start writing your pages no earlier than 12:00am November 1st. Once you begin writing, you post your progress on the site by entering your current word count. As an added bonus, you can create writing buddy lists -- friends who, like you, are trying to finish their books before the 30-day deadline. Basically, it's the same buddy system that makes Weight Watchers and AA work so well. It's called public commitment.

When you set a goal for yourself and keep it to yourself, it's remarkably easy to procrastinate, fudge the deadline, or just drop the project altogether. You piddle away at it for a bit then get stuck on something like a story issue or a problem with character motivation -- or your own motivation. So you walk away, returning a week later just to delete your weak attempt and move on to something else you'll likely abandon later. But tell a few people what you're working on and you've created outside interest. You've made an audience. Someone else is now looking forward to one day reading your work. Go one step further and tell them your deadline and you really have someone to answer to. They're expecting you to finish and they want to see pages on a certain date. And if they really care about your project, they'll ask you for updates along the way.

"How many pages have you done?"

"Do you think you'll be done by the 30th?"

"Two weeks left? You'd better get cracking, slacker."

Annoying? Yep. But the folks at NaNoWriMo have made the journey a little more enjoyable with things like local "pep rallies" and encouraging emails. And if, like me, you prefer screenwriting, their sister site, Script Frenzy, offers the same kind of group support to get you to a completed screenplay in 30 days. Unfortunately, the annual Script Frenzy event starts in April so all you screen scribes will have to wait. Or maybe not.

Even if writing a novel isn't your bag, you can still participate in a publicly committed writing project. Just plan out a story, tell a few friends what you're up to, and get to work. Be sure to give yourself a deadline - two weeks, thirty days, three months. Pick a time span in which you think you can reasonably finish a script and hack some time off of it. You don't have to wait for some web site to tell you to start. Remember, it's peer pressure and the challenge of a tight deadline that gets you moving.

Now, I've never had the urge (or the cojones) to write a novel, but I'm giving it a shot, even though I'm starting really late in the game. I have a great script idea and wanted to try developing it as a treatment first. A really long treatment. Here's hoping we meet on the other side of our deadlines with something truly awesome.