Archives: NaNoWriMo

World-building for dummies

 

 

No, this isn’t a post about the POTUS. It’s a request. I’m the world-building dummy in need of tutoring from writers (and avid readers) of sci-fi, dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels.

How do I create a believable world for a novel set in a climate-changed US that’s told from the point of view of three crows and one human? (The human has a supporting role.)

Yes, I’ve given myself a ridiculous challenge for my second book. What on earth was I thinking?

For my first book — a coming-of-age, young-adult novel tentatively titled The Leaving Year — I stayed close to home, setting my story in the Pacific Northwest where I live during a time period (the late 1960s) that I remember.

I still had to do a ton of research on commercial fishing, Southeast Alaska, Native Alaskans, Tlingit myths, fish processing, Filipino cannery workers and Sixties slang. (I refused to use the word “groovy,” even though I know it was used then. Groovy sounds like it belongs in a Sixties parody, and that wasn’t my goal.)

Suffice to say, it was a challenge trying to get it all right, and I still don’t know if I succeeded, but Book 1 was a black-and-white Kansas compared to the Technicolor Oz I will need to inhabit for Book 2.

Put myself in the minds of three crafty birds, each with distinctly different personalities, all fighting for survival? Sure, no problem. Have them flee a virus that also threatens humans? Bring it on.

Did I bite off more than I my little beak can hold? No duh.

I’m such a world-building neophyte that I didn’t know until recently there’s a name for the kind of book I want to write. It’s called “eco-fiction,” shorthand for ecologically oriented fiction. I had no idea, probably because I’ve never been all that into fantasy and sci-fi, although I loved all the Star Trek spinoffs and read the Harry Potter series to my sons.

Up until now, my writing has been grounded in reality, a holdover from my years as a newspaper reporter. Every piece of fiction I’ve attempted has been an exercise in letting go of that just-the-facts hardwiring.

I got the idea for what I call “the crow novel” well over a year ago. I read up on crows and climate change and pandemics, quickly becoming overwhelmed by the enormity of what I’d set out to do. The more I learned, the more a realized I didn’t know.

Then came National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days forced me to free my imagination and let it romp. I ended up with 47,000 words about a small family of crows torn apart by an advancing virus and wrathful humans, who think the birds are to blame.

I’ve since met the 50,000-word target (late, but oh well), which gives me about three-fourths of a child’s draft. It has potential, which is to say it’s not completely dreadful.

Imagining life as a crow in a warming world was fun when I didn’t have to nail down the picky little details, like setting.  In fact, I’ve yet to settle on a setting. My crows start off in a place based on my home-town of Seattle and end up traversing lakes and deserts, farms and suburbs, inner cities and mountain ranges. They’re literally and figuratively all over the place.

That’s fine for a first draft . . . which I’ve yet to complete. So maybe I’m jumping the gun here. My first order of business should be to finish, just shut-down my inner critic and barrel forward – accuracy and consistency be damned — until THE END.

Then I can go back to figure out and fill in all those pesky parts. Which brings me to ask the more experienced world-builders out there: Am I on the right track? What world-building hacks and strategies have worked for you?

If you’re a sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian reader (as opposed to writer), what books would you recommend for their awesomely awful worlds? Some favorites of mine:

Please share your thoughts below.

Photo credit: Torley Olmstead

Camp NaNoWriMo is my kind of roughing it

 

 

I participated in my first National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) last November and . . . not sure “loved” is the right word . . . Let’s just say I got caught up in the crazy, can-do spirit of it all and learned I can crank out the words if you give me a goal, encouragement, nifty progress charts and coffee — lots and lots of coffee.

This month, I’m doing Camp NaNoWriMo with the aim of whipping my first novel, The Leaving Year, into shape for a final (I really mean it this time) round of submissions. I’m about 100 pages into a tune-up of my protagonist’s character arc, which, according to one agent, slipped around too much.

So far so good. I’m enjoying the Camp, which organizers bill as “an idyllic writers retreat smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life.”

It’s more flexible and less intense than NaNoWriMo:  The November main event gives you one goal — a 50,000-word novel – while the camp allows you to set any bar (words, hours, pages, even lines) on any writing project.

And, just like NaNoWriMo, you get a lot of on-line goodies, including:

  • nifty progress charts
  • virtual write-ins
  • writing advice
  • writing forums
  • prompts and exercises
  • pep talks from published authors

The Camp theme is fun. Participants join virtual cabins with 19 like-minded others. Mine is a “mixed” cabin of writers working on drafting and revision. With project names like “Night of the Sasquatch,” “Ghosts” and “Becoming Dawn,” I know I’m in creative company. And best of all, nobody snores!

I should add that everything NaNo is FREE, but you are asked to contribute to the cause. Here’s a bit more about their mission and programs from the website:

National Novel Writing Month . . . believes your story matters. We know that writing makes the world a more creative, vibrant place. Through NaNoWriMo, Camp NaNoWriMo, and the Young Writers Program, we work hard to empower and encourage that vibrant creativity. And, we can’t do it without writers like you.

If you want to try Camp NaNo, but missed out this month, you can sign up for the second camp in July. By then, the sun and mosquitoes will be out, and you can make believe you’re doing the real thing.

So what’s your project or dream project? I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.

Answering hubby’s Qs about National Novel Writing Month

 

This is what my kitchen sink looked like on the last night of NaNoWriMo.

 

I apologize for not blogging in November, but I needed all the creative energy I could muster to write a novel in 30 days. Okay, I didn’t really do that, but I did pound out more than 47,000 words during NaNoWriMo.

Those of you familiar with the largest writing event in the world already know I fell a little short. To “win,” you have to write 50,000 words by midnight Nov. 30. Still, I’m happy to come away with a start on my second novel (albeit a sloppy one) and the realization that yes, I can write fast if I turn off the inner editor and just let ’er rip.

My NaNoWriMo "Dashboard"

NaNoWriMo page charting my progress

I’m not going to say too much about my novel in progress because I’m still discovering what it’s about, but I will tell you that it’s written from the point-of-view of crows against a backdrop of climate change and possibly a national pandemic.

My husband, Mark Funk, grew a little alarmed by my sudden obsession with pandemics, animal extinctions and under-water cities. So to reassure him and satisfy his curiosity, I asked him to write out some questions about NaNoWriMo for me to answer. (Mark, like me, is a former newspaper reporter so he asks really good questions.)

Q: Why on earth did you want to do this?

A: I saw NaNoWriMo as the perfect opportunity to blow through all my hesitancy and self-doubt and get a bunch of words down on my second novel. I also hoped to develop a healthier, more joyful writing habit. It’s really freeing to just write and let the characters and story take you where they will.  I ended up going to some surprising places. I also ended up with a lot of movie-cliché dialogue, but sometimes you have to plow through the bad to get to the good.

Q: Crows occupy the center stage in your book. Why crows? What attracts you to these birds and what do you think humankind might learn from them in the age of climate change?

A: The seed for this novel came from the BBC story on Gabi Mann, the Seattle girl who received gifts from the crows she fed out of her backyard.

It got me wondering what was going through the crows’ heads, and that led to the idea of writing a novel from the crows’ point of view. They’re so smart and funny, I knew I’d have fun creating the characters. Plus, they’re easy to observe. All I have to do is walk outside.

A story about crows is a story about our urban environment, and climate change seemed like a natural backdrop. Crows are expected to adapt to global warming better than most birds, but they aren’t immune. For example, they’re particularly susceptible to West Nile Virus, a mosquito-borne illness that has been linked to rising temperatures.

What can we learn from them? Crows are smart, social and adaptable. They’re also devoted and protective parents, as anyone who has been dive-bombed knows.  To combat global warming, we’re going to have to be smart, adaptable and better stewards of this earth.

Q: Talk a little about the pressure of trying to complete a 50,000-word novel in just 30 days.

It’s intense but doable. At first, I found it really hard to hit my daily minimum of 1,667 words, like I was scraping the bottom of the creative barrel. Some days I just didn’t have it in me and gave up. After the election, for example, I had to force myself back to the keyboard by telling myself my story was more important than ever.

As the month went on and I discovered the magic of timed “word sprints” (a nifty feature on the NaNoWriMo website), I found it much easier to not only hit the minimum, but exceed it.  On the final day, I wrote like the wind, putting down more than 6,000 words, but I couldn’t quite make up a 9,000-word deficit. Speaking of pressure, I found it really tough to get to sleep most nights — a combination of too much caffeine and not being able to turn off my brain.

Q: You weren’t alone in Seattle. More than 2,260 pursued their muse here. Tell us about the NaNo gatherings in our city.

A: I only went to three “write-ins”, two at the Wayward Coffeehouse in Roosevelt and one at the Greenwood Public Library. I enjoyed comparing notes with the two young women I met at the Wayward, but these meet-ups weren’t about socializing, they were about getting work done, and the participants I met were serious about that. At the Greenwood Library, I sat with one other woman in a small study room. I couldn’t help but notice that she was typing way more than I was – humbling. Afterwards, we introduced ourselves and have since traded emails promising to stay in touch.

I’m interested in meeting other writers, but I’m not sure I’m the sort who can get a lot done in a coffee house. I feel too self-conscious and I’m distracted by the other customers and their conversations. Maybe, with practice, this will come more naturally to me. I hope so because writing is lonely work.

Q: After November 8, your narrative, at least as described to me, seemed to blacken. It was as through a murder of crows had flown between the earth and sun, casting a long, dark shadow. Why the mood change after Nov. 8?

A: Ha! Need you ask? You live with me. Actually, my novel was always leaning towards the dark side: crows and climate change just don’t spark super happy thoughts. That said, my novel isn’t total gloom and doom. I would like for it to be hopeful. That’s my goal anyway.

Q: Will you participate next year?

A: If I have a strong idea for another novel or if I’m still working on this one, then yes. I couldn’t start NaNo with a blank slate. I’m not that creative.

Q: Did you notice that I started to grow a beard just before Thanksgiving?

Mark and his "beard"

Mark and his “beard”

A: No.

 

 

Ready . . . Set . . . NaNoWriMo!

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I may not be able to keep up my blistering pace of two blog posts a month next month because I will be trying to churn out – gasp – 50,000 words.

Yep, I signed up for National Novel Writing Month this year even though I am quite possibly the slowest experienced writer on the planet, or maybe because I am the slowest . . .

It took me about five years, give or take, to complete my first novel, The Leaving Year, which I’m now shopping around to prospective agents and small publishers.

A brief update: Two of the four agents who asked to read all or part of the novel have since declined it, but one called my story “quite compelling.” I haven’t heard back from the others.

Anyway, I need to move on to Novel 2, if only to distract myself from waiting on Novel 1.

I’ve done some research. I have a premise and several pages of notes. But I haven’t started writing.

NaNoWriMo, I hope, will light a fire under my butt, incinerating my procrastinating inner naysayer in the process. This naysayer/critic/editor, whatever you want to call it, has no business butting in while I’m writing my first draft, but I have a hard time silencing her.

That’s one reason it took me so long to write Leaving Year. I was editing and rewriting and wallowing in despair before I had the whole story down – a big no-no if you actually want to finish the damn thing.

It took all my will to finish. That, and the fact that I had told too many people what I was doing.

I wouldn’t recommend my process. I didn’t really have one. No outline. No plan. No routine. I pantsed (an actual writing term meaning to fly by the seat of one’s pants) it the whole way, and was often so overwhelmed or discouraged that I’d do almost anything, including scoop dog poop, to put off facing it.

A wildly productive day for me was 500 (new) words – words that I’d often end up cutting or editing the following day.

With NaNoWriMo, I won’t be able to do that. To complete 50,000 words in 30 days, I’ll have to average 1,667 words a day. The goal is creation not perfection or even quality. I’ll have gag my naysaying critic or send her packing to, say, Antarctica. She seriously needs to chill out.

Even if I don’t get to 50,000 words by 11:59:59 p.m. on Nov. 30, I hope to have developed a healthier, more joyful writing habit by then. That alone will make this crazy project well worth the time and effort.

I’d love to hear from anybody out there who has written a novel or the start of a novel in November. How did it go for you? Do you have any tips for this NaNoWriMo newbie?

NaNoWriMo Fun Facts

  • Nearly half a million people are expected to participate this year in what has become the largest writing event in the world.
  • Chris Baty started the project in 1999 with 21 friends in the San Francisco Bay area.
  • The month was changed from July to November “to more fully take advantage of the miserable weather.”
  • More than 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published, including Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.

 

Photo credit: Steven Bedard