Nancy: Learning New Tricks

New TricksA piece of writing advice you’ve probably heard is to make writing a habit. There’s a reason for that. We humans respond well to habits. Once we’ve developed them, habits are the well-worn road, the known quantity. Habits trigger our brain to do the same thing because, hey, we’ve done this so many times before, we know it’s safe. So writing every day, at the same time, in the same place, maybe wearing your ‘creativity pants’ (mine look a lot like pajamas), trains your brain that when I do A, it is time for you to do B, B being write the damn book.

But for all their usefulness, habits can be a double-edged sword. Habits can lead to ruts. Ruts can crush creativity. And before you know it, you’re writing the same stel things over and over, making the same mistakes, or worse – staring at a blank page. If this has happened to you, it’s time to mix things up. Write somewhere new. Change the time you write (or add another block of writing time to your daily writing time). Even do the unthinkable – put on pants!

Whether you need to create a new writing habit or breathe life into a stale old one, NaNoWriMo can be a great tool for doing it. The high (for most non-full-time writers) word count encourages us to devise ways get our butts in chairs if not daily, then on a pretty regular basis. But that high word count also encourages us to turn off our inner editors, work without a net, and just throw story against the page to see what sticks. Add to that the NaNo community (available online and at lots of official write-ins at libraries and coffee shops), word sprint challenges, virtual write-ins, and the chance to cavort about with other story-crazed weirdos for a month, and you can lots of ways to unstick your habit-soaked writer’s brain.

My reason for participating in NaNo this year was to clean up my writing hygiene (not to be confused with normal hygiene. Remember, WriMos, showers are important, even during November!). I had fallen out of anywhere close to a regular writing habit. It had become haphazard and binge-y, and while I continued to brain work on my books each day, that can’t replace actual finger work, where one sits down and types words onto a page in some semblance of order so as to approximate a story. I needed to get close to writing every day, even if, at the end of the month, I have to dial that back to something that works better for me, like bigger blocks of time three times a week, or all day on a weekend. But I also needed to get out of my own head and out of my own way. Watching the little word counter at the bottom of my page gives me incentive to do that. Yes, that’s a stupid trick, but sometimes our brains are stupid, and they respond to stupid tricks. Having the accountability of posting that word count daily for all my fellow WriMos to see adds external incentive, another thing that lures our brain into trying new (and potentially dangerous!) things.

So far, so good. We’re less than a third of the way through the month, and I’ve added almost 17,000 words to my novella. More importantly, that means I’ve actually finished the first draft of the novella. This has not only led to much happy dancing because Yay! First draft! It’s a horrible piece of crap but I can fix that! It’s also allowed me to add a new writing trick to my magic box. You see, I’ve never written a novella before. I’d venture to say I’ve never written an honest-to-god short story before, either. Not really. Not one that actually, you know tells a story, with its own beginning, middle and end, or some other fancy-pants structure. So turning off my inner editor as well as my inner planner, who wanted so desperately to add subplots and expand secondary characters and lead me down rabbit holes, allowed me to just finish the damn (short) book! And lest you think I’m done for November and can just go back to daydreaming (aka brain work), I also have about 40,000 words of a novel left to write, so something to keep me occupied for the next 21 days of NaNo.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, consider using it to form some good new habits and to dig yourself out of some ruts. If you’re not participating, all is not lost! You can start your own writing habit any day of any week of any month of the year. You can also look for new ways to goose your creativity – do writing exercises and challenges (Elizabeth’s weekly sprints, anyone?), organize or attend a writers’ retreat, read up on other writers’ processes and try on a few to see how they fit you. Who knows – maybe by the end of 2015, or the end of November, or even the end of next week, you might have completed your first draft of your next great thing, and then we can happy dance together!

So, how’s it going? Making any great new habits? Learning any fun new writing tricks of your own?

5 thoughts on “Nancy: Learning New Tricks

  1. I’m not doing NaNo, but I did learn this past week at Immersion that I need to MAKE writing a habit. I need to be doing it every day, at least once a day. If I’m not touching my story, I fall too far out of it and then, instead of spending time writing, I spend time getting back into my story. What a waste! Besides, if I’m out of it one day, it’s easier to get out of it a second day, a third day, etc. You see where that goes!

    So while I don’t have word count goals or anything like that for the rest of the month, I do have “touch it” goals — touch my story every day. Which I’m about to do right now!

    • That’s a great plan! I have done well this year with the goal to ‘touch’ my stories every day, but I’m afraid the definition of ‘touch’ got looser as the year progressed. So now I’m setting both ‘touch’ and ‘type’ goals for myself.

      I can’t wait to hear more about your immersion class! I hope you’ll share info in a post soon.

  2. Hear, hear – I’d love to hear all about the Immersion class.

    I just got back to my WIP after a month off to deal with Life, and I can confirm that it’s taking me time to get my head back into the story. I’m slow, too – hoping I can build up some momentum soon. I don’t intend to let this happen ever again if I can possibly help it.

    • I’m glad Life is being kinder now and giving you time to get back to your story! My next NaNo project I’ll be tackling will require a bit more getting back in touch. But since the novella is set in the same world and begins introducing the characters, I’m not that far removed from it.

  3. I normally love throwing myself into a NaNo, but I’ve run into the research wall with this story. I am having so much fun researching the damn thing, and it’s more fun to do than actually write.

    And to make matters worse on the writing front, the research really does pay off. I had a 2000 word run on Saturday. Excellent scene with a lot of potential! Two hours spent doing that makes writing worth everything we go through.

    But it also triggered a spurt of research on the New York Metropolitan Opera House. That place has gone through a lot of renovations, and I have to find images and articles from a very specific time. I think it was destroyed by fire in August 1893, and then went through some major renovations in 1902. So I have a decade window to look at. If I want to be accurate.

    And let me say, I do take liberties. Great liberties. But I want that base of essentially accurate to shine through and make my world-building seem more solid and complete. Some things I can change. But muddling with the staircase to the box seats? That feels very bad to me.

    Oh well, it’s a learning experience. I will appreciate pure fantasy and science fiction more when I can make up all the details myself. I feel like I’m learning which real-life details are important in fiction.

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