Not for the first time, it’s been dawning on me lately that my status as a millennial writer may be putting me at something of a competitive disadvantage.
I’m not referring to my relative (though rapidly disappearing thanks to student loans and the looming inevitable death of all we hold dear) youth, or the metric ton’s worth of crappy expectations and stereotypes previous generations have dumped upon mine. I’m simply pointing out that my patience level is, shall we say, not high. In this business, that’s not exactly an asset.
“Come on, come on, it’s been like half a day already. Has she seen my e-mail? Surely she’s seen my e-mail. Read the query, read the query, READ THE QUERY, READTHEQUERYREADTHEQUERYREADTHEQUERY!”
It’s just so freaking easy nowadays for millennial writers like me to click back and forth between windows, hitting “refresh” on blog stat trackers and e-mail inboxes every 30 seconds.
“What do you mean there’s only been 10 pageviews so far? That was a brilliant post! How do all those spam marketing sites with people who can’t write in English get so much flipping traffic, anyway?”
We may be getting a tad obsessive. Also, that little nervous habit is cutting way too much into our writing time.
There is no way I would have survived trying to make a career of writing back in the good old days when everything always got lost in the mail both ways. If I make a change to the blog settings, my brain does know that it’s unrealistic to expect such minute tweaking to instantly boost my readership. Does that ever stop me from frantically doing CPR compressions on my refresh button? Heck no.
Nor does my complete lack of control over when other humans send e-mails even slightly make a dent in the number of times I’ve checked my messages since lunch (approximately 347, in my not-so-scientific estimation). There’s an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that opines, “The longer you wait for the mail, the less there is in it,” and right now I really feel like reaching through my screen and giving my inbox a good bopping.
We’ve been off for two weeks, in part due to travel and illness interrupting my regular schedule, and in part due to the insanity that was the American election last Tuesday. Getting anything productive done on the writing front has been all but impossible; instead, I’ve been venting my frustration and purging the germs with Christmas shopping and cleaning fits. Multiple rooms in my home are now freshly rearranged, scrubbed, or filled with holiday miscellany. Yet the mental turmoil continues.
Since we’re hosting a foreign student this fall, the election and its implications for the rest of the world have been top of mind in our home. After all, it was not only we Americans who watched another spot on the televised map light up in red every few minutes on Election Night, but also our counterparts across the pond. The subsequent conversations among my parent and minority friends have all been variations of the same theme: What does this outcome say about our country, and what do we tell our children?
To tell a story authentically, we must endeavor to understand those who are not like us.
Perhaps the events of the past week have jerked your writing, like mine, to a standstill and tossed your concentration out the window. Perhaps, too, you were focused on telling stories about a particular part of the world–one whose inhabitants you are now struggling to respect. Is your exhaustion from the election–be it result or violent protest–sapping your creativity? Worse, is it causing you to second-guess everything you’ve been working on?
It has for me. I am, quite literally, back at the drawing board this week, sketching out new story ideas. How do I write sympathetically and objectively about people I’m fighting not to hold in contempt? How do I work with a character whose interests and abilities are so fundamentally different from my own?
For some of my friends, the response has been to channel those emotions into art. Recording themselves singing their favorite songs. Drawing cartoons. Writing poetry. Chaining themselves to their computers for NaNoWriMo. For others, it has been more of an existential crisis: We’re questioning everything we’ve created.
The election did not cause this. It only highlighted an existing artistic conundrum. To tell a story authentically, we must endeavor to understand not only those who are like us, in thought, ability and action, but also, and more significantly, those who are not.
Right now, I do not understand. And so, the story waits.
It waits as I wrestle through the media overstimulation. It waits while I listen to friends and family as they vent. It waits during the afternoons when I find new things to scrub and throw away, in vain hopes of clearing my mind as well as my environment. It waits while I browse Pinterest in search of anything pretty or happy or beautiful to take my mind off the growing pains of this horribly divided nation.
It waits because for writers and creatives, this is a pivotal moment. Do we turn to light, escapist pieces? Or do we go down the rabbit hole?
National Novel Writing Month will kick off in less than two weeks, sending 400,000 aspiring authors, if last year is any gauge, into a month-long wordsmithing frenzy. The annual race purports to be a novice writer’s dream, dangling the promise of publication and literary bragging rights above our procrastination-loving selves. You, too, can have a finished novel at the end of just 30 days’ hard work! All you have to do is write at least 1,667 words per day, every day.
For a writer fast approaching the end of a year-long quest to draft a debut novel, with a very low word count to show for it still, NaNoWriMo should be a match made in heaven. We could all stand a little writing discipline, and NaNo, as it’s affectionately termed, is all about learning to make time to write regularly. At least, that’s what we’re told. Yet the more I think about signing up again this year, the more I realize that while NaNoWriMo might be a wonderful exercise for the right person, I should be sitting this one out.
NaNoWriMo is held at the wrong time of year. What cruel mental torturer decided it would be a fabulous idea to sit a bunch of hapless writers down and pester them to type like their little lives depended on it at the start of the holidays each year? November is smack dab in the middle of the Halloween-to-New Year’s rush. That’s when we’re all supposed to be baking up a storm and ordering Christmas gifts and decorating cheeseballs shaped like feathered farm animals, not plinking out 2,000 words daily. Besides, we don’t need any more excuses to give up all pretense of dietary control and dive into the leftover fun-sized candy in between coffee fill-ups.
Everybody is already doing it. How awesome to compete with one’s friends! Let’s all spark literary feuds on Twitter as we boast about our daily word counts! How droll. While the prospect of having others in the trenches with us–misery loves company, I hear–does carry a certain appeal, bear in mind that the fact that everyone else is writing hot now also means you will all quite possibly be overwhelming agents with your pitches around the same time later.
NaNoWriMo’s target isn’t novel length. The NaNoWriMo organization openly admits this in the FAQ section of its website. The official target is 50,000 words. The leadership doesn’t call it a novella, which is lovely, but in today’s publishing world, that’s what it is. Of course one could write more, but if you’re shooting for the minimum word count, it’s good to keep in mind that although you might close the month with 50,000 new words on your screen, you still won’t have a novel-sized product.
In short, you can “win” NaNoWriMo without actually writing an entire novel in a month. That’s what most people will do, if they even make it that far. If you follow the contest guidelines, you’ll have a head start on what could become a novel-length manuscript, but you’ll still have a long swamp to slog through.
Most of the writing will be crap. Certainly, we expect–or should expect–to edit our rough drafts and tweak our storylines. As I mentioned last week, however, many fiction writers are character-driven. They don’t do much to plan out their stories in advance, and NaNoWriMo itself doesn’t offer all that much in the way of structure. Plop folks down in front of a computer for a month-long drafting race, and their stories are likely to go off the rails at some point. A situation like that takes a lot more than a couple months’ worth of cursory editing and rewriting to fix.
An interesting study is NaNoWriMo’s own data on how many of its fiction writers get published. The contest began in 1999 and officially became a nonprofit in 2005. That means there are 10 years’ worth of publication figures under the organization’s current structure available. In 2015 alone, NaNoWriMo recruited 431,626 writers. So how many of these people got a book deal?
NaNo’s list of traditionally published books, going back 10 years, has 398 entries. Another 212 were self-published. Even if we assumed that some participants who eventually got book deals simply never credited NaNoWriMo with boosting part of their writing process, those numbers are depressingly low, averaging 61 NaNoWriMo participants who published any of their books per year of NaNoWriMo competition. Translation? Based on the 10-year publication average, last year’s participants’ success rate was one in 7,076.
Some agents hate it.Laura Miller’s takedown in Salon a few years ago is probably the most famous reference to agents’ rumored loathing of NaNo books, but she’s far from the only source on this subject. While I’m not opposed to NaNoWriMo in general (Miller’s take sounds positively disdainful at the thought of new novelists emerging from the woodwork), the warning signs are there for those of us willing to heed them.
Literary agent Amanda Luedeke objects to the structure of the challenge. Calling it a “crash diet for
those looking to get into some kind of healthy writing lifestyle,” she says NaNoWriMo sets writers up for failure. The project, she argues, has a way of discouraging writers who follow a slower process or simply have busier lives, while simultaneously encouraging would-be authors to engage in word dumps that are far from being in any sort of publishable state by the end of the month.
It suggests writers will enjoy success as long as they stick to the formula. If you buy this protein powder for three easy payments of $19.99, you can get a rocking bod, too. (Also, you will have to go to the gym and lift heavy things regularly, and skip the junk food, and drink this mysterious clear liquid called “water” a whole lot.)
At first glance, NaNoWriMo is forthcoming: Writers have to put in the work. We’re all on the honor system, but you don’t win by writing part of your story in advance, and you don’t win without hitting your word count goal. January and February, meanwhile, are billed as the “Now What?” months, in which writers are supposed to focus on editing their projects. So far, so good.
In practice, though, most people focus on NaNoWriMo’s big selling point: the prospect of a quick turnaround. The organization itself, meanwhile, does plenty to encourage this. “Write a novel in a month!” the organization’s home page touts. “We don’t use the word ‘novella’ because it doesn’t seem to impress people the way ‘novel’ does,” the NaNoWriMo website notes. Right, because calling it a finished “novel” is an easier sell, if a rather deceptive one.
It interferes with my writing process. I’m no gym rat, and quality writing is not a track race. It’s a strategy game. One does not simply sit at a computer and type whatever comes to mind until time is called. Writing well requires deep thought. It demands we take breaks, brainstorm, research, travel, experience. It calls for regular pauses to brew a cup of hot tea and take notes, a walk through the woods, a trip to the shooting range. If we cannot pause and think, we cannot truly push ourselves.
NaNoWriMo has its place. As exercise, as challenge, as goal-metric, it is admirable. The contest attracts hundreds of thousands each year: people who read, people who write, people who want to write more. The publicity it brings to the craft of writing and the efforts it encourages to get young people involved are highly praiseworthy.
It’s not for me, though. Not this year.
What do you think? Will you be taking the NaNoWriMo challenge?
It’s one of those inane questions every fiction writer is asked sooner or later: “Are you a pantser or a plotter?”
Pantsers, the stereotype goes, are those who like to “fly by the seat of their pants.” They’re spontaneous, fun, and none too keen on commitment. Pantsers are those tortuous people who like to deposit hapless characters into a world of their own creation and see what happens.
Plotters plot. Everything. They make outlines, they write character sketches, they keep index card files and sticky notes and color-coded notebooks around at all times. Their backstories have backstories. They know everything that is going to happen, and when, and why, and they’ll be waiting with cookies. They are the domestic divas of the writing world.
Then there are those who don’t really fit into either category. Sometimes dubbed “plantsers,” we are the ones who like to have a game plan but aren’t overly rigid about it. We don’t like to get in the car until we know where we are going and can confirm we’ve chosen the right shoes, but we’re cool with coming home whenever. Also, we aren’t big on being labeled.
Although they usually refer to creative technique, these terms, for me, more accurately describe the ways in which writers’ dominant personalities drive their craft. You don’t have to be a writer to be a pantser–a fun-loving free spirit who likes to go with the flow–or a plotter–Martha Stewart on steroids, before that whole prison thing. Recently I discovered, much to my chagrin, that I was now living with two unreformed pantsers. This far into a decade-long relationship, my partner mostly tolerates my incessant requests for upcoming plans with a reasonable humor. Actually making a reservation or committing to a travel itinerary, however, invariably falls to me. Having an ESL student at home who did not understand the concept of schedules and advance notice nearly drove me insane before we got to the root of the problem. Now that my pantsers understand each other–and I understand that they’re both nuts–perhaps I can resume functioning semi-normally.
There’s a much simpler way to understand the myriad ways authors approach novel writing, though. It’s all about starting points.
I have read The Weekend Novelist, Robert J. Ray’s classic how-to novel-writing guide, often enough to permanently dog-ear its soft cover. It’s a straightforward step-by-step instruction manual on how to complete a novel draft during one’s typical off-hours over the course of a year. It’s well-written, informative, and filled with literary examples. It’s also never worked for me.
It’s taken me years to reach the conclusion that the problem isn’t Ray’s book, it’s that the chapter sequence is out of order for a writer like me. Ray’s overriding technique is character-driven: He starts by sketching characters, getting to know each one of them intimately. Ray’s overriding concern is understanding each character’s desires and fragilities. Only once he has pages and pages of backstory and descriptive detail does he begin placing them in scenes, and, after loads of scene-building, he moves on to plot. It obviously works for him; he and plenty of similar writers have the portfolios to prove it.
Sorry, gang, that’s just not how I roll. I’m a journalist. I write like one. I am a story-driven writer.
Reporters have to defend their stories in pitch meetings, often before they ever set pen to paper. A seasoned editor wants to know one thing: “Who cares?” If the story isn’t compelling and timely, it gets spiked. If we don’t start with the details of story, we may never get around to selecting all the people we want to use to help tell it.
In my writing world, characters exist for storytelling purposes. I’m writing to make a point, to tell a specific story, and I cast characters based on their ability to help move that story along. Their dreams, goals, backstories, motivations are secondary. We discover those things as the narrative unfolds, but only if they add richness to the story itself.
A character-driven novelist uses the wants and needs of his or her assembled cast of characters to determine what the story will be and where it will go. A story-driven novelist starts by deciding what story he or she wants to tell, then uses that information to choose which characters need to be written.
I had been working on a grant application for weeks.
I attended meetings, assembled maps and photos, spent hours going over figures. I asked a gazillion questions and made tons of notes and suggestions. I went through the solicitation line by line, again and again. Finally, I submitted a lengthy, beautifully formatted document at the beginning of deadline day.
And then I got an e-mail. The match proposal was unacceptable. All of the objections were based on criteria that had not been clearly stated in writing (two other, far more experienced grant-writing experts had read the same solicitation with me and come to the same conclusions about the rules that I had), but the powers-that-had-moolah were not budging. I had about six hours to work it out and resubmit the entire thing or we were dead in the water.
I called the top grant reviewer and the back-and-forth went nowhere. I called my consultants. I called everybody.
After about three hours of calling, e-mailing, and texting, I finally reached my client, who, rather understandably, wanted to know why the money people suddenly wanted him to come up with twice his planned cash match. And although I had come back to him with a strong suggestion for minimizing out-of-pocket costs, he objected to the principle of the whole thing. The government was annoying and unreasonable. Why did we need them involved again? Hell if I knew, except for the “not enough money in bank for this project” part.
The phrase “unmitigated disaster” was never more apropos.
Exhausted from an afternoon spent bouncing from call to call, frantically trying to resolve the crisis, and emotionally hovering somewhere between fury and resignation, I let my other half know it was high time for a drink or twelve.
“I lost $50,000 today,” I told him.
I’m married to a contractor. I get only so much sympathy.
“That’s really bad, if you look at it that way,” he said.
Losing sucks. It’s also part and parcel of the freelancing deal. Instead of dwelling on the loss, I needed to focus on landing—and completing—the next job.
There’s an attractive mythos surrounding freelancing, in which we lucky few get to sleep in, eschew real pants, eat junk food all day, and avoid the general hassles associated with bosses and routines and day jobs, all while charging top dollar to crank out works of creative brilliance. The truth is that it’s just a slightly glamorized form of contracting—that thing where you pay both halves of Social Security, answer to dozens of different people with competing agendas, wait months to get paid, and are constantly on the hunt for your next gig because you presumably like food. The trick to staying afloat? Keep moving.