The return of the half-assed writer person

I’m baaaaaaack!

This is the longest I’ve been away from the blog since I started it. I don’t have any good reasons for my absence but I have some pretty bad excuses, e.g. “I can’t think of anything worthwhile to write about” or “I just don’t feel like it.”

That pretty much sums up my mood this past week. The things I’ve wanted to write, that have come bustling into my mind saying, “’Scuse me, I need to be written right now, immediately,” have not been blog posts or book chapters. I’ve piddled around with some personal things that I think are well-written but too personal to share, I’ve played with my horse (and other horses), I’ve gone running, and I’ve halfheartedly worked on the Untitled P.O.S. You may have noticed that I added a word count meter for said P.O.S. in the sidebar and that I’m quite behind schedule.

So yes, it has been slow, unproductive, uninspired going. If you believe that the only way to write is to sit down and write as much as you can every day, then I have failed quite miserably. However, I don’t feel like I’ve failed. My word count may not be rocketing up like the temperature has been lately, but I’ve learned quite a bit about myself as a writer.

Plotting: consider me converted

The first thing I’ve realized is that all my plotting has paid off. The plotting is the best thing past me ever did for present me. Without my outline this project would be dead in the water, because when I don’t feel like writing, I really don’t feel like writing on the fly. Nothing is more intimidating to unmotivated me than not knowing what’s going to happen next, let alone figuring out how to write it. It feels like I’m building a bridge as I’m trying to cross it. Or something. Whatever. Anyway, sitting down to an outline rather than a blank page gives me a sense of security and confidence, and I think that improves my writing.

If you put enough snowflakes on a roof, it caves in.

I use “even” way too much. I used “even if,” “even now,” and “even then” in the same paragraph. It seems like a small thing, but small things add up. I notice repetitive diction when I’m reading stuff other people wrote, so I’m glad I caught this one fairly early on. Hopefully it will keep me alert for other noticeably repetitive phrases that may crop up.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

I struggle with this. I aspire to this. How many words are enough? How many are too many? This paragraph is exposition; is that inherently bad? If I were a better writer, would I say this differently? It’s a nagging insecurity, but I think it’s kept me vigilant and aware of describing things to death. My slow writing pace this time around has allowed me to consider my words more carefully.

Put me in the mood, baby.

Another thing I’ve learned is just how super duper important my playlist of “mood music” is. I chose the songs to help me get in the frame of mind necessary to write my characters, and it has been invaluable when I’m begrudgingly sitting down to write. Some of them are “Adrian songs,” some of them are “Leila songs,” and some of them just capture the general overtones of the story. If you have any interest in listening, it’s over there in the sidebar.

 The puzzle is done, but I still have these pieces.

I’ve realized that I don’t have to put every single detail of back story in the book. I have probably thought out almost every single detail and I do think my characters’ lives leading up to the actual story are pretty interesting, but they’re not necessarily…necessary. The temptation is to shoe-horn them in because I’m so cool for thinking up intriguing back stories and I want everyone to know how cool I am. Because I am extremely cool.

Well, that’s that. For now, at least. I’m sure by the end of this project I’ll have learned lots more fun things about my writing and I will bless all of you by sharing all of them in my infinite writerly wisdom and coolness. Aren’t you excited?


“Writing” time

If you were my computer, this is what you would see 70%-80% of the time I'm "writing."

If you were my computer, this is what you would see 70%-80% of the time I’m “writing.”

I once said that if coffee is fuel for writing, I have the fuel efficiency of a Hummer towing a boat. By “once said” I mean “said a few months ago” and no, that hasn’t changed. I don’t know what the acceptable cups of coffee/words ratio is, but I guarantee I’m not hitting it. Every time I sit down to work on something, I say to myself, “Okay, Carly. Today you’re going to focus and be professional. You’re going to write for as long as the words are there. You’re not going to check Facebook or Twitter every 20 seconds. You’re not going to fuss about the song that’s playing. You’re here to write.”

I almost never succeed. I do check Facebook or Twitter every 20 seconds. I drink coffee and make more and drink more and make more. I play with the dog. I get distracted nailing down minute and unimportant details about characters, places, and scenes. I waste an absurd amount of time even when I’m under pressure; I once spent all night writing a short story due the next day (yes, yes, I procrastinate, one flaw at a time) when I probably could’ve finished it in three or four hours if I hadn’t given in to distractions.

When I participated in NaNoWriMo, this was not the case. I hit those 1,667 words a day and damn, I was proud of myself. I didn’t check Facebook and I didn’t lose sleep over it. I wrote a few pages for every cup of coffee rather than a few words. “You’re almost like a real writer,” I said to myself. “Look at all these words. Look at that word count meter go up. You are successful because more words.”

As I’ve already discussed in an earlier post, my NaNoWriMo project was a mess. But that’s okay! That’s the point of NaNoWriMo! You just write and write and write and edit later! You squash that inner editor for a whole month and at the end you have something you can turn into a novel! Right?


As I also mentioned previously, that project had more problems than I knew what to do with. I did spend several months on second and third drafts before deciding to rewrite the whole thing in first person, and even then it was hot mess of angst, plot holes, and unnecessary complexities. Sure, I discovered first hand how difficult it is to write a novel, and I’m thankful for that, but what else did I gain? There are probably a few other cutesy little things I could say about it (“it was psychologically beneficial to see it start to finish” or “it taught me about myself”), but in the end I spent months on something that will never see the light of day. And yeah, I write lots of things that will never see the light of day, but I don’t even appreciate my NaNo project. I can’t even read it and think “Well, no one may ever read this, but it’s valuable to me.”

In contrast, I was happy with the short story that took four hours longer to write than it should have. I loved it. I was proud of it. I had thought about every single event and paragraph and damn near every word in that thing, and according to my professor and classmates, it showed. It certainly wasn’t perfect; in fact, in the grand scheme of written works, it may have only been halfway decent, but I turned it in without any qualms or insecurities.

Perhaps the most common writing advice I hear echoes the theme of NaNoWriMo. It’s something like “Write stuff, even if it’s utter crap and you end up throwing it out. Just write stuff. Write a lot.”

Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m knocking NaNoWriMo or people who write 2,000 words a day, because I’m absolutely not. I love the idea of NaNoWriMo and I love the community of writers surrounding it. I respect people who have the discipline to write 2,000 words a day. But for myself, I’m not sold on the idea. If I write a mess of words in a month and take two months to edit it (more or less successfully), is it better than taking three months to write something that’s pretty good in the first place? Am I not hindering my own creative process by forcing it to be something it isn’t?

I’m also not saying my writing habits are good, even for myself. There are days when I dither away my writing time and in the end am dissatisfied with what little I accomplished. A little structure and accountability would do me good. Therefore, I’m giving this NaNoWriMo thing another shot.

If you weren’t aware, the lovely people at the Office of Letters and Light also provide writers with Camp NaNoWriMo. It has the same purpose as the original NaNoWriMo but it’s a bit more laid back and a smidgen cozier. This July, writers will be able to set their own word count goals (rather than the standard 50,000), which couldn’t be more perfect for me. I know my current project won’t end up more than 30,000 words (I’ll be surprised if it makes it to 20,000), which means I can still set goals for myself without frantically spewing any and all words that come to mind. My hope is that my creative process will be focused but not rushed; I certainly don’t want to be getting sidetracked by BuzzFeed and YouTube, but if I want time to bicker with myself over word choice, I’m going to blinking well take it.

If any of my readers are doing Camp NaNo, let me know! Maybe we can even be in a cabin together.

I’m taking off my pants

If you’ve ever attempted to write a fictional story, you’ve probably heard or seen something of the “pantsers versus plotters” debate. If you haven’t, it’s the discussion around writing by the seat of your pants (I’d love to know where that expression came from) and planning out your story ahead of time. Which is better? Does one method produce better stories than the other? Does being a pantser mean you’re disorganized? Does being a plotter mean you’re neurotic?

Most people who take on this subject come to the happy conclusion that writers should do whatever feels right to them. “Whatever is comfortable for you,” they say. “Whatever helps your creative juices flow. There’s no right way to tell a story.”

Now, I’m a pantser. My best friend is a plotter. I work from the inside out, starting with one detail or one moment and building a world around it as I go along. She works from the outside in, building her world and then filling in the details. One of these methods is obviously more logical (hint: it’s not mine), but I was pleased with the idea that we were both right so I wasn’t going to mess with it. Until now.

I participated in NaNoWriMo in 2011 and that was the ultimate “pantsing” experience. I had the barest thread of a story line and one vivid image in my mind, but I was determined to get a novel out of it. I had never written a novel before (apparently all the cop-offs of The Black Stallion I wrote when I was eight years old don’t count) or anything of length, for that matter. I was convinced I could overcome my experience handicap with talent and determination.

When I finished, I had 81,284 words of…something. It had a beginning, middle, and end, some characters and some conflict, but to call it a novel would be akin to ranking Twilight up with The Lord of the Rings. I told myself it wasn’t anything some good editing couldn’t fix.

“You just have to get organized,” I murmured feverishly, trying to imagine how character A got from point B to what I thought was point J but couldn’t know for sure because, as a pantser, I didn’t plot points. “Maybe it’s time to try an outline. Just a rough outline.”

This was the result.


Yes, I know that’s a small, low-quality image and you can’t see what’s actually written there. Even if you could read it, it wouldn’t make any sense, and even without reading individual words you can see that looks nothing like an outline. It doesn’t look like a chart. It doesn’t look like anything.

I was overwhelmed. To say it was like herding cats would be an understatement. It was like herding cats, turtles, and bald eagles at the same time. It was like dropping a zoo into a vat of toxic waste and trying to fit the product into Noah’s Ark.

“I am the writer!” I shouted, frantically scooping up plot points as they tried to slip under the door. “This is my world! I control everything! I am in charge!”

“Sure you are,” said character D, who was swinging from my mother’s hanging potted geranium. “Have you figured out my motivation? What’s my back story?”

“Excuse me,” said character arc Q, who was sitting in the corner and trying to be good. “Do you know what makes me happen yet?”

I’m not going to make any blanket statements like “it’s fine to be a pantser but if someone threatens to burn down your house if you don’t write an outline, you ought to be able to do it.” There are people who are good at pantsing. There are smart people who write character-driven stories rather than mutant plot-monstrosities via the pantsing method. Can you imagine if J.K. Rowling had pantsed Harry Potter? Wait…that’s not what I mean…

Anyway. The lesson I learned from this is that I am not a good pantser. If I had planned that first novel, I might’ve realized the story had too many legs and tails and not enough eyes. I might’ve realized my secondary characters were doing all the work and my protagonist was reclining on a bed of lilies. But I did learn my lesson.

I’m starting a new project and I am plotting the pants off it. Every character has a physical description, back story, socioeconomic status, internal and external conflicts, and favorite ice cream flavor (that last one is a lie). My outline even has Roman numerals. It’s slow going, but I’d rather get it all down now than read the draft later and discover character B’s brother is long dead, dying slowly, and alive all in the same week. I’d rather not send the draft to my friends to read only to realize I never put in the really important thing that makes all that stuff happen. I feel much more confident and surprisingly comfortable now that I’m plotting. Maybe it’s not my first instinct, but I think it will be good for me.

Are you a pantser? Are you a plotter? Are you some combination of the two (which most of us probably are)? Have you ever had mutinous plots and characters rampaging through your house? I’d love to hear about it.