Tuesday, November 10, 2020

NaNoWriMo: Surviving the Week Two Blues

Week One of NaNo is over, and the Week Two blues have officially commenced. I’ve made really good progress so far (hoping to hit 25k tonight), but I’ve written many of the initial scenes I was really excited about and I’m now well into the meat of the novel. I’m also properly mired in several of the logistical problems I’d been studiously ignoring. Now, it seems, I’ve actually got to do the work of sorting out my plot rather than just playing around with fun scenes. Sigh.

So, when the initial excitement has worn off and the hard work hits, how do we keep going? What are the best ways to beat the Week Two Blues?


1-      Don’t Stress

Firstly, don’t stress if you’re struggling a bit, or your novel doesn’t seem as exciting anymore. This is completely normal! Every writer goes through phases of self-doubt, and the early-middle is one of the hardest parts of a novel. The shine of a new story has worn off, but the end is still nowhere in sight. You now have to confront all the logistical problems you could ignore at the outline stage. This stage of writing is just hard, so don’t feel inferior because you’re struggling.


2-      Take a Walk

If the creative juices aren’t flowing, sometimes the best thing is to get away for a little while. Crucially, you should do something that allows your brain to wander and be creative. Avoid scrolling through social media or watching TV, as these activities take up too much of our attention. Instead, do something to make space for your thoughts, like going for a walk, taking a shower, or doing something artistic. Allowing your mind to wander is crucial for creativity. Pro tip: keep a notepad handy to capture all those brilliant thoughts when they show up!


3-      Spend Time Plotting

If something genuinely isn’t working in your story, it’s worth taking the time to sort it out. Just like tugging harder at a tangled skein of wool only makes it worse, pressing forward with a story that’s broken can just make a mess. Instead, take an hour out to brainstorm solutions. Try using a mindmap, or freewriting (you can even count these words toward your NaNo total, if you want!) You don’t need to do this every time you hit a minor snag, but taking an hour to solve a major problem can make the words flow much faster.


4-      Jump Ahead

If you’re stuck on a section of your story, feel free to jump ahead! There’s no reason why writing has to be linear. Whether you’re wrestling with a stubborn plot hole or just feeling uninspired by a chapter, it’s okay to leave it behind and move on to a more exciting section. Sometimes, moving forward can give you just the energy you need to revitalise your story.


5-      Silence Your Inner Critic

Someday, when you’re sending your novel to beta readers, or agents, or publishers, it might matter if your novel is good. Someday, you might need to turn your most critical eye upon your work. But today, in the middle of NaNo Week Two, is not that day. Today, you write. With NaNo, the only thing that matters is your wordcount. Try “sprints,” where you write as much as you can in a short space of time, perhaps 5 or 20 min. Or, if you’re really stuck, try writing one chapter as badly as you possibly can. It may surprise you just how good your “bad” writing is!


6-      Keep Going

Finally, the most crucial thing of all: keep going! Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. The most important thing is to keep showing up. Even if you’re behind, even if you can only manage 167 words, not 1667, just keep going. It doesn’t matter how small the steps are, as long as you’re moving forward. 

Saturday, October 31, 2020

How to get the most out of NaNoWriMo 2020

With NaNoWriMo starting tomorrow, I decided to dust off this old blog and offer a few tips to potential NaNo-ers. I've done NaNo five times over the past ten years and I've "won" every time, though the novels have certainly varied in their level of quality! This year, I'm working on a new project called THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER'S HUSBAND, which is a character-driven fantasy. 

Feel free to connect with me on the NaNo website; I'm always looking for new writing buddies.

But, without further ado, here are my 8 Top Tips for getting the most out of NaNoWriMo 2020.

1) Realise it’s a Sacrifice

Writing 50,000 words isn’t easy. Writing 50,000 words in a month while juggling a million other life responsibilities is even harder. Doing NaNo will require at least an hour or two every day, and that time has got to come from somewhere. Whether you chose to watch less TV, spend less time with friends, or let your house get a little messy, something has to give. The good thing is, that’s okay! While you probably shouldn’t ignore your family for a month, you don’t need to feel guilty about cooking a frozen pizza or ordering takeout. Writing is your priority this month, and that’s okay.


2) Schedule Writing Time

Winning NaNo is all about developing a writing habit, so it helps if you establish a set time to write. This won’t be possible for everyone, but most people can set aside a few minutes in a relatively regular pattern. I try to do about 45 minutes before starting work in the morning, and then another 45 minutes just before bed. If I use those minutes well, I can generally just about hit my wordcount in those times, then catch up a little on the weekend.


3) Catch Up

When starting out with NaNo, the number 1667 can loom large in our minds. It’s definitely helpful to develop a consistent writing schedule, but it’s also okay if you don’t hit 1667 every day. The past few years I’ve had really bad starts, with only a few hundred words over the first few days. This may seem disastrous (“I’m already 5000 words behind!”) but over the course of a month, it’s easy to catch up. Just do an extra 15 minutes here and there, or schedule some focussed time on the weekend. A bad start doesn’t have to be the end of your NaNo goal!


4) Make a Playlist

There’s nothing that gets you in the mood for writing like a good playlist. While some enterprising writers take the time to curate a playlist for each book, I adopt the much lazier approach of simply choosing an album to listen to on repeat. I find the best kind of writing music is where the lyrics aren’t really that important, and the songs all sound essentially the same. Previous favourites include Maroon 5’s singles, anything by Bastille, and Ed Sheeran’s early albums (don’t judge).


5) No Editing

This tip is on pretty much every NaNo advice blog there is, and for good reason. Not only is editing a waste of time during NaNo (if it doesn’t add to your wordcount, don’t do it!) but editing also makes you more critical of your work, which totally defeats the point. The beauty of NaNo is that you get to turn off your inner critic and just write, so avoid the temptation to edit, and focus on your wordcount instead!


6) Avoid the Blank Page

Have you ever found yourself poised at your keyboard, a fresh document in front of you, the cursor blinking mockingly as you try to think of how to start? It may sound exciting to begin a whole new project, but staring at a blank page is a sure-fire route to the dreaded writer’s block. If you don’t have the perfect opening line for your novel yet, don’t worry! Just start with whatever you’ve got, and fill in the rest later. There’s nothing that says you have to write your novel in order! You can even write “ADD BRILLIANT FIRST LINE HERE,” to remind you to revisit the opening in December.


7) Measure Your Progress

Watching your wordcount rise is a powerful motivator. The NaNo website lets you enter your wordcount every day and provides all sorts of helpful statistics—you can even track your mood! I’ve also made my own spreadsheet that tracks my wordcount, the words remaining, how far I am ahead/behind target, my average wordcount per day, and the average wordcount I need each day to finish on time. It took a little work to figure out Excel, but having detailed statistics helps keep me motivated. If it would help you, feel free to download my spreadsheet template.

8) Remember Why

It might sound cheesy, but on those stressful nights when it’s midnight and you’ve got to work tomorrow and you’re coming down with a cold but you still haven’t hit your wordcount goal… it’s important to remember why you’re doing it. Do you want to “win” NaNo, or just push yourself a bit? If you’re determined to win, why? Are you desperate to tell your story? Do you want to prove you have what it takes to be a writer? Or do you just not like giving up? In the depths of November, it’s important to remember that “winning” doesn’t actually earn you anything (other than a fun badge and maybe a T-shirt). Hitting 50K feels great, but focussing on your personal goals helps you get the most out of NaNo. 

Did you find these tips helpful? Add your own in the comments below-- I'd love to hear from you!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

A Little Every Day

Today I hit the illustrious milestone of a 100-day streak on Duolingo. While this number is slightly misleading, as I did use the “streak-freeze” option to save me on a few particularly busy days, for the most part I’ve used the app every day for the past 100 days.

I started using the app again this summer in order to brush up on my French in preparation for volunteering on a bilingual camp in Belgium. I’ve been learning French practically all my life, so the app was simply a way to refresh what I already knew.

After I got my French up to speed, though, I decided to switch tack and try learning some Spanish. I was, somewhat embarrassingly, rather nervous about trying a new language. Other than French, I’d never tried learning a new language, and I didn’t (don’t!) consider myself particularly good at languages. I knew Duolingo was good for refreshing a language, but I doubted it would be good for learning.

Fast-forward several months, and Duolingo now claims that I’m 37% fluent in Spanish. I highly doubt that’s true, but I can confidently state that I have some Spanish skill, whereas two months ago I had absolutely none. I know some basic verbs (tengo, quiero), some helpful food vocabulary (pescado, ensalada), and I’m starting to get a feel for sentence structure. I would definitely still struggle in a proper conversation with a Spanish speaker, but I’d be able to order dinner in a restaurant without an English menu.

While I’m still a long ways away from fluency in Spanish, it is really exciting to go from nothing to basic proficiency in just two months, especially considering I spent only ten minutes a day working through two quick lessons. I never sat down with a thick textbook and poured through lists of conjugations. All I did was take a few minutes every day that I probably would have wasted on facebook anyways and instead open up the Duolingo app.

It amazes me just how much we can accomplish by just dedicating a few minutes every day. How taking five minutes before bed every night for journaling has filled a dozen volumes over a few years. How 100 days on duolingo grants me basic proficiency in a whole new language. How writing for an hour every evening results in a 119,000-word novel in two months.

As I prepare for NaNoWriMo again this November, it really helps to see how far I’ve managed to get in Duolingo with just a few minutes a day. Writing a novel, like learning a language, is a mammoth task, and it’s so encouraging to be reminded of how much we can do by just keeping at it every day. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

On First Drafts, Editing, and the Real Work of Writing

“The first draft of anything is shit.”
--- Ernest Hemingway

A lecturer at St. Andrews has this quote hanging on her office door, as if challenging all the complacent undergraduates waiting in the hallway. I always found it vaguely encouraging, as much as anything by Hemingway could be encouraging. Maybe the chapter draft I just sent to my supervisor wasn’t all that great, but that’s fine. It’s a draft. It’ll get better.

I’ve never minded the idea of writing a bad first draft. I love things like NaNo, where you just write without worrying if it’s any good. I’m not a perfectionist, and the process of actually getting words down on paper has always been relatively easy for me.

But I’ve never been good at actually doing anything with those words. I’ve written five novels, and none of them have ever made it past a first draft. I’ve never actually polished anything until it was as good as I could make it.

With four of these novels, I know I made the right choice to move on. The first one was essentially a Tolkien fan-fic. The second was a mystery with plot holes as wide as the Northumberland Strait. The third was an international thriller with even larger plot holes and a rather dubious treatment of terrorism. The fourth was a YA dystopian, written just before Divergent was published and unfortunately left unfinished before the dystopian bubble burst. I learned so much from writing each of these novels, but none of them were worth polishing.

And then, after a six-year hiatus, NaNo 2016 produced my fifth novel, a futuristic retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard II. I wrote 119,053 words in 68 days, and then returned to real life (or, y’know, writing a PhD.)

The difficulty with this novel is that, nearly a year later, I still think it’s good. I still love the characters. I love the story. I even love the writing (some of the time…). For the first time, there are no major flaws.

But that’s the problem. For the first time, I have no choice but to actual return to my novel and edit it. I can’t just stick it in a drawer and write a new novel. I’ve got to actually edit this one.

That’s certainly not going to be easy. As much as I love it, I know the story has significant issues. The world needs to be more developed. The themes need to be more subtle. The emotional arc needs to be polished. Relationships between characters need to be clarified. Certain scenes should be added, others cut.

I’ve written five novels. I know how to hammer out a story in a few weeks. But I have no clue how to polish it. On a practical level, I literally don’t know how to begin.

But also, on an emotional level, I’m scared to start editing. Because once I start to polish my novel, then I’ll really know if it’s any good. Then I’ll know if I’m actually any good.

If Hemingway was right, if the first draft of anything is shit, then that means that the real work of writing isn’t in getting words down on paper. It’s not writing 119,053 words in 68 days. If Hemingway was right, then the real work of writing comes in taking those rubbish words and making them shine. And that’s something I’ve never done.

There’s a strange sort of comfort in not trying. The world is full of people who think they could write a novel, and they’ll keep saying that until they try and fail. I think I can edit a book, and get an agent, and a publisher… and I’ll be able to keep thinking that until I try and fail.

I don’t really think I’ll fail, not ultimately. I believe that with enough hard work, I’ll eventually produce something good enough to be published. But I can’t say that I’m not scared of all the rejection that’s undoubtedly going to come. The books I’ll try to edit only to find they’re really not good enough. The agents who’ll send form rejection emails. The publishers who pass. The readers who write bad reviews.

Right now I can call myself a writer and not have to face any of that failure. Except, to keep calling myself a writer, I need to keep moving forward. I need to move beyond what I’m comfortable with and start doing what scares me.

I need to start turning my gargantuan first draft into something worth reading.

Let’s see how this goes. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Day 600: Almost Home

Boarding passes for the flight home after my year abroad. 

Day 600

If my calculations are correct, today is my 600th day in the UK. Well, since I've travelled a bit, I should say my 600th day in Europe (though perhaps not for long... *insert mandatory Brexit joke here*)

At any rate, it's the 600th day since I left Canada. 600 days since I stood in the Halifax airport, surrounded by my bags, and said goodbye to my country. 

It's actually quite a fitting time for this milestone to occur. Firstly, two days ago was the two-year anniversary of the day I discovered I was coming to St. Andrews for the PhD. And, more immediately, I'm now just two days away from heading back to Canada. 

Back with my family for my 22nd birthday

For a variety of reasons, I haven't been back to Canada since starting the PhD. But this summer I'm going back twice-- first to Ontario, where I did my undergrad and masters, and then (in August) to PEI, where my family grew up.

I'm really excited to go back. There are a lot of people I can't wait to see, and I've started to get invited to facebook events at my old Uni that I can actually go to, and, of course, I'm very ready to get my hands on a Tim Hortons ice cap. 

But there are also a few things I'm apprehensive about. I've never been to Canada as a visitor before. I've never been there not as a resident. I have no idea what it'll feel like to just be passing through, now that I don't live there anymore.

I'm worried about it feeling foreign. I pulled out my Canadian money from my stash of random currencies, sorting it out amidst piles of euros, American dollars, and Polish zloty and Romanian lei, and the Canadian money felt just that strange. After the weight of British pound coins, the 'loonie' just felt thin. 

St. Andrews friends at Starlight Ball

I'm worried about saying the wrong things. About accidentally asking where the toilet is, not the bathroom. About complementing someone on their jumper, not their sweater. I'm worried about sounding pretentious because I say 'trousers' and put the stress on the wrong syllable of Renaissance. 

But there's a positive side to the fact that, for a month, I'll be a tourist in my own country. For the first time in my life, I'll be able to see and appreciate what's uniquely Canadian. Having spent 602 days in the UK, I'll be able to enjoy Canadian culture that much more, since I won't be taking it for granted.

I've come back to Canada after a long absence before, of course. Almost three years ago, now, I flew back to Canada after a full year abroad. I remember how weird it felt to stand in the airport, surrounded by people speaking in Canadian accents. I remember trying to walk to my university the next morning, only to take two hours because everything in Canada is so ridiculously spread out.

Cast photo for Utopia Limited, this year's Gilbert and Sullivan show.

I remember hating these things. Reverse culture shock is hard. I missed Scotland. I missed British accents and narrow Scottish alleys and proper Yorkshire tea and decent public transit and having my friends all within walking distance. There were so many things I missed, it was hard to appreciate anything about Canada. 

This time, since I'm only there for a month, I'm ready to love Canada. I'm ready to enjoy how everyone has the same accent. I'm ready to revel in the vast space.

I'm so ready for this chance to realize just how great a country Canada is. I'm ready to see my country with new eyes. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

A Year Past Rejection

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love now is mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
 -- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.

A year ago today, I posted this picture and quote after walking around my subdivision at twilight in a bit of a daze. The previous Friday, I rode the bus to uni nearly crying because nothing seemed to be working out. By the following Wednesday, I had a full scholarship to write my PhD at the university of my dreams.

It’s been a year now, and within the next few days I’ll be submitting my thesis outline and first chapter for review by the department. It’s been an amazing year, full of plays, concerts, travel, church events, friends, and (occasionally) academic work. The year hasn’t been everything I expected, but, in many ways, it’s been so much better.
Now more than ever, though, I’m glad this PhD position didn’t fall into my lap. I’m so thankful for those months last year where I felt rejected, and alone, and a failure.

Writing a PhD is hard work. The hours are long, the expectations are high, and the paperwork is never-ending.

What’s most difficult about the PhD, though, isn’t the work itself—it’s finding the motivation to actually do the work. It’s putting in the hours at the office when people tell you, “You’re just a first year; you don’t need to work so hard.” It’s managing to care about some entertainment that Queen Elizabeth saw in 1575 when it seems like everyone else’s project is so much more interesting and relevant. It’s keeping a smile on your face when your supervisor is disappointed and you feel you can never be a real academic.

Basically, doing a PhD is about managing your imperfections in a system that expects constant perfection.

For me, as a Christian, doing my PhD is about daily acknowledging that I’m not doing this on my own strength. I’m so flawed, so inadequate, but God has given me an amazing opportunity and He will guide me through it.

That’s why I’m glad my PhD applications weren’t a glorious string of acceptances. Because now I know that I’m not here because of my intelligence, or my academic excellence, or my copious extracurriculars.

Facing rejection before starting my PhD taught me that I am very much not perfect, but neither do I have to be. And now, whether my friends are complimenting me on a theatrical performance or my supervisor is tearing my chapter to shreds, I have absolute confidence that I am valuable not because I can somehow achieve perfection, but because He strengthens me.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Day 100: Semester One

Taking advantage of a rare opportunity to have a snowball fight!
Day 100. It’s somewhat fitting that this milestone should fall on my last day in St. Andrews this year. Far too early tomorrow I’ll catch a bus, and then a train, and then another train, and another, and another, and finally drive with my great Aunt and Uncle to their house just south of Nottingham.

I’m really looking forward to a proper British Christmas. I love mulled wine and mince pies and carol services with beautiful descants and bell-ringing and Christmas pudding and Christmas specials on the telly and nice chocolates and queuing in M&S for the Christmas turkey and being excessively confused at Christingles. Yes, I’ll miss spending the holidays with my immediate family, but there’s something really special about British Christmas traditions.

Mandatory cathedral shot
Still, I’m sad the semester is over. The past 100 days have truly been wonderful, if tiring and stressful and confusing at times. I’ve made some amazing new friends, have attended and hosted so many wonderful get-togethers, and also managed to write 11,000 (reasonably) intelligent words.

The fact that I’m 1/9th of the way through my three-year PhD is a little scary. Although I had quite a satisfactory meeting with my supervisors last week and I’ve produced half a chapter and an annotated bibliography and a three-page outline of the thesis, I can’t help but feel that time is going to catch up to me far too soon.

All in all, though, I love the PhD. I love the fact that I get paid to live in a town I adore with people so dear to me and my “job” is to go sit in a cozy office and read and write about a subject I find fascinating. I really can’t imagine anything better.
My squad.

I’m working on being more grateful for everything God has given me. More than anything, I want to grow in a deep-rooted joy that isn’t dependant on circumstances, even though those might be great at the moment. I’m so happy right now, but I don’t want to lose that joy when my supervisor tells me my work isn’t up to par, or I have a falling out with a friend, or I can’t get a job after I graduate.

It’s been a semester of growth, both academically and personally. I’ve come face-to-face with so many of my weaknesses and built up some of my strengths. I’m so grateful for the people God has placed in my life this year, from my brilliant office-mates in the English department to the keen freshers at church to the loyal friends I can call at any time of day and know they’ll be there for me. Adjusting back into life in St. Andrews hasn’t always been easy, but these people have all made it so, so worthwhile.