Monday, December 1

The Writing Engine

NaNoWriMo is done, and I've emerged (barely) victorious. Thanks to a math error on my part, I wrote more than I thought, so the stress I placed on myself in the final 48 hours was unnecessary. But when is stress ever necessary, in the Big Picture?

Even though the novel-writing spree is concluded, writing doesn't have to end on December 1. In fact, the novel I was working on isn't completed (the word total is reached, but I'm halfway through the tale): I'm very excited about the story and look forward to tackling it in the coming weeks. I've been enjoying my days at the local coffee shop, parked at the bar where no one else sits, over-ear headphones blocking out frivolous conversations, slowly sipping at specialty espresso beverages while scrawling cross-reference notes in three notebooks, to organize that day's two-hour writing jag.

Maybe no one else has problems writing creatively. Maybe no one else has problems with motivation and self-starting. Maybe I'm the only person who suffers a dry spell, believes himself to be absolutely talentless, or just can't muster the strength to take a shower and prepare a meal, much less stumble and stagger through a shitty first draft.

But if I'm not, I'd like to share four ideas with anyone else who indulges in creative writing.

ONE: Noisli. This thing is freakin' awesome. It's a noise-blocker with a menu of noises for you to combine and intensify. I love Forest/Stream/Leaves and Campfire/Night Woods/Wind. The drawbacks to this program are that the sounds are loops, meaning you can't access them without being online and there's a two-second gap when the loop's done.

But the background cycles through soft or bold colors while you're working, which gently assists with getting out of a rut. I don't feel the colors dictate one mood or another, if I don't want to write in that mood, but I do like the changes. However, I don't like the light blue that prevents me from seeing the white writing or icons on the screen.

Did I say writing? Yes, Noisli also offers a very basic text program, so when you've set your sounds you switch to the word processor and type as fast as you can. That's fantastic! It keeps a running word count and letter count, too, and you can cut-n-paste your text to whatever document you wish to save it in, or you can download the corpus in an RTF. Unfortunately, your machine's processing may make the typing lag or even miss letters, which can hamper your enthusiasm when you're really hitting your stride. Because of this, I try to write in batches of 2−3,000 words, then save it in Scrivener and call it a day.

TWO: Scrivener. All good writers must know about this. You've tried Celtx and moved on to Scrivener. What's it good for? Organization, for one. You can use Scrivener however you like and it will help you keep track of plot, characters, settings, images, everything. (If you care about rules, Scrivener offers a couple excellent tutorials, one long and one short, to walk you through its robust capabilities.) I don't have any drawbacks to mention about Scrivener: it's only gotten glitchy on me once, in two years of using it, and it cleared up on its own within half an hour.

THREE: Outlines and Notebooks. Some people hate taking notes or meta-writing, but I absolutely need an outline for a large project. I can knock out short stories in a sitting and call it good, but when I'm attempting a novel? There is no way I can keep my mind focused on extended story writing without a clear goal for each round/chapter/batch/&c. With an outline, and in Scrivener, I can chart out one segment of writing and move the story from point A to point B as swiftly or as meanderingly as I wish. I can write out what's expected to happen in this section, what's allowable and what's forbidden, and within those parameters I unleash my creativity and reach my destination however I see fit.

Find yourself a good notebook, too. If you don't care what you write on, whether you love Moleskines as much as I do or prefer a salvaged spiral-bound school notebook, that's fine, but the point is to keep all your notes in one tome. As for me, my novel came out of an idea for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, so I have one notebook with my original D&D research (Scandinavian naming conventions, medieval village infrastructure, original calendar) and another with notes exclusive to the story (exceptions to the D&D campaign, plot points to address, summary of chapters thus far).

Keep your notebook on hand for when you're writing out a chapter and something unexpected happens that spawns new questions or story ideas. I like a to-do list of scenes/events that need to be written about in future chapters: keeping this on hand is a great default when my mind is grey and blank and I have no inspiration to write about anything. At the very least, I can pick up the characters I know and set up a necessary scene and traipse and trudge my way through a shitty first draft. Sometimes that's all it is, a reference point for later progress, and sometimes it stimulates the creative juices and I can continue running on my own power for longer than I planned.

FOUR: Alcohol for ideas; coffee for follow-through. This is slightly less important than learning, painfully, to give yourself permission to write the shitty first draft, which itself is one of the most arduous yet necessary lessons every writer needs to truly digest and assimilate.

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