On Writing

Many words written in journals and on scraps of paperI’ve been addicted to the written word forever.  I blame it on my father’s mother, who read to me soon as I was old enough to appreciate it.  She sat me on her lap and followed the words with her finger, and that’s how I learned to read (for a very brief while I could read some Swedish, too).  

I’m not sure when I started writing, but it wasn’t long before I submitted my first story to be published in my school’s creative writing publication.  That was a long, long time ago, but I never stopped either reading or writing.  I’m not sure I could do so and stay sane because TV and movies just don’t make it for me.  I haven’t lived with a TV in my house since 1993 and I don’t stream either.

photo URL https://public.fotki.com/hypoint/arabians/arabian_album_cmk/bennasrif17317378cs.html

Me & Ben Nasrif on the endurance trail in the 1980s

I wrote about horses a lot in the 1980s and 1990s because we were breeding and endurance racing our Arabian horses then.  Somewhere amidst all the junk I’ve got stored I’ve got stacks of magazines with the equivalent of blog posts in them — mostly stories about how I screwed up, since that seems to be the most entertaining kind of story of all.  Like the time we drove half a day to a ride camp, only for me to discover I had forgotten to bring my saddle.  Ha ha. I was the camp entertainment as I walked from rig to rig hoping someone had brought an extra saddle that would work for me and my horse.

It was around then that I ventured into my first self-publishing experience, creating trail guides for the biggest, toughest 100 mile endurance race in the world — The Tevis Cup — which uses the trans-Sierra portion of the Western States Trail. I sold more copies than I expected and actually recovered the publication costs.  

It wasn’t till after 9/11 that I turned pro — and that was only because I couldn’t stand one more day of my brief stint as a substitute teacher (sorry, but I just do not like kids).  I have no idea why the newspaper hired me, but suddenly I was a reporter and feature story writer for a weekly regional here in western New Mexico. My beat was the county I live in — all 7000 square miles of it.  I attended every meeting I could get to, showed up at every accident that I found out about, covered every oddball incident I could discover — but best of all, I interviewed a lot of… um… fascinating locals.  My county is full of them.  

Fast forward to spending about a decade writing for a natural resource research and analysis institute in southern New Mexico, and then a few years after that of working as a contract writer for my county (and several others). The politics of it — OMG. It was worse than being around kids all day. So I waved goodbye to a real income and, with the help of NaNoWriMo, plunged into writing novels.

Note that breaking into the field of fiction writing is not something I recommend for anyone who plans on supporting themselves or their family.  I could do it because I was by this time a senior citizen and receiving Social Security.  It’s not going to be a get-rich quick scheme for me, since I only recently found a publisher for one of the two novels I’ve completed (Evolution Device).  But besides a few self-published chapbooks and two (2) short stories , that’s it.  And yet I’m writing all the time.

Writing is not what I do, it’s what I am.  A state of being. Lines of dialogue and narrative float through my brain as I scoop horse poop, a mindless task that has become a kind of meditation for me.  Some of what free-associates its way into my consciousness is actually useful. Sometimes it just gets lost, like dreams upon waking. Ideas come from all over the place. I’ll be standing in line at the grocery store and get caught staring. I smile and find something else to look at, but I really wasn’t staring so much as forgetting to look away.  A story has captured my attention, you see — sparked by the person, or the conversations around me, or who knows what — and it’s unfolding in my mind and I’m lost to the real world.

I have a tiny field notes book with me almost all the time, though I seem to more often end up scribbling ideas on the backs of envelopes, receipts, or paper napkins. I’ve found that dictating my thoughts to my phone as I hike works, too. When I get home I put the phone’s speaker next to my laptop’s mic, open Google Docs to a new document, click on Tools/Voice Typing, and let Google do the transcribing.  Oh yes, the transcription is ugly — Google is a riot with its interpretations of what I’ve said, not to mention all the oh sh*ts and ums and backtracking and such — but at least I’ve got someplace to start.

I may have been born to write, but that doesn’t make it easy. Those words bubbling around inside are delicate things that need to be lured onto the screen or paper. Skittish things that will dissipate if handled roughly. Elusive and shy, even when they demand attention. They can’t be forced, but they can’t be ignored, either.

Writing is like being a slave to words. 

NaNoWriMo is coming

2017 NaNoWriMo

Yes, writing maniacs, it is that time of year again.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30.”   About NaNoWriMo

So.  Why do that crazy thing?
If you’ve never completed writing a novel it could be because you become overwhelmed with the idea itself.  Or you figure it’s just too hard to find the time.  Or that you never could write that many words.  Or… well, there’s lots of reasons.

The one thing that I found to be true for me was that it’s easy to start a novel but not so easy to finish one.  Somewhere not that far into the process I lose momentum.  It wasn’t until I started with NaNoWriMo, coming on 14 years ago, that I discovered the secret to writing a novel:  Write lots of words.

Hey, if you don’t believe me, believe Stephen King in his great book, On Writing (p 145), “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others:  read a lot and write a lot.”

I read a lot — no problem there for me.  And I thought I was writing a lot, but if that was true seems to me there’d be at least one novel completed.  Understand — I’ve been writing for a living for longer than I have been messing around with NaNoWriMo, but non-fiction writing is a whole ‘nother ball of wax.  It’s easy to write 50 page and longer documents for a client month after month.  Fiction?  I had to come up with my own stuff to write about – stuff that hadn’t happened anywhere but inside my own head!  And trust me, that was scary!

Do not be fooled by 50K!
Coming up with that many words is hard to do at first.  It seemed impossible that first year or so.  But it was worth it because it turns out that 50,000 words is enough to push me over the hump and onto the slide towards The End of a proper length novel (i.e. significantly more than 50K words).  But I didn’t know that when I started.  And I didn’t find out the first year, or the second.

I forget how many years till I did it for the first time – and let me tell you, that was quite the day, the day I got to submit my 50K.  And what came of it?  I mean, do you see a novel around Amazon with my name on it?  (Yes, I do have a book on Amazon, but it’s not a novel.  It did come about indirectly because of what NaNoWriMo taught me, though).

So what did NaNoWriMo do for me?  I learned I could make up enough stuff every day to seriously write.  I learned this by setting my butt on my chair and my fingers on the computer keyboard every single day for a month to churn out at least 2000 words a day.  Yeah, I know — if you do the math, you “only” need to write 1666.66 words a day to get your 50K by the end of November.  But there are days when Life Happens.  Thanksgiving, here in the USA, for one thing.  And other real obligations that mean missing a day of writing now and again.  So I learned to write more than the minimum each day.  If, somewhere before the 30th of November I reached 50k, well, so much the better.

Along the way to 50k (hey, that has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it), writing the required number of words every single day taught me to stop getting all caught up in writing the correct words, instead of  just writing words.  Because it’s writing words that gets the story out.

The need to churn out the 2000 words meant I dragged in all kinds of ideas that I might not have otherwise in order to make my daily quota.  Those ideas led to other ideas, and had my characters doing all sorts of interesting things that they might not have done if I had been wedded to writing correctly.

Because you can always come back and fix the writing.  But that takes precious time.  And besides, first you have to have something to fix.

A close corollary is that I learned that my words weren’t precious.   I had churned them out and when the time came to edit, well, hey.  I had proven to myself I could churn out more if I had to.  I don’t just delete, mind you.  Because my words are a teensy bit precious to me.  My darling words that get cut from my edits go into file folders for later use.  Not that I tend to ever bother looking at them, but I could if I wanted to.

It’s a comfort knowing they’re safely there.  It allows me to be more ruthless than I might be otherwise.  Believe me, ruthless is necessary, but not for NaNoWriMo.  For after November 30.

Counting down to November
So here I am, about to embark on my 14th NaNoWriMo.  I’ve reactivated my account for 2017.  Donated some money to the cause (not a requirement, but it’s a non-profit, and if/when I get my first novel out there, I’ll have gotten so much more out of NaNoWriMo than I have ever given them!)

I’ve given no thought whatsoever as to what I’ll write in a few weeks.  It doesn’t matter.  I’ll write.  For 30 days (well, 29 since Thanksgiving is happening no matter what) I’ll have the luxury of telling people, sorry.  I’m doing NaNoWriMo.  I can’t go anywhere.  I can’t do those things you’d like me to do.

I’m a writer.  I gotta write.