Week four of camp: What really counts

My stats for Camp NaNoWriMo are embarrassing. However, I am proud of the fact that I blogged every week, which is a goal I set for myself in late March. And while writing often slips down to the bottom of my to-do list, it has not fallen off completely, even if my desk is a mess of all things not related to writing, and I spend far to much time wandering around my house completely overwhelmed by the stuff that seems to multiple while I sleep.

Data is great. It helps with identifying a problem and measuring the success of implemented strategies (wow, I totally sounded like an administrator right there). Data can also make you feel worthless, like when I look at my project statistics and the bulls-eye that barely made it through the second outer ring.

I taught special education in middle school for four years. During my second year, our building was in danger of a massive restructuring and forced to focus a ridiculous amount of time and energy on improving test scores. My small group of students were reading below grade level. Way below grade level. To go from a 1 to a 3 (out of 4) on their state tests was not reasonable despite the desperate pleas of my administration, and I struggled to find ways to help them feel successful. In the weeks leading up to the tests, I set individual, attainable goals for each student, worked on skills that would help them do better — and here’s the most important part — taught them how to be calm and confident during a testing situation. Not focus on what they couldn’t accomplish, but rather what they could. I’m happy to say that many of my students improved on their previous scores, and we celebrated the success — even though their scores were still below the “acceptable” level.

I am a bit ashamed by the lack of overall progress during camp but happy to say that my percentage accomplished went from 27.6% in July to 36.9% in April. An improvement. And while my final day of working on the camp project was spent deleting more words than adding new ones, I decided that what really counts is forward momentum. Not giving up. I will continue to write, continue to work on my WIP, continue to participate in the monthly writing challenges.

What really counts is attitude. Confidence. Belief in yourself no matter the obstacle. My students were told they were the lowest performers in the school, but they refused to let a number dictate what they were capable of accomplishing. In my current job, I see adults return to school after years of working, raising a family, overcoming illness — they sit in my office and tell me they are finally ready to earn their degree and will do whatever it takes.

What really counts is determination.

 

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Week three of camp: Balance

Total word count this week: 504 words. Grand total after three weeks: 2492 words.

Perhaps I should have made my goal a teeny bit lower.

I’ve made peace with my need to set the bar higher than reasonable. Have I learned my lesson? Maybe. Ask me again in July when the next session of camp comes around and I decide the night before that I’ll be able to write/revise way more than I allow myself time for.

It has been a stressful few weeks at work. I’m not sleeping well. Schedules shift with the season, and change makes me anxious.

But.

Tonight is a gorgeous spring evening. I dropped kiddo off at his last indoor soccer practice, walked down the street to a local coffee shop, and am sitting in the warm late day sun, happy to breathe fresh air and have these precious moments to spend with words and a delicious cup of ginger mint tea.

Life brings me down sometimes. Tries to pull me under with both the mundane and the soul crushing. Writing has always been an escape. For years I journaled, poured my teenage/early twenties angst onto page after page, book after book. Wrote poems that I read now and have to laugh at the shear drama of it all. When life stopped requiring regular mental purging, I turned to fiction and found release in the stories of people who took up residency in my brain. (Apparently they didn’t get the memo that it’s crazy in there.)

Sometimes, writing brings me down too. The pressure I put on myself to write more, write better, find an agent, get published. Create a brand.

You know what I’d like my brand to be?

Balance.

Me, standing in tree pose, roots firmly in the Earth, hands extended to the sky. Strong. Not falling over. Giving love to my family, my friends, myself. Giving my all at work, but then leaving it there. Giving my all on the page, but not worrying about perfection. Getting into nature and being one with the sights, the smells, the sounds. Dancing when the music moves me. Being still.

I sat down once this week to work on my new project. Distractions continue to haunt me, brought on by fatigue, a lack of self-discipline, time. It’s okay. I wrote once, and once is better than nonce. I’m happy with how things are going and feel like I have a decent amount of momentum. There is one final week left in camp, and this week is crazy busy, so I don’t see a miraculous race to the finish happening.

But.

My camp mate is coming in from out of town at the end of the week. The three members of our cabin along with a couple other awesome writing peeps are getting together. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the end of this mini journey.

Sometimes you sit alone in a coffee shop (or outside of one) and type away into the void, and sometimes you hang out with friends and laugh until your sides hurt. I expect to do a bit of both this week.

Balance.

 

Week two of camp: Working backward

Princess Bride is one of my favorite movies as it contains many quotes applicable to real life situations (as does one of my other faves, Real Genius). An example:

Inigo makes it sound so easy. “A” is happening, so we must do “B”, and then “C”, but not before I do “D”. Ah, the perfect plot prescription.

I’ve struggled to settle into the plot of my new project. I know what I want to write about and have a rough idea of how to get there, but I’m pretty sure someone tossed the road map out the window. Wait, there never was a road map. Who uses road maps anymore?

Enter my Camp NaNoWriMo cabin mates. There are only three of us in our self-proclaimed “Cabin of Fun”, but three brains are better than one and seeing as mine seems to be stuck like a record player needle (record players? see note above regarding road maps), I need all the help I can get.

The other day we chatted about zero drafts, another way to describe when you gather up information for what will eventually become your first draft. Reading, researching, jotting ideas down in various journals and then forgetting where you left the journals, stream of consciousness writing that will hopefully lead you to the place you need to be. It’s all an important part of the process. But so often we want to rush through it to get to the YAY, WORD COUNTS! LOOK AT ALL I ACCOMPLISHED! part of the writing. Which I have been feeling. Hard. I desperately want the little arrow on my target to inch closer to the bulls eye. We’re halfway through the month and I am hovering around 10%.

I promised in last week’s post that I would keep moving forward. And I did.

No, wait. I didn’t. I moved backward.

Lemme ‘splain.

My cabin mate suggested I think about what happens in the end of my story and work backward. There are two main plot threads, one in real time and one through a series of flashbacks. She said I need to start with where my character is at the end, then figure out how she got there, and how she got into each previous situation. Cause and effect in reverse. She said he helps her identify potential plot holes and makes it easier to create an outline and from there a first draft.

Sounded legit, so I tried it.

I didn’t add any new words to the story itself this past week, but I wrote approximately 360 words in my journal using her exercise. It helped me see the big picture better. And I’m excited about using the plot points to move forward with the draft. Which may end up being a zero draft. Right now it is one giant chapter that jumps all over the place. Most of it will be cut, but in those pages I hope to find something worthwhile.

When you feel like there is too much and you need to sum up, try doing it backwards.

The story behind the seven

Recently a friend on social media tagged me in a post about books. It asked to post the covers of seven books I loved over the course of seven days. No review of any sort or an explanation as to why I loved them. Just the covers.

BOOKS? I’m in.

NO EXPLANATION? You’re killing me, social media.

I played by the rules. Posted the covers of seven of my favorite books with no reason as to why I love them. But I couldn’t let it rest. I needed to tell people why I love those books and why it was difficult to narrow it down to only seven.

So here are my choices, in the order they appeared (which was originally supposed to be in the order I read them, but I messed up at the end).

 

JImage may contain: one or more people and textames and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

I love nearly everything by Roald Dahl and have read his books to myself, to my students, and to my kids. They are fun to read and full of quirky examinations of humanity. James has always held a special place in my heart. In first grade we had a student teacher named Miss Church. She read the book to us and I fell in love. It is a story of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds with a bit of magic and a fantastic swirl of adventure.

Image may contain: text

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Most people recognize author Shirley Jackson from her short story, The Lottery. I can’t remember if it was the story that led me to her, or the collection of books in my grandmother’s basement. I read the book in ninth grade, loved the dark, twisty tale, and went on to seek out every Shirley Jackson book I could find. She died young, so unfortunately there aren’t many. And back in the early 90’s when there was no world wide web to browse, I would spend hours in second hand bookstores searching for her work. I love everything about Shirley Jackson; her wry wit, the way she satirizes suburbia, and the darkness that creeps its way into her stories. My personal copy of the book is worn and well-loved, and I will never part with it.

Image may contain: textCat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

Atwood is another author on my top faves list. I dare you to read one of her books and not be completely taken in by the voice. I was first introduced to her in AP English with The Handmaid’s Tale. Hubs was actually surprised I didn’t pick that one as one of my favorites. Maybe because when I read Cat’s Eye the words spoke to me so clearly, as if Margaret Atwood had taken up residence in my brain. I read it in college during a time when I was discovering who I was as a woman and as a feminist. It is currently on my TBRA (To Be Read Again) list–I’m curious how life will have changed my perspective.

Image may contain: outdoor and natureWalk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

I talked about my love for this book in my post, November book report. It is heartwarming, and sweet, and sad, and it reminds me of my former middle school students who are all in their twenties now and I wonder how they’re doing and look I feel like crying again.

Image may contain: textHunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Text message from sister back in 2009: Have you heard of Hunger Games? So good.
Me: Can’t talk, reading.

I remember calling it The Lottery meets Survivor. I remember devouring it. I remember hiding my copy of Catching Fire so I could read it before my husband. There’s not much else to say. If you haven’t read the series, what exactly are you waiting for?

Image may contain: 3 people, textMacbeth by William Shakespeare

There are fights in my house over the merit of Shakespeare. (Hubs doesn’t read my blog. He admitted that in front of a bunch of our friends last night. So he won’t read that he is wrong when he says Shakespeare is not worth reading. Dead wrong. There is a reason Willy S is still taught in high school and performed all over the world.)

The Scottish play is my favorite. I loved it when I first read it in high school and even more when I got to perform as one of the witches in college, and even more when I taught it to a bunch of high schoolers and we turned individual scenes into mini stage plays and performed them for other classes. (If you look closely you can see the pink post-it notes indicating each class’s section.) I can recite full passages from memory. And in an alternate universe where I decided to become a stage actress, I would perform as Lady Macbeth and the audience would be moved by my portrayed insanity.

Image may contain: one or more people and textHarry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

The seventh cover was SUCH A DIFFICULT DECISION. I walked over to our bookshelf and pulled down book after book that I loved. Held them against my chest and thought fondly of our time together. I’m weird, okay?

I chose HP4 because even though I’m not exactly crazy about this cover, I remember staying up all night at my friend’s cabin reading it. The series was amazing, but book four is the one that sticks with me the most. I love how Hermoine works to figure out who she is and what she wants, and the tournament makes it a complete page turner.

There were a lot of runners-up, and I’m always on the lookout for the next book that will shift my perspective and make me think about it long after I close the cover.

Week one of camp: Procrastination and doubt

Camp NaNoWriMo started last Sunday. I didn’t add any new words to my project until Wednesday, when I managed to eek out a measly 142. Part of the problem is that it was spring break this past week and the boys were off from school. To save money hubs and I alternated days off with the kids. On my days off, instead of my usual writing time, I hung out with the boys and we visited friends and family. It was fun, but draining. I love my boys to pieces, but they have entirely too much energy. A quick trip to the grocery store is like taking monkeys through a tree farm.

I love springtime, but the weather this week has been cold and ugly, and it’s making me feel restless and trapped. I want to take walks, breath fresh air, and warm my face in the sun. It doesn’t help that my WIP takes place in winter. Those 142 words? They were all about how much we look forward to spring.

On Wednesday night I met up with a few of my writer friends for coffee and conversation. It was great to see them and reconnect. But I continued to feel listless and uninspired. Sometimes when I work on a project, it calls to me. I can’t wait to get back in front of the screen and get lost in the world I’ve created. The characters meet me in my dreams, tell me their secrets, beg me to get their stories onto the page. Right now? All I feel is doubt. I’m often crippled by decisions required at the beginning of a new project, and this is definitely one of those times. The creative flow is blocked by my inability to commit to an idea. Remember that outline I talked about in my last post? Yeah, that totally hasn’t happened yet.

Saturday morning I sat in my usual place during soccer practice and decided to do a bit of stream of consciousness writing in the hope that I could dislodge the dam of doubt in my brain. It helped, and I walked away with 695 new words, bringing my total for the week to 837. To reach the goal I’ve set of 10k, I need to average 2.5k a week.

I need to pick up the pace.

Life returns to normal this week. Kinda. My parents are home from their snowbird place down south and my dad likes to bring the boys to soccer, which means less time in the chilly yet muse-filled indoor arena. (Although my days were numbered anyway – the outdoor season will start next month and it’s difficult to type while sitting in a camp chair. In the rain. I have little hope for a decent spring to ever arrive.)

The bottom line? I allowed myself time for family this week, and time to wallow in the murky pool of procrastination and doubt. Now it is time to light the fire of let’s-get-moving-already. My goal for week two is to spend some solid time at my desk, not worrying about what is or is not working; simply writing. If the words are garbage, then the words are garbage. Hopefully they’ll lead me to where I need to be headed with the story. And hopefully it will stop snowing and I can get outside and talk a long walk full of positive brainstorming energy.

For the love of outlines

They say writers fall into one of two categories: Plotters and Pantsers. But the more I write, the more I realize it isn’t truly one or the other. Sure there are hardcore outliners out there, especially in the mystery/thriller genres where the author needs to know what will happen in the end. But I find that writers are often a blend of both, and I am trying to find the right balance.

In the beginning of the journey I like to call, “Hey, I can write a book”, I had an idea and I sat down to write. By the seat of my pants, as the saying goes. I quickly realized that if the book were going to make any sense past my romantic mind wanderings, I’d need to get some structure in place. The first craft book I read (a Christmas gift from my sister) was Martha Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer. As I read it, I used her techniques and advice to roughly plot out my book. It was still pantsing, but Pantsing with Purpose. Even though I didn’t know what the characters were doing scene to scene, I knew where I wanted to be at each key beat of the story, and that helped keep me on track.

When I wrote my second novel, I tried to stick to a similiar course, but it was a bit more challenging because there are dual storylines in two different time periods. I needed two separate story arcs that came together in the end, and so I wrote each story separately with the intention of eventually merging them together. To make matters worse, I had gotten so burned out by frustration over the beginning of the first novel (the original version had a prologue, and the feedback I received for said prologue was not exactly positive) that I started the story partway through. At one point the various documents on my laptop became confusing. I decided to create a wall of color coded sticky notes (which after much moving around became a floor of sticky notes) to keep everything organized. You can see the before and after below, accompanied by my lovely cat, Mia. I also went through several sheets on the legal pad trying to figure out the best way to merge the stories.

 

 

Some of the above decisions were poor ones. I should have kept the stories together from the start and I should have thoroughly outlined before starting to write. I spent way too much time in revisions, staring at the sticky notes and legal pad, rearranging the chapters until they made sense.

 

When I wrote my verse novel, I was required to turn in an outline first. My editor created a beat sheet of sorts and we had to identify the key moments of the story before it could be approved. I’ll admit, outlining was tough. I don’t always know what the characters will do and feel constrained by the thought of first this, then this, then this. And I did wander a bit away from the outline when I wrote the book, but let me tell you how much easier it was knowing where I was headed. (It was! Much, much easier!)

So now my friends, I am embarking on my next creative venture, and as per normal have decided I want to mess with the narrative status quo a bit. Which means I should outline, right? Which means I learned my lesson and I am not about to type willy-nilly for the next 70k and then spend months and months in revision hell, right?

I have tried. I’ve drawn plot diagrams and written out the beats with blanks underneath. I know it will help my story in the long run. But something in my brain keeps me from committing to structure.

Camp NaNoWriMo starts Sunday. It’s my second time participating, and things didn’t go so well last time. I’ve set a modest goal of 10k (camp is more flexible than the traditional NaNoWriMo in November). Right now my WIP is just shy of 6k. I’ve been working on it for two months. You do the math. If I want to be successful at camp, I need some sort of outline.

Right??

Spring intentions

Tomorrow is the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. We will officially enter into my favorite time of year: SPRING. Around here, spring generally shows up late, or sometimes never — going straight from 30 degrees to 70 and skipping over the lovely mild temperatures in between. Our first week is predicted to hover in the high 30’s with plenty of sun. Cue the cabin fevered Buffalonians emerging from their snow cocoons. In shorts.

But enough about the weather. What I love about spring is the opportunity to start new. Forget new year’s resolutions; they never stick. Our bodies are deep in hibernation on January 1, immersed in a time when we take things slowly, draw inward, and fight to stay warm. Now is the time to resolve to live life fuller; the days are getting longer, the sun has escaped its cloud prison, and the Earth sends an invitation to change in the form of robins and daffodils.

This morning I did a yoga practice specific to the spring equinox, meant to wake up the body. The instructor asked her virtual class to set intentions and I thought, what better way to set my intentions than to post them here on my blog where I can refer back and perhaps even be held accountable by my friends and followers.

My spring intentions:

  • Keep my body healthy and strong (and hopefully pain-free!)
  • Make time every week to write
  • Be present in the moment

I need to focus on my health and change what I can control because there are days when the pain from endometriosis is more than I can bear. So I’m trying a new approach and hopefully it will be one I can stick with and see some results. As for writing, that is always part of my goal list because it is something I seek to continually improve. Right now I am querying my second novel and the steady flow of rejection has been a bit heart breaking. But I’m not ready to give up on the idea of my stories being out in the world and know that I have to keep writing and make it part of my weekly routine. Lastly, I vow to be more present, especially when I’m with family and friends. To savor all moments, from the blissful to the mundane. Life is too short to exist solely for our to-do lists.

Bloom away little flowers. Embrace the longer days, the warm sunshine. Decide what needs to change in your life and change it. Now is the time. Happy spring, everyone.