The Quantum Nature of Blogging, Part I

I set out to troubleshoot my perfectionist blogging process and instead discovered the quantum nature of writing. While I enjoy blogging, I have difficulty posting often. My problem is that blogging is something of a struggle for me, in the way that climbing Mount Doom in a state of extreme dehydration with the weight of intense evil around your neck is something of a struggle. I wanted to figure out a way to minimize the struggle, blog faster, and still enjoy myself.

When I started this blog, I assumed that coming up with ideas would be tough. I bought Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and Rise of the Machines by Kristen Lamb, which both discuss coming up with ideas for blog posts. Both books are helpful, both are written in a friendly manner that makes regular blogging seem less intimidating, and both aided me in coming up with post ideas. But post ideas weren’t what I needed. Turns out, I have no shortage of ideas: there are over four dozen unfinished posts in the Scrivener project for my blog, and that’s not even counting posts still in the idea stage.

"Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book your compostion of yourself is at stake." --E. L. Doctorow

Yeah, that’s the problem. That’s perfectionism in a nutshell, but the nutshell also has a fuzzy outer husk of anxiety and the frustrating problem of “I don’t have a nutcracker due to impatience and the wide availability of pre-chopped walnuts.”

Perfectionism is a constant problem for me, but I’m also capable of writing very fast*. What ends up happening is that I’ll get down several hundred words of a blog post in fifteen minutes or so, but then I become mired in doubt while attempting to actually finish it. Or, I might set out to write a quick post about a haircutting youtube video I found helpful, but then I end up writing a treatise on everything I know about haircutting. This is where the Mount Doom analogy comes in. Writers are junkies for analogies about writing. Even that last sentence verged on analogy, because I didn’t mean “junkies” in the literal sense.

Blogging requires the opposite of what I’ve been doing: frequency, speed, and often brevity. If you want your site to have good SEO (search engine optimization), you need to post often. Blogging is fast. A blog post can do the same things any piece of writing can: inform, persuade, entertain, or tell a story. But it can also function as social media, open a dialogue, or pass on something interesting from another site. It’s ok to share something (such as the haircutting video) and start a conversation without making a post an exhaustive monument about everything concerning that topic. I read and enjoy plenty of blogs that do this, and many blog posts tend to be shortish. I do read some blogs with posts regularly going over 1000 (and maybe even 2000 words), but I aim to write 300-700 words because that’s the length I enjoy reading most. It’s short enough to be a quick read, but long enough to expand upon a topic.

I’ve tried a lot of strategies to finish blog posts faster. Timeboxing was one, and I made a flowchart last year to accompany my brand new timeboxed blogging method. After spending an unnecessary amount of time choosing color schemes and type faces for this flowchart, and in the process re-encountering my old nemesis Procrastination (he has a twirly mustache and a fencing sword and a velvet cape as dark as his evil deeds), I ended up failing to use my timeboxes for more than a few weeks. Timeboxing works great for brainstorming and editing, or anything else that doesn’t have a definite end condition. But writing? You can say you’ll spend only 30 minutes drafting an aimed-for 600 word post, but the reality is that you’ll keep writing until you reach the end, whether or not you stayed in the timebox.

It should have been obvious from the beginning that I have a functional process for fiction writing, but not for blogging. After starting, but not finishing, two posts** the other day, some magic combination of unfinished blog posts, funky coffee drinks, and driving a borrowed car that I’ve been fat-shaming***, lead to the lightbulb moment that I don’t finish or revise a blog post the way I would any piece of fiction. I suspect that most other writers and artists geek out**** on this type of helpful self-revelation. So if it seems weird that I was super-excited to get home and construct a new writing process for myself… well, it’s probably still weird, but I’m sure I have a kindred spirit somewhere. (Kindred spirit, if you’re reading, let’s be best friends and trade colored index cards and braid each other’s hair if we even have long enough hair for that, which I don’t.)

Here is what a working fiction-writing process looks like: make an idea-mess, tame it into a summary sentence, expand that sentence into a more useful idea-mess, then write. After that you get to revise, and revision is where you sleight-of-hand your draft so that it looks like you knew what you were doing all along. Not everyone writes that way, but I came by some of my process through the How to Think Sideways writing course (highly recommended, more so than my actual creative writing degree), so I know there are others out there. When I decided to fix my blogging process (which comes down to typing out mental narration), I turned to the How to Think Sideways lessons that had helped me so much.

But I also ended up digging into the nuts and bolts of my own writing process. And after spending a few hours pacing and scribbling diagrams, I discovered the building blocks of all written matter. And that’s what Part II will be about.


*I’ve written over 2000 words per hour in the past. I just didn’t enjoy them.
**One is about my recently-deceased Chevy Prizm and the other is about why the phrase “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a bunch of crap. I try to limit the number of rant-based posts I write, and so the latter may not see the shining light of the internet.
***My recently-deceased Chevy Prizm is smaller than a Subaru Forester, which I accuse of being a fat beast when it won’t go into a parking spot the way I want.
****This is way too many footnotes for one post, let alone one paragraph, and I’m going to have to start using superscript numerals instead of asterisks that, taken in a group of four, make it appear that I have some choice words I’m not using. But, rest assured, I would use them.

Brainstorming Story Conflict

In my last post, I went over some of the issues with trying to plot an entire novel in an hour, when you don’t actually need to. That’s kind of a niche problem to face, but I help run National Novel Writing Month events in my region of Massachusetts, and we have a planning workshop with limited time. While I think the Random Rapid Plotting exercise has its uses, I didn’t want to use it for our NaNoWriMo group’s Novel Planning Workshop a second year in a row.

Last year, I created a second plotting exercise. This one has been a lot more useful to me, and went over well at our group’s Novel Planning Workshop. It also combines three of my favorite things: lists, index cards, and rolling dice. While it is designed to be done in an hour, to fit into the workshop, it’s also a good exercise to pick up during the writing phase to generate more conflict.

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Index cards multiply like gremlins, except that throwing water on them also makes them soggy and useless.

Our group’s twelve-hour Coffee Crawl and Writing Marathon is tomorrow. I need all the conflict I can come up with to get through that, so I’m going through the exercise again in preparation.

The Conflict Brainstorming Exercise is exactly what it sounds like. You quickly write down lists of characters, attributes, places, and events. You brainstorm them if you don’t know them already. Then you roll a die a bunch of times, and do some freewriting about potential conflicts. Some things won’t stick, but it’s still a handy way to find conflict from all areas.

This year, I found out that the Conflict Brainstorming Exercise is also good for finding where you have holes in your story. I’m rewriting my very first NaNoWriMo novel (from 2007!) because I know there’s a story I love buried under a bunch of nonsense with a useless second protagonist who had no business being in the story. Stars Fall Out is now also the backstory of a character I’ve written a lot about elsewhere. That means that the world and the antagonist both changed. Trying to write those lists in three minutes showed me where I needed to do more thought work.

If you want to try your hand at the Conflict Brainstorming Exercise, download it here.

Random Rapid Plotting

Why would I until the end of National Novel Writing Month to share a plotting exercise with you? Mostly because things happened, and I didn’t get around to it earlier. But also because there’s room for plotting and planning towards the middle and end of the month. At the beginning of NaNo, there’s always a lot of talk about planning versus pantsing: do you plan before you write, or do you write by the seat of your pants? Most of us are in between. I like to start off with solid character and setting details, and I can wing it for quite awhile before I have to stop and figure out how things come together.

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Why this picture? Do I need a reason? Can’t we just be happy I didn’t attempt to use it to create an extended metaphor about seeing where your plot is going?

Every November is National Novel Writing Month, a time when thousands of people all over the world challenge themselves to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. If this is the first you’re hearing of it, fear not. There are twelve days left. You can take two days to stock up on index cards and candy bars, one hour to do some Random Rapid Plotting, and ten days to become a writer-hermit.

I created this plotting exercise for my local NaNoWriMo group to use at our Novel Planning Party in October. Since we also go over character and setting, there’s about an hour to do the plotting exercise. The first time we ran this event, we used Holly Lisle’s “Notecarding: Plotting Under Pressure,” which is also found in Mugging the Muse. It’s a lot of fun, and I’ve used it successfully for three of my favorite November novels. When I printed it out for the first time, I realized that the instructions are lengthy, which is tough with the time constraint of the planning party.

The problem with having an hour to plot a novel is that any method comprehensive enough to be good is going to take longer than an hour. And since the event is in mid-October, we all have longer than an hour to spend plotting. So while we need to have a plotting method that can be done in a hour, it’s also unnecessary in the larger scheme of things.

Two years ago was the first time I tried making my own plotting exercise, and this is what I came up with. It basically involves throwing whatever random stuff is on your mind into a chart, linking things together in a more cohesive, scene-based form, and extrapolating from there. Drawing on the chart in colored pencil to make connections was fun, as well as a nice visual change from my normal novel notes. I think it’s a decent enough exercise, and I came up with a fun plot when I did a test drive on it. It was a contemporary fantasy with an electrician-wizard tracking down a spirit in the power lines, but there were also subplots with a sinister pet groomer and delinquent teenagers, which are my favorite type of teenagers.

However, I didn’t actually use it to plot my own novel that year. The thing is that doing a one-hour plotting exercise when you actually have several weeks to work things out at a more reasonable pace feels slapdash. There’s a such thing as overplanning, but if you’re starting plotting with a few weeks before November, there’s time to let plot ideas percolate and come together naturally.

There are two things I think Random Rapid Plotting would be awesome for.

The first, and the reason I still decided to post this so late in the month, is planning middles and ends. Ends are tougher than beginnings. Everything has to come together and make sense at some point. I had interesting results when I tested this with my current work-in-progress. It helped me think of new ways to put my characters in different situations and connect seemingly unrelated events. It’s a nice way to tie in bits and pieces I came up with in the earlier part of the month.

The second is deciding, at the very last minute, that you don’t want to go into NaNoWriMo with zero planning. Maybe it’s 11:00p.m. on October 31, you’re in the middle of a horror movie, and you remember that NaNo is starting in an hour. You don’t want to fly seat-of-your pants, but if you take your time to plan, you’ll be 10,000 words in the hole by the time you start writing.

That’s what I would use it for, anyway. Last minute plotting, and fast. So I guess the name was appropriate.

Download “Random Rapid Plotting” here.

NaNoWriMo Retrospective

This November had so many issues that if it were a person, it would be waist-deep in therapy, hopped up on dubious psych meds, and answering a lot of kind-yet-probing questions from well-meaning-yet-irritating family and friends.  Despite this, I managed to pull out a National Novel Writing Month win by writing 12,000 words this past weekend while also finishing moving out of my old apartment.

Here are some of my NaNoWriMo highlights:

Accidentally naming a character “Feta.”

Yes, like the cheese. This came of fiddling around with random syllables to name characters in my fantasy world. It worked out in my favor because writing her name “Feta” eventually made something click in my head and I thought, “Ooh, what if she isn’t using her real name?” Thus, a sinister plotline was born.

BTW, in 2010, I accidentally named a character Sean Astin. Yes, like the actor.

Successfully writing a jump rope rhyme

Poetry ain’t my thing. Saying “ain’t” ain’t my thing either, because that felt awkward and self-conscious. I’ve always envied fantasy with Tolkien-esque rhymes and songs, so penning a creepy little jump rope rhyme for my fantasy world was a milestone for me.

The Coffee Crawl and Writing Marathon

Not only do I participate in the online aspect of NaNoWriMo, I also co-run events for my local region. This was our 4th annual writing marathon, a 12-hour event that we spend hopping between coffee shops and writing all the way in a state of gleeful, caffeinated madness.

Writing in my new office

November was also the month I moved to a bigger apartment. I now have an office, which was probably meant to be a mud room.

Soap opera conflict

For all the faults of soap operas, I can’t help but enjoy gloriously convoluted soap opera plots. Like: Stanley is marrying Nancy but he slept with her twin sister Valerie, only it was actually Nancy pretending to be Valerie because Sasha blackmailed her and meanwhile Dirk is embezzling money from Stanley’s brother, Cal, who has a secret in his lake house that Dr. Van Shrubbery discovers when he pays a house call to Nancy who only called him to make sure he wasn’t home so Barbette could search his files for evidence of Sasha’s secret younger brother who was adopted by a family in France and is looking for money but only so he can use it for revenge on Valerie, who went to France once and broke his heart.

I didn’t manage anywhere close to that level of soap opera conflict, but the much smaller dose I added to my novel was a lot of fun.

Reach for the stars?

DSC02326Setting goals always involves a strategic game of self-manipulation. This is difficult to do, since I know I’m doing it, and I can predict my every move and counter-move.

I have a bad history with setting writing goals. While I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month for seven Novembers in a row, and reached 50,000 words for six of them, I never seem to do well with writing goals outside of NaNoWrimo. What happens is that I fall short of my goal, get depressed, set a smaller goal for next time, fall short of that goal also, get depressed, and then repeat the whole cycle until I’m at the point where I’m telling myself, “This’ll be a good writing month if I can just get a period at the end of that sentence I wrote a couple months back.”

July is Camp NaNoWriMo, the free and loose version of the main event in November. On the website, I set my goal as 60,000 words for this month. A goal, as it happens, that I had no intention of actually reaching. If I set 30,000 words as my actual goal, I would likely fail and only reach 14,000. Then get depressed, and shoot for 7,000 next time. See above. So this month, I aimed for 60,000 words, hoping to fail and land at 30,000 instead. Until now, I had even managed to trick myself into thinking this was my actual goal. I had charts and lists to show how much work I would need to do in a day to reach my false goal, and so I believed it was real. Like the Velveteen rabbit. Or not. Pinocchio? Lt. Commander Data?

Anyway, my goal of 60,000 words was alive to me. I believed in it.

That’s the kind of mental chicanery I need to pull with my pessimist’s brain.

Orange Marshmallow Apocalypse is my novel-in-progress about outcast middle schoolers trying to stop the bizarre and devastating effects of a nuclear bomb detonated in upstate new york, in an alternate world where said detonation is activated by magic. Right now, it’s a little shy of 40,000 words, 10,000 of which I wrote this month. I’m still wrestling with how I want them to find out that they may be able to reverse some of the magical effects of the detonation, though not the most tragic ones.

I’m also working on a children’s story about a girl who helps a trio of goblins save Halloween. This one is going better at the moment, although I know I’m going to be way off my word count. I have to choose between a smaller, simpler story that fits the picture book model I agreed on with my friend, the illustrator, or a larger, spookier, awesomer story that will probably be twice as long.

Camp NaNoWriMo has eight more days, counting today. I have 13,000 words left to fail at my official goal by 29,998 words but meet my actual goal, which I am pretending is not my goal.