Catching the Horse, or How I Wrote a NaNo Thing

“If you fall off the horse, get back on.”

It’s an old saying, tried and true, that failure does not mean to stop trying.  Fall off the horse, jump back on quickly.  The longer you wait, the harder it is to work up the courage to try again.

But what if you wait so long that the horse wanders off?

This last year, my writing life has mainly been devoted to revising my novel manuscript.  Writing and rewriting, incorporating comments from beta readers, changing the order of scenes, ripping out characters, you name it.  At this point, the “horse” of my manuscript isn’t ready for show-jumping for an agent, but it’s getting close.

While I threw all my efforts into polishing this manuscript, something else was happening so slowly, so quietly, that it took me a long time to notice.  The “horses” of all my other stories were wandering off into the sunset, reins trailing behind them.  I was so focused on what I’d already written that I wasn’t producing anything new.

Then November arrived, and with it, National Novel Writing Month.  For the last six years, NaNoWriMo has provided a springboard for my creativity.  Something about knowing thousands of other people are also crazy enough to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days alongside me is remarkably freeing.  At midnight on October 31, metaphorical trumpets blare, and I’m once again spurring a novel down the track hurtling toward the finish line of “THE END.”  In all of my attempts, I’ve hit the 50,000 word NaNo goal, though “THE END” has eluded me.  That’s all right.  Each of those novels gained enough momentum during the NaNo race that hitting an ending is inevitable.

NaNo 2011 rolled around after I had spent most of the year polishing the hooves of my thoroughbred.  I looked around to find another story to ride for NaNo and discovered all of my horses had wandered off, and what was worse, I was not certain I could entice any to come back to me.  When I first started writing, I never imagined I could come up with any story ideas that could hold my attention for long enough to produce even one novel, much less several set in the same story universe.  This year I had the opposite problem.  I wasn’t sure I could do it again.

In the weeks before NaNo, I fretted about what to write.  Should I play it safe and write the next adventure in my usual characters’ lives?  Should I use the time to finish one of my other drafts?  Or should I, could I, use the momentum and joy of NaNo to try something new?

My “stable” of stories has room for many novels.  So far, the stalls are filled with a thoroughbred of an almost submission-ready manuscript, another thoroughbred waiting its turn for grooming, and a few work horses that need a lot of training before they’ll be ready for the submissions race.  I knew I could easily use NaNo to entice another work horse into the stable.  That’d be the safe course.  Write another adventure for my characters, give them another mystery to solve.  Plod forward.

Something within me rebelled at the thought.  I’d played it safe by spending all year in revision and never poking my head outside the stable door.  Something within me wanted to soar.

So how does one entice one’s creativity to return from the green pastures where it’s wandered off?  Soft words and treats?  Threats of spur and whip?  That’s a good way to scare creativity off into the hills never to be seen again.

Getting creative about being creative works.  So does sneaking up on the problem.  Novels can be skittish.  Too much pressure, too many expectations, and the enthusiasm to work on so large a project can wither.

This year, I snuck up on NaNo.  I decided not to write a novel.  I wrote a Thing.  Every time I put hands to keyboard or opened my notebook, I fed words to the Thing.  It sat in a corner of the stable yards gobbling down word after word while the horses looked at it askance and stayed out of the way of its voracious appetite.

And a funny thing happened to the Thing.  The more I worked on it, the more coherent it became.  The style is different than anything I’ve attempted before, the ideas are new, and its place in my story universe opened up so many ideas that I’m still reeling from all the tantalizing possibilities.  By allowing my Thing its thingness, by not forcing myself to conform to my own expectations, something wonderful was born.

Now after NaNo is over, I have a 50,000 word Thing still hungry for more words.  It’s looking more like a novel than when it started, but I’m not sure whether the Thing is going to hatch into a horse like my other novels.

Right now, it’s looking a lot more like a pegasus.

Keiko Called Time

So there I was at the Write to the End group scribbling away in my notebook. Just before this round of writing, Anthony had announced his Doorways to Time Anthology call for entries. I was working on story idea I got from that. The way it was turning out, this story wouldn’t work for the anthology, but I’d write another one for him later. Even the sound of the words Antony’s Anthology made it seem like they belonged together.

“Two minutes left,” said Keiko. “Finish up, or look for a good place to stop.”

There wasn’t a good place, but that was okay. Enough was on paper that I would be able to figure out what I meant later if I wanted to go back to this story.

Keiko called time, and just that one night, Time decided to stop by, you know, to chat and see what she needed. It was Pacific Time specifically who came over to our table. She had long, flowing tropical hair and looked very relaxed as if she had all the time in the world, which I suppose was not far from the truth.

I was sitting near Keiko, so I heard Pacific Time introduce herself in a low voice, but I think most people in the group figured she was one of the many people who stop in once in awhile, and then don’t come back for a long time.

“I don’t get out to Silicon Valley that often,” said Pacific Time. “For the most part, Internet Time resides here, and he zips all over the place so we don’t connect that well. I was coasting on a weather front when you called, and thought, hey, why not?”

“Oooh,” said Keiko with a smile. “I’m so glad you came. Pull up a chair and sit down. We’ve just finished one of our 20 minute writing sessions and we’re going to read. Did you bring anything?”

Pacific Time shook her head.

“That’s okay, said Keiko. “You can listen in for this round, and then we can talk during the break.”

Nothing fazes Keiko.

How to Run Beta Reading Cycles

So you’ve written your piece, read through it and revised it, worked on it some more, and now it’s reached the point where you’re thinking of submitting it for publication. Before you do that, consider rounding up some beta readers and having a beta reading cycle.

Beta Readers
What are beta readers? They are people who read your work pre-publication and give you feedback. The term came from pre-releases of software that go through beta testing. Where do you find beta readers? Try your writing group, and if you know people who love to read the genre you write in, ask for volunteers. If you’re writing mysteries, and your potential beta reader doesn’t like the genre, then he or she is probably not a good fit for your project.

Sometimes it’s helpful to give the beta readers guidelines, especially if this is the first time you’re working with them. This can be as simple as asking them to tell you what they like, what they don’t like, and to flag any areas that confuse them. If there’s something in particular that is giving you trouble you can mention it or not. For instance, you might say, “There’s something wrong with the ending, but I can’t figure out what.” Or you might decide not to say anything and see if your beta readers come to the same conclusion.

Planning and Managing the Review Cycle
You want your beta reading cycle to be effective. So it’s a good idea to give some thought about the kind of help you’re looking for, and to schedule your beta cycle with a specific beginning and end date. Talk to your potential beta readers to make sure they are available and that they want to participate. Only use beta readers who like the idea of participating, and plan on enlisting a few more than you think you need. That way if some get too busy and don’t have time, you can still get comments from the others.

Preparing a Document for Review
I find it helpful to save the file for the piece that is going out for review with the date in the file name. It could be something like this: title_date_mylastname_beta. That way I know exactly which version of the piece went out for review. Beta reviews can be done in common file formats like PDF or Word that you send to the reviewers (soft copy), or you can provide printouts (hard copy). For shorter pieces, many readers don’t mind reading a file, or printing it out themselves to mark it up. If you have a long piece, find out if your beta readers prefer printouts.

Note: One way for reviewers to mark up a Word document is to turn on tracking. That identifies every change but preserves the original text. If you receive this type of mark up from a reviewer, you can choose to accept or delete each change. Or you can print it and work from the hard copy if that’s easier for you.

If you’ve written a novel and your beta readers prefer hard copy, the cost of reproduction can add up quickly. So far, the least expensive option that I have found is to go through Lulu (www.lulu.com) and set up a book as a private project. A private project isn’t visible to others, and that is the default setting at Lulu when you upload a project. You can use their wizard to format your beta review draft, and then order the number of copies that you need, using whatever coupon code is active when you place your order. Lulu has online chat support during business hours and I’ve found them to be very helpful.

It pays to shop around, and you might find a better deal somewhere else, so you should comparison shop before you make your final decision about where to get your printouts produced. If you really can’t afford to have copies made, tell your beta readers and ask if they can work from soft copy for your project.

Review Comments
In a perfect world, everyone you approach for a beta read would give you insightful, useful comments that allow you to polish and perfect your work. In real life you’ll discover that some beta readers are more able to give useful comments than others. You’ll also find that they have different strengths. Some will spot issues with language mechanics, others can give good advice about plot. You’ll also encounter readers who either like or dislike a piece, or a part of it, but don’t know why. All of this can be useful, but sometimes it can be frustrating and confusing if the readers’ comments contradict each other, or if you feel the comments are not relevant to your aims as a writer. Remember too, that some reviewers will forget to tell you what they like about your work because they are focusing so much on trying to help you find any mistakes before you submit it for publication.

If you’re not sure which comments you want to follow up on, you can always make a test file. Try the revision and see what you think. Do you like the story better—or does making that change introduce a problem? If you like it better and it introduces a problem, can you fix this new problem? Sometimes revisions do “break things” that you have to go back and fix. With practice it gets easier to evaluate review comments and figure out which are most helpful to you. You’ll also learn which beta readers are the best fit for you.

Beta reviews can be a bit nerve wracking, especially when you’re first starting out, but they can also be very valuable. Being on the receiving end of comments can give you some insight about how to be a beta reader yourself. Once you start using beta readers, you will most likely hear from some of them about pieces they’d like you to review.