A Thousand Words

I wrote these thousand words for a workshop for Canberra (Australia) NaNoWriMo participants run by the ACT Library Service and the ACT Writers’ Centre.

Halfway through November is halfway through NaNoWriMo. Some of us need lists, some require exercises to get us through, or word counts. I demand chocolate. I also need to read: I read what I’ve written as well as writing that takes me to story space. These thousand words are for those for whom reading about writing helps you write.

When one is tired or stuck or the family is just too loud or the cat is on your lap and won’t stop purring: simply write. When your writing tumbles out without regard to how good it is, you can always edit. In fact, I edit the writing that rushes like a stream when I get stuck and I improve it in stages. I use the poorness of the early version to set up opportunities to turn blocks of writing (later) into pivotal points. Words rushed out onto the page can be edited whenever you have more understanding of the plot and they can be a part of the novel that grows when it’s ready to grow. The end result is so much more important than being Mozart on paper and writing instantly perfect pages.

Editing can be a tool to get into the plot or character more deeply, as well as to work out problems as you see them. So many writers see editing as deleting material. I see it as improving the novel, every time I touch it. I might delete, but I’m just as likely to add or change.

During NaNoWriMo, I am more focussed on editing that will add because this November I am bringing the plot together and developing the trajectories for the characters, and part of this is finding what’s been left out. I’ll do a big edit in December/January, but in November I write a first draft that contains much good stuff, and editing is a handy tool for creating good stuff.

We all write at different speeds. Normally I write very quickly, which is a side effect of my historian-brain. This week I’ve had a migraine, however, and writing has been difficult. I haven’t stopped writing. My thinking brain isn’t very good, however. I write whole sentences to force thoughts onto the page, which is why these notes are paragraphs discussing ideas rather than normal teaching notes – they have been brought to you by the kindness and generosity of that week-long migraine. Planning is beyond me, so I focus on perfecting and extending ideas. I don’t work lineally at times like this. I choose what I can write and know that I must edit it later.

Another approach is to write in small blocks of words. Even ten words add to the total. One day I had to watch several hours of commercial TV for my research into narratives. My novel was open on the computer, ready to go. I wrote ten to thirty words during ad breaks. Every single ad break.

Find places in the day where small word counts can be fitted in and they will add up. Ten small places in a day with just two hundred words at a time sends you way over the minimum to meet the ultimate goal. Even ten words can add up.

With my migraine I’ve been doing a few words here and a few words there. I never thought a migraine for a full week before teaching would be a handy thing to have, but it’s like those ten words written at a time: not everything can be reshaped to meet your writing needs, but a lot of things can.

I use story space to shape my writing to meet the demands of my life. Even writer’s block is something you can work with to create a better novel, by using tools such as story space. We mostly suffer those pauses in our creative capacity because we don’t know how to enter the story space we need for the writing we’re doing.

I’ve been looking into story space for writers for a while now. Story space is the happy place readers find themselves in when their minds are gripped by fiction. For writers, it’s the place we need to be in to create that story space for readers.

For some writers it’s being inside a world when we write. For others it’s speaking as a character. For others it’s like painting or drawing and watching the world grow and the tale develop. For some it’s hearing music and reflecting it in words.

The story space a writer uses shifts according to who we are as writers, how we see ourselves, and what influence the outside world plays on our fiction. Genre is important, as are personal passions. There are shared types of story space, but how each of us uses story space is unique. The more you understand your writing, the more story space will work for it.

For all of us – whether we play with story space or not – there are other techniques we can use to keep going. Geoffrey Blainey told me once that he always left an unfinished sentence when he left work for the day. When he began work the next day, he found he could write more easily because he already had a sentence to finish.

This doesn’t work for me. I finish sentences and I finish ideas. Otherwise, I lie in bed, worried about that sentence and I will get up and finish it and write more and wake up the next day exhausted because I overdid it in that late night burst. I often look for the bit I’ll work on the next day and let my brain mull over it while I’m asleep, however. I don’t mind letting my brain work for me when I sleep.

Finding what works for you is critical.

Gillian Polack, 13 November 2018

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