NaNoWriMo Learnings

I decided in mid-October to join in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November. It was time to do something about some of my longer writing ideas, and NaNoWriMo seemed like perfect timing.

Due to other commitments, I didn’t have time to plot out the idea that I was intending to write about. I had some vague thoughts about character development and some of the key characters involved, but not a definite idea as to how it might all play out. But I put these concerns aside and decided that it would be good to write and see where the story took me.

I kept my preparation simple. I watched a couple of videos about NaNoWriMo, specifically around time management. Advice that I adopted included turning off banner notifications on social media and hiding the apps that I tend to go to for a quick distraction fix.

I made sure that I had writing software Scrivener synchronised across my devices. I needed to be flexible and to be able to write wherever I was. For part of NaNoWriMo, I was travelling about and didn’t always have great mobile or WiFi reception. I was able to keep working on my phone or tablet as I went from place to place, and even in areas of indifferent reception, I was able to synchronise my work so I could pick it up again when needed. I found that I was writing in really small time slots. Waiting for a couple of minutes? Time enough to tap out a line or two, or make a note as to where the next thread of the story was to go. It helped to keep me connected to the story and feel that no time was wasted.

One of the things that made the biggest impact was using the Pomodoro Technique. This involves working for 25-minute blocks with short breaks. This can be repeated for a set number of cycles before there is a longer break. I started using this on a Sunday afternoon when I really wanted to nap rather than write. But I could sit for 25 minutes and write a word or two, surely? When the ideas were flowing, I was surprised to see that I could type about 1200 words in a 25-minute block. Over time this averaged out around 1000 words and it showed me that I could write effectively in short blocks. This tapped into writing under time pressure, and knowing that I only expected myself to concentrate and ignore everything else for less than half an hour made it much easier to adopt this approach.

From the outset, I knew that whether I hit the word target or not, I would have written more by the end of the November than if I hadn’t participated in NaNoWriMo. This was certainly the case. What I didn’t expect was to be able to sharpen my writing approach in ways that provide confidence for the future. I can use some of these learnings to maintain my writing practice, and many of my preconceived notions of obstacles to writing have been satisfactorily undermined. It was well worth the effort to discover this!

When did you last participate in a creative challenge, and what surprised you?

[Photo: old typewriter]

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Writing Groups: Every One Is Different

It is well known that the writer’s lot can be a lonely one. Regardless of whether you are an occasional scribbler or someone who dedicates their working life to the task, it is seldom a group activity. In order to grow and develop as a writer, it is helpful to put on a brave face and go forth to find other writers.

The first writing group I joined was a well-established group in the central west. The meetings were structured, with writing news, the sharing of success stories around publications and submissions, mini-workshops and a session on critiquing work that had been prepared based on a prompt provided at the previous meeting. Feedback was also provided on work in progress if requested.

As is usually the case, there was a wide range of experience in the room, from published authors and a particularly prolific and successful bush ballad poet to new writers. The group was very supportive and even though I felt self-conscious, the group helped me develop my own writing style. It was also beneficial in learning how to present your work when sharing, to read it out clearly and with confidence, even if the piece was still a work in progress.

I did find the critique work challenging. It wasn’t just learning to be able to listen and take on critiques of your work but to be able to assess the work of others and to provide useful feedback. Liking a work isn’t enough in these situations: it is far more helpful to the writer to be told what worked well, what created ambivalence, and what jarred for the reader.

Since then I have experienced a couple of different writing group styles. I prefer an informal organisation, by which I mean a group that isn’t run as a writing group with not-for-profit reporting requirements. This requires administration and seems to take time and energy away from the writing. What I also like are groups where writing takes place. You might think that’s a given but it isn’t. There are groups where critiquing takes the focus, which is good, but I like it to be balanced somewhat with writing practice.

For me, that’s the gold of a writing group. Maybe it is due to the link with writing comprehension pieces in primary school where everyone had paper, a pen and their imagination. Once the topic was provided, the scratching commenced. Scratching on the paper, scratching of heads as ideas were coaxed into existence. A particular joy is the sheer variety of ideas that emerge from a single writing prompt, even from groups of people that have written together for a while. Sometimes there are eerie similarities in a writing prompt session or echoes of an image or idea that appear across the work of usually disparate writers. Being able to share these rough and raw pieces of writing, if you choose to, provides a jumping off point for extended pieces in the future.

Having the chance to meet fellow writers is an interesting experience, which can be exhilarating on a number of levels. It can genuinely foster growth in writing style, and open your mind to possibilities beyond what you might have come across if you remained chained to your desk at home.

Do you belong to a writing group?

[Photo: old typewriter]

A Creative Hero: Carmel Bird

Hero is a term that is easily thrown about these days. Skilled sporting stars are named heroes, as are people who complete an extraordinary act in an otherwise ordinary life. It is a badge that I’m a little bit wary of, yet I like the idea of a creative hero.

For me a creative hero is someone who is versatile in their field, passionate not only about the act of writing but the craft of it – being willing and generous in their sharing of knowledge. They would be able to write in various styles and genres, from poetry to prose, non-fiction to fantasy, offering a breadth of approaches and worlds for their readers to enjoy.

A creative hero would have an impact on readers and writers alike, perhaps have a wider profile than many writers, and be advocates for the power of creativity.

There are many eligible candidates out there, both living and otherwise, but if I was put on the spot I would have to say Carmel Bird is an Australian contender for my creative hero. I came across Bird’s fiction years ago with a mystery novel Open for Inspection, and have read many of her short stories in various compilations.

Her contribution to the craft of writing is extensive, through workshops, classes, and author talks. My introduction to the world of writing via Bird’s viewpoint was through a chance finding of a second-hand copy of Dear Writer. I found it in the wonderful book town of Clunes in Victoria, and enjoyed reading through the correspondence between an aspiring writer and their patient and wise tutor. The warmth and humour made it stand apart from many of the books that I’ve scoured over the years, and I was pleased when it was re-released a couple of years ago with some updates as Dear Writer Revisited. There is a review on the NSW Writers Centre site here.

There is an extensive interview with Bird on the Sydney Review of Books site written by Rachel Morley. This provides insights into Bird’s creative process and practice, including travelling with a small paper notebook and capturing three good things from each day, from simple moments to more complex events. Bird also outlines the importance of observation for a writer, of how the act of writing is a way of making sense of aspects of life.

For me a creative hero is someone who I admire, with work I respect and enjoy, who is prolific and inventive and has an evident joy in the act and art of creation.

Who is your creative hero?

[Photo: detail from stained glass door in Hydro Majestic Hotel, Medlow Bath]

One Change to Your Writing World

Deadlines are a motivator for me, reliably generating action. About a year ago I enrolled in an online course about making time to write with content access for 12 months. I’m not quite sure how but I managed to forget about it entirely until about three weeks before it was to expire. In my mind I’d been moaning about not having time to write. If only I’d made the time to do the course earlier …

With writing courses there are usually actions that can be incorporated into existing routines. As I worked through the course, I thought about how I could mix up my process to reclaim the sense of joy that writing provides in my life. One of the last sections was about tools to help you write, including a tip to check out available writing applications. I have tried many apps but find that writing in Word or Pages, with using Scrivener for larger pieces, works well enough. I can synchronise through the cloud and over time it has become easier to track down documents, regardless of the application used to create them.

One of the icons that popped up for writing applications was Ulysses. I had seen it before but it didn’t appeal at the time. Upon revisiting it, I saw there was a 14 day trial available. The online reviews were largely positive and upfront about the differences compared to traditional word-processing applications. There was talk of markdown and coding along with an assurance that it wasn’t critical to get too involved in this side.

What appealed was writing across my phone, tablet and laptop with automatic synchronisation. The ability to export in various formats was attractive, as was the option to export straight into WordPress. Whilst I can use the draft blog post section in WordPress, the idea of having draft posts in the one spot but sortable by keywords or groups suits the way my mind works.

So I’m giving it a go. Whilst I don’t want an endless proliferation of programs and platforms to write on, this meets my current needs as I’m working on a number of short stories, blog posts, and a couple of longer pieces. I can easily see work in progress, and move around projects without jumping between applications. There is a very simple writing environment which also helps to focus on the task at hand.

By taking on this suggestion I have had a burst of writing activity. Whether it is sustainable will tell over time. For now, I’m glad that shaking up my routine has lead to a feeling of reconnection with the world of writing.

When was the last time you made a single change to your writing?

[Photo: butterfly in the garden]