Unlearning Fartlek Writing

I know, I know. It sounds gross. Let’s get the homonym-based jokes out of the way right now. Even if it could be done, no one wants to lick a fart.

Fart is Swedish for speed, and lek is Swedish for play.

Fartlek is actually a kind of training that involves mixing sprints in with your running. That’s why it’s called Fartlek–speed play–because it combines those varying speeds. When I ran Cross Country in high school, we did fartlek training by combining all-out sprints, of different distances, to our running workout. Sometimes we sprinted between road signs, sometimes our sprints were the length of whole blocks, other times we would sprint to the top of a hill. The rest of the time, we ran at a regular cross-country pace. The sprints upped our endurance and trained our bodies how to push hard even when we felt like we were running out of gas.

I came to realize that, in crafting my novels, I often did fartlek writing. When I started a new story, I would run with my plans and outlines for a while. I really wanted to plan the entire novel in an outline, but I had a difficult time doing it. I got too excited about the story, and too afraid that I’d forget to write a great idea the way I knew I could do it right then. That’s when I sprinted ahead and left my plans in the dust. I’d write according to the plans I had, but I’d keep going so that entire chapters were written with little more than a thought of this is where the story needs to go.

There is one major problem I always ran into when I would write like this. Eventually, I word-sprinted my way into a corner or brick wall of writer’s block. I’d have to slow down again and get my scene planning and outline material back into order. That slowing down let me reevaluate things and focus on the story instead of word-vomiting all over the place (I know. Gross), but it wasn’t easy to get the story back on track once I had jumped the rails.

I think part of the reason why I would do this (my issue, so to speak) is because I never really thought of crafting an outline as actual writing. I thought writing meant word output on a manuscript. So, when I would outline, I always got impatient about wanting to get to the actual writing and start hammering out the manuscript before the outline was done (and I still want to do that all the time!).

But, I’ve since learned that outlining is writing.

In fact, outlining is probably more important than what follows. Crafting a solid outline is like laying the entire foundation of a building before you start throwing down floors and walls. If you don’t have the foundation set first, the whole thing is going to cave in on itself. This is probably the most difficult thing I’ve had to learn, and it still doesn’t feel natural. I’m an impulsive person and when my impulse screams at me to start writing the manuscript, it’s not easy for me to rein that in. I’ve only done it once before.

But I’m doing it now.

Right now, I am forcing myself to write a full outline before I start writing my current project, which is actually a complete rewrite of my first novel. (I tried this once before, but I got impatient again, started writing before the outline was finished, and wasn’t pleased with the result). This time, I plan to scrap everything I’ve previously written and start fresh from my outline. I know the general idea of the story. After all, it’s been fermenting in my head since 2003. The cool thing is that the outline has already revealed holes in the story that I hadn’t noticed before, and some transitions that I forced instead of thinking them through creatively.

The outline work will make the story better. I know it will, in part, because the best novel I’ve written to date had a full outline. It worked really well. When I started writing its sequel, however, I jumped ahead and got stuck. Go figure. #facepalm #fail #LessonNotLearned

So, I decided to set that sequel aside for a while (sometimes I need distance from a project before I can come back to it and think clearly with fresh ideas) and try the outline thing on my first novel. I’m not finished with my outline yet, but I’m sticking with it. My impulsiveness wants to dive into the manuscript, but I’m staying the course and working through this thing. I know it’ll lead to a more polished manuscript when all is written and done.

So, I guess this is my transition from a pantser to a planster, to a planner. No more fartlek for me. I’m writing an outline, and that is actual writing!

~Christopher

In the Beginning…

Sometimes the beginning of a story is hard to find, like trying to locate the beginning – or end – of a rainbow. I have a story like that. I have written and rewritten the beginning by moving it backward and forward along the timeline of my characters’ lives.

The first time, I tried starting with some exciting action and used an unprecedented number of flashbacks (I’m not kidding) to do character development. I also did a bit of info-dumping. This was before I really knew anything about writing fiction, and before I attended my first writers workshop. I’ve learned a few things since then.

Next, I tried moving backward in time so most of those flashbacks would be in the present. The result was that I ended up skipping vast spans of time to get to the meat of the story. It kind of worked, but not really.

Then, because of all that writing I did to fill in the earlier stuff in the timeline, I thought I could split that whole thing into two novels. The problem with that was the lack of an actual story in that earlier content. Yes, there were character-building moments that made my main character’s connections to other characters strong. We care when the character cares. Stuff happened to my character that pretty much sucked for her to go through but, while they were compelling events, those things weren’t the real story that I wanted to tell.

While every good main character (probably any character) should have a solid back story, not every event of their lives needs to be laid out, fully, as part of the novel. My character has experienced a lot of pain in a short period of time and, while that pain fuels her thoughts, actions, and reactions, I don’t need to start the story deep in the past just so I can include those events. The relevant parts will become known as the story unfolds. Those are the things that can be drizzled into the story like syrup on a pancake but, at the time I wrote it, that’s something I hadn’t yet learned.

Over the past few months, I’ve started the story in two other places. The first one didn’t work (I found out after four days of writing #facepalm) but, with the second one, I think I’ve found the sweet spot. This new beginning is a place where the world, character, and action come together in one moment. It’s a place – a beginning – I had to find through a lot of trial and error. I had to imagine and reimagine how to get the story started, but the time it’s taken (all the frustration included) will pay off.

I’m working through the scenes in my composition notebook, and things are looking good. Once I get the scene notes hammered out, I’ll start writing a fresh draft of the manuscript. This is my story, and it’s worth the hard work it’s taking to get it right. I believe every story we write is worth that kind of patient persistence.

Lost and Found

Toward the middle of NaNoWriMo, I took an unintentional break from writing. I didn’t mean to do it. It just kind of happened. I felt like I had lost my will to write. I’m one of those people who believe artists of any stripe should practice their art every day, even when they don’t feel particularly inclined to do so. Painters need to paint. Musicians need to play or sing. Potters need to… pot, or whatever they do. Writers need to write.

There are a few reasons why I stopped writing for over a month; why I lost my way for a while. For one, I think I got overwhelmed with both my writing and life in general. More accurately, the demands of life and not taking care of myself because of those demands is what stunted everything.

I work as the lead pastor of a church and December can get hectic with Advent and Christmas. Additionally, there has been a lot of transition over the past year, and I’ve taken on some responsibilities that were formerly handled by other paid staff. I know the joke is that pastors only work one day a week. The reality, however, is that most pastors I know (me, included) rarely AREN’T working.

On the home front, my wife, Joy, had a busy semester working on her M.P.A. at USI. Her absence three nights a week this past semester meant I had to pick up a lot of evening responsibilities at home, often balancing them with evening meetings at the church. All of which I have been more than happy to do so my wife can be free to get her degree without worrying about dinner and bedtime and dishes and laundry, etc. That, alone, cut deeply into my writing time, which I often did in the evenings. But, it’s something I would choose over and again for her sake. That’s just what spouses do. My wife is much more important to me than my writing. Her hopes, goals and dreams are worth every bit of support I can provide.

#priorities

And, due to all of the above (mostly the busyness of work), I haven’t been able to take my regular weekly day off (Friday since I work on Sunday) like I need to do. Fridays were always part writing day and part time-with-Joy day but, more often than not, I’ve had to do work instead. In fact, prior to the week after this past Christmas, I had not had a vacation since early June of 2016. Prior to that it was the end of January. I could feel the burnout creeping up on me. Burnout = lack of motivation for anything.

As for my writing, I had a ridiculously difficult time trying to figure out what to write for NaNoWriMo. I had story ideas galore. (I currently have nine story ideas sketched out, and some of those will likely end up as series). I could not, for the life of me, figure out which one to write. Part of it was a lack of motivation somewhere in my soul even though, mentally, I really wanted to write: indeed, mentally I felt like I had to write. The burnout from work got in the way.

I also had this deep desire to do a complete rewrite and reorganization of my first three novels (a fantasy series) but have been absolutely daunted by the scope of that gargantuan task. The story arc of the first novel needs to be split into two books. The other two need to be rewritten to fit what precedes them. And, I need to write the final book (or two!) to complete the series. So, we’re talking five or six novels at roughly 100k words each. It will be a massive undertaking.

But I knew the work would be an effort of love. I love the story these novels tell. Yet, it is full of bad writing. I started the first two when I really didn’t know much about how to write. I’ve learned a lot over the course of the past three years, and each story I’ve written has gotten better. But, these books are close to my heart, and I know the story deserves to be written well. It deserves the work of a rewrite.

But I was still daunted.

I thought I could work on other books first. After all, I have several great ideas (in my humble opinion). I started NaNoWriMo with my book, A Spear and Shield. Then, I switched projects in early November and switched back. It was just… Ugh! Total frustration. And I’ve barely written a word since mid-November.

Last evening, I told my wife that I think I need to get back to writing. I also said that I need to take a vacation week where I sit at home and write because that’s how I recharge my body, mind, spirit, and soul. She agreed.

 

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My 11-year-old daughter stuck this note to my first novel after she started reading the draft. It tells me this story is worth the work of a rewrite.

 

So, last night, after the kids were in bed, I sat down and rewrote chapter 1 of my first novel. My wife breezed by the living room and stopped to peek in at me sitting on the couch scribbling in my notebook. She smiled and said, “It’s good to see you writing again.” It felt refreshingly good to slash those words across the page.

One of the first things I did today was open my calendar and plan out my remaining vacation days before they reset on July 1. I plan to use some of those day to hide somewhere and write. I need the recharge that writing offers. I need to take better care of myself by taking my regular day off each week and my full allotment of vacation days. I’ll take care of myself, and I won’t apologize for it. If I’m so burned out that I can’t even write, something is wrong.

The fact that I started writing again last night suggests I can turn this ship around. It was a small step, but it represents a hope within me that I might have found my way again.

We have permission to practice self-care. It’s a necessary requirement, not an optional privilege. I’m a writer, so I’ll keep writing. But, from now on, I’ll take care of myself so I can be who I am. I need to be who I am. I won’t lose my way again.

Fourteen

Fourteen! Fourteen of approximately 25 young writers met their word count goal for NaNoWriMo this year. Fourteen Jr. High students won National Novel Writing Month because their AMAZING teachers at Mount Vernon Junior High School, Julie Kissinger, David Purvis, and Julie Jackson rocked it by setting the program up with their students, staying late on Fridays so the students could work on their novels, even providing snacks to satiate hungry bellies, and giving encouragement when student willpower faltered.

Awesome is one of the few words I can think of to describe it.

The fourteen students who met their word count goal get to take a field trip to Barnes and Noble to pick out two books. One for their own library, and one for the school library. The book for the school library will include a dedication in the cover that says it has been placed in the library in honor of the student for winning NaNoWriMo.

Now, we’re talking about the possibility of starting a creative writing club at the school. We’re looking ahead to find new ways to foster creativity in the Jr. High students. It’s amazing to me, and it’s moving beyond my city.

My sister, Stephanie, is a teacher up in Jasper, Indiana. When she heard what we were doing with NaNoWriMo in Mount Vernon, she told me I needed to come to her school to help get the program going there next year.

I’m all in. Not for myself, but for others: for young writers. I didn’t start writing seriously until 2014. Oh, I tried to get something going back in 2004-2005, but my efforts faltered after a while and I quit for several years. I simply didn’t know how to write. I wish I had someone to teach me this stuff when I was younger, to encourage me and show me the way. Now, I can do that for others and it feels good.

~Christopher

NaNoWriMo @2/3

I am losing NaNoWriMo so hard this year. My word count is a pitiful 14,446 and there’s no hope I’ll catch up. But, my writing has not been my main project this November. Other people’s writing has been instead.

That’s why I think this might be my biggest win ever. Not for what I’m writing, but because of what some really awesome kids are doing. Roughly twenty-five students at Mount Vernon Junior High School are participating in this year’s National Novel Writing Month Young Writers Program. They each have a personalized word-count goal and they came up with their own novel ideas.

Three teachers are staying after school every Friday so their students can participate in a write-in. I’ve been joining them to help in whatever way I can. They open up their Macbooks or iPads and start typing away.

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I love their excitement and passion for writing their novels. Their story ideas are fabulous! The young writers represent everything from survival thrillers to mysteries to zombie dinosaurs (I’m not sure what genre to put that in) to space operas. It has been amazing to see their imaginations at work.

The students who meet their word-count goal get to go to a bookstore and pick out two books: one for their own library, and one for the school’s library with a dedication to the student in the cover.

My emphasis has been a little different. Whether anyone meets their word-count goal or not, there is no such thing as “losing” NaNoWriMo. Come December 01, they’ll each have a good start on a novel. That’s a win no matter what.

~Christopher

Save

NaNoWriMo 2016

Ah! November! It’s almost here! Turkey! Dressing! Pie! Family Gatherings! And NaNoWriMo!

I’m excited about National Novel Writing Month. I’ve chosen which novel I will write. (I wrote out three ideas from which I could choose). I’m scrambling to finish the outline in time for the start of writing on November 01. At the same time, I’m doubtful I’ll be able to punch out 50,000 words on my keyboard. But there’s a reason why I’m contemplating a NaNoWriMo loss before it even begins: I’m doing NaNoWriMo differently this year.

Yesterday, I spent most of the day at Mount Vernon Jr. High School, pitching NaNoWriMo to every student in the school alongside Marissa Priddis, Director of the local Alexandrian Library. (She’s fabulous, by the way). It was awesome to see the enthusiasm of the students during and after our introduction of the program. Students came up to me after each pitch to tell me what they planned to write about. I even had a few approach me after school while I waited on the sidewalk to pick my daughter up. I’m hopeful that we’ll have a large group of young writers participating.

Now, the teachers are busy planning after-school write-ins, write-ins at the Alexandrian Library, write-ins at the riverfront, and maybe a few other places.

 

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Riverside Park, Mount Vernon, Indiana

 

I’ll be at as many write-ins for the students as I can attend but my purpose there will be to mentor and assist, not write. I’m in it for a win but, honestly, I’m more excited about what these young authors are going to write than my word count on November 30. I won NaNoWriMo last year with my Sci-Fi novel Rifted. This year, my focus will be on helping others win.

My personal writing project is book 4 of my fantasy series. My daughter read the first three and has demanded the next one.

NaNoWriMo, bring it on!

The Business Side

I love to write. There are, in fact, few things I would rather do than write.  At the same time, my goal for writing is to get published. Yes, I could probably write stories for the rest of my life and be happy, but I’ve discovered the joy of sharing my stories with others. That’s important to me, too.

A few weeks ago, my eleven-year-old daughter grabbed the editing copy of my latest novel, The Sign of Psyche, when I wasn’t looking. She started reading and wouldn’t give it back. Within three days, she had devoured all 86,800 words. I think she was a little surprised she liked it.

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The next week, she read three books of my YA fantasy series. She blasted through 320,000 words in seven days. As the author of those books, it felt like the best kind of validation. This kid is a reader who set the school record for Accelerated Reading points (641.6!) in 5th grade.

I had planned to participate in NaNoWriMo this November. Now, however, I think I’ll focus on the other side of writing: the business side. I have five complete novels sitting on my computer. They’re revised and ready to query. Writing a sixth while the others sit won’t help me get published.

As much as I love to write, I also want to share my stories. That means I need to get down to business. It means researching literary agents and writing query letters. It feels a little less exciting than crafting new stories, but it could lead to the most exciting thing of all: representation and eventual publication.

I have six queries out at the moment. So I’ll cross my fingers and hope some of those agents shows interest in my query. In the meantime, I’ll research a few more and get ready for another round.

~Christopher