Balls of Steel: Challenge Yourself to Change

This month is National Novel Writing Month (NaNo) where writers are challenged to pen a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

Wait a minute, Scriptmag is a website for screenwriters. Why am I talking about novelists?

Because a challenge will do you good.

Everyone has a certain writing routine when starting a new project. For me, I outline like a fiend and then craft a one-page synopsis to get a feel for any holes in the story. Once I’m satisfied, I copy the outline into Final Draft, enter sluglines for each scene, and then vomit out draft one.

What I love about writing from an outline imported directly into my software is never having a blank page to taunt me.

When I discussed my process with a novelist, she smirked at the thought of outlining, claiming I needed to (in her best hippy voice), “let my characters choose their own destiny.” She even suggested I was a control freak!

She must be on crack.

Since I’m always up for a challenge, I not only agreed to try her commando writing style, I also jumped on the insane NaNo wagon. After all, if you’re going to do something, you might as well go all the way.

I pulled up my empty Word document and dared my characters to fly blind, fully expecting them to fall flat on their faces and beg me to make the decisions for them. I secretly wanted them to crash and burn.

But after completing NaNo, I plated myself a big ol’ serving of crow.

Top 10 Lessons I Learned:

10. Writing sprints are gold. If you make a call out on Twitter with the hashtag #writingsprint, others will join you for a 30 or 60-minute sprint to the finish, writing as much as possible. Remember in NaNo, word count is the goal. I was amazed how productive I was. So much so, I continue to do writing sprints to this day.

9. “Write or Die” isn’t just a great bumper sticker. There’s actually software by that name that turns the computer screen red and honks a horn if your typing slows. Writing under pressure keeps you from over-thinking and simply allows ideas to spew out.

8. Support matters. Having an online community during any writing challenge is essential. When you’re pushing yourself, having cheerleaders gives you the stamina to stay in the race.

7. Your characters are defined by the choices they make under pressure … and so are you. When you write, literally with a ticking clock, the pressure forces your brain to release control and truly let your characters run naked on the page. Sure, some are so ugly they should never be allowed to rip their shirts off, but others totally glow when you give them the room to shine.

6. Screenwriting isn’t novel writing … but that’s a good thing. Every screenwriter is taught to write tight and keep as much white space on the screen as possible. But we’re also trained to write visually. That economical writing may not help you reach a 50,000 word count quickly, but it will help you tell a story your readers can see, not just read.

5. Novel writing isn’t screenwriting. God bless the novelist who tries to switch it up to become a screenwriter. We have so many more rules; I pity the fool who jumps to the dark side. I’m not implying screenwriting is more difficult, just that it’s a totally different head space and rule set. Writers on both sides of the fence should cross over, if only to have appreciation for the other’s uniqueness.

4. Writing is therapy. The beauty of novel writing is you can crawl in a character’s head and actually write what they are feeling inside. I felt like Sigmund Freud, psychoanalyzing my characters. The exercise was great for character research and helped me get to know my characters quickly.

3. There’s value in vomit. When I write a script, I edit each scene before I move on to the next. But with the NaNo deadline looming, I pushed forward, not stalling the creative process. The plot turned in ways I hadn’t expected.

2. I am capable of far more than I thought. During NaNo, I was also taking the intense Screenwriting U’s Pro Series, with daily homework on top of my freelance jobs, and both my mother and husband had surgeries. When you have chaos and responsibilities looming, don’t assume your writing has to suffer. Sometimes pushing through and forcing yourself to write every day is exactly what you need to get through the stress life hands you.

And the number one lesson learned by challenging myself … drumroll

1. I. Was. Wrong.

Yes, you heard me right. The Sicilian black belt admitted she was wrong. Go ahead, screenshot it, because you may never hear it again.

By my letting go of control, my characters did indeed decide their own fate, and both their internal struggles and external conflicts changed, too. Dare I say, the story was better for it.

Having said that, after completing the 30-day challenge in only 19 days, I went back through the 50,000 words of vomit and created an outline for the rewrite. In the end, I threw out all 175 pages of prose and started from scratch. But this time, I was writing an entirely different story, one that was raw and real, because the circumstances in which it was born were just that.

I promise you, changing your routine will expand your mind in ways you never imagined.

For those who want a challenge but have no interest in writing a novel, Script Frenzy is the screenwriting version of the event and takes place each year in April. And if you want to see the joys of writing sprints, follow me on Twitter @jeannevb and join the race.

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17 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: Challenge Yourself to Change

  1. Artemio Diaz

    Amazing Jeanne. After reading your articles, I charge myself with new
    energies to continue my writings. My specialty is the infinite universe where there is no end and no begining in writing. Thank you so much, dear.

  2. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Mike, I love the idea of a short story collection trying new genres! Brilliant! I might have to give that one a shot myself.

    Carlito, I too struggle with the “WTF AM I DOING…” question. We all do. Which is why the next Balls of Steel column will be Hope vs. Faith. I’m learning more just by writing it.

    Danzier, the best way to learn screenwriting is by reading scripts… good and bad. Then diving in and writing. Even challenges where nothing is produced but vomit teach us something about our work. Sometimes you even find a friend to hold your hair back while you toss it. That’s why a supportive community is so important. Good luck!

  3. Danzier

    I’m currently in college learning to write screenplays, which has changed my novel structuring dramatically. In April, the NaNo People have a scriptwriting challenge (ScriptFrenzy) where you just have to write a hundred-page script in 30 days…actually, word-count-wise, both challenges are about equal. Fence-jumping in writing styles has made my early drafts look like I wrote them with half my brain. 😀

  4. carlito rodriguez

    Great post, Jeanne!

    Soooooo VERY necessary for me right now, as I battle with (typical???) screenwriter’s “WTF AM I DOING ALL THIS &#@*!!! SPEC-WRITING FOR?!!” self-arguments and try and find the strength to keep right on writing.

    Told myself early this year that come November, I’d take a break from screenwriting and jump into NaNo as a birthday gift and personal challenge, albeit with a twist: Instead of a novel, I’d write a long-simmering memoir, which I’ve always envisioned as having more of a novel’s scope anyway.

    Reading your post gave me yet one more spark, so gracias for it!

    Good luck and godspeed with your own creative endeavors, and I look forward to reading your bylines and front-of-title credits in the future!

    =)

  5. Mike Morucci

    Hi Jeanne! You pulled me into NaNo last year. Lynn got me in this year. And I thank you both!

    Like you’ve said, NaNo has shed the over-analysis and focus on structure and freed the naked writer. And it has helped me with, “Do I really have stories inside of me?” The answer is “Yes!”

    This year I’m doing a collection of short stories, in various styles. It’s allowing me to experiment in genres I haven’t previously dared, and I’ve already created some pretty cool nuggets to be expanded upon in December. As always, you rock!

  6. Michael

    Square peg story. Round hole screenplay format.

    Recently went through this experience myself.

    Been working on a script all year long and it was going okay but there was just something nagging at me the whole time.

    Ignored my gut instinct for donkey’s until one day I finally went with it and instead of doing another rewrite, I started writing my script as a novel.

    Huge weight lifted off my shoulders immediately coz this story works much better as prose.

    Having an absolute blast puming out a couple thousand words a day…

  7. Edmundo

    Hi, Jeanne. Thanks for your reply. Sorry for that shameful grammatical mess which was “you have a very structure having sript of writing screenplays”. God! Where was my brain? At least I hope I made you laugh.

  8. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Hi Edmund, I appreciate the compliments. There’s no premeditated structure to my articles, but they probably do adhere a bit to one, as they become natural after a while. You need a hook, a discussion, then a wrap up. As I’ve said in other columns, you can learn a lot about writing when you craft an article. But for freelance, I definitely think the writer’s voice is equally important. You have to entertain so they don’t *click* away. Glad I’ve kept your attention every week!

  9. Edmund

    Hello, Jeanne. I love your articles, always so full of inspiration. Now then, you have a very structure having sript of writing screenplays, but are you exactly the same when it comes to writing these articles? Or do you adopt a different approach? For what I can see, you are indeed structured here; but maybe it comes naturally when not writing a screenplay… or a novel.

  10. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Bryan, Yes, I am a screenwriter… with a bit of a control issue 🙂

    Thank you, Vincent. I think 7 was my favorite lesson too.

    LifesizeLD, the online support also are often the very people who pulled you into the challenge in the first place. *cough cough* Yes, I’m looking at you!

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