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Archive for the ‘National Novel Writing Month’ Category

Listen to Your Story

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What I Learned from NaNoWriMo 2015


Just do this to write a novel.

How much different is writing from life?

In both we make decisions that carry us forward. Sometimes those choices work out well. Sometimes they drop us in a dead end. Mostly it is not clear where the choice leads, and so we carry on.

Writing 1667 words a day through November’s National Novel Writing Month forced me to look at every scene and imagine how it might move the story forward. Within the first few days, every scene, every action, nearly every word seemed full of, well, pivot. The story could turn 180 degrees—except the commitments my characters held worked time and again as a rudder, pulling their choices along a true direction.

Choice after choice makes the story. Along the way we interact with characters who enter the story because of our choices. And these characters bring with them yet more choices. Our commitments impact how we choose, drawing us like a lodestar consistently one way or another. But even those long-term commitments enter the choice-making machinery of writing and life.

Do you agree that writing and life move forward in a similar way? One difference is that with writing you get to go back and change the story.

You can’t do that with life.

Or can you?

Producing my story brought to mind Parker Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak, a book I’ve recommended to many friends. Palmer’s advice gets at the nub of both writing and living: peering into the facts so far and taking a courageous view on where those facts could lead. Palmer realized, in looking back over his life, that a particular commitment had been leading him in ways that did not fit with what was happening and where he was meant to be.

In writing you lop off a sentence (or paragraph or chapter) to move the story forward. In life you make tough but wise choices that put you on a better trajectory.



Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

December 1, 2015 at 8:55 am

Start at the Top. Again. (Copywriting Tip #10)

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Tell Yourself the Story

Imagine holding a long piece of tangled fabric. You hold it high above your head because you want gravity to gradually unravel the twists and tangles. Maybe you shake it. Probably you smooth it out: starting at the top again and again and work your way down the length to get the fabric straight or flat.

Many threads to unravel.

Many threads to unravel.

What works for fabric also works for a complicated idea. Sometimes the only way to unravel a complicated topic is go back again and again to the beginning, flattening and shaking out the twists and turns as you retell the story.

I’ve recently finished up a complicated article about our changing health care system. The article had lots of moving parts. It was not a long article, just dense and in need of translation: from jargon-filled, industry-speak to human.

Time and again I found myself stuck in the middle and staring at the screen: so many bits and pieces to fit. Absolutely stuck and wondering how to line these parts up so they make sense (and so they are sorta interesting for the target audience). Because in the end we read one word after another. We read in a linear way, even though the story may compose itself in our brainpan in non-linear chunks.

The only way I could get myself unstuck was to start at the beginning again. Back to that very first paragraph, and work my way through. Sometimes I would modify that paragraph to fit what was next. Sometimes I would modify what was next to fit the lede. But the only way forward was through the beginning.

During National Novel Writing Month I found myself doing this, mostly as a way to find out where the story was going and how it could possibly move forward. It was a way of telling myself the story hidden in the words already written. There are one thousand ways to write the story and some will present as we retell it to ourselves. And so we pick one.

Sometimes retelling the story again and again is the only way forward, because it leads to understanding:

By the way, a wonderful book about locating the story of your own life is Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak. Check it out.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

January 13, 2015 at 9:27 am

What skill will you grow in 2015?

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I write and I want to draw and take photos. And write.

I’ve been trying to sketch lately. My son and I started a blog called Dumb Sketch December where we try to produce one sketch a day (inspired by OneDrawingDaily). I enjoy sketching more and more and I am less and less happy with the results. Unlike writing where I have a growing sense of being able to say what I need to say, sketching seems to have plateaued at capturing very little of real life.

I’m at the point where I don’t even know what I don’t even know.

My stapler rocks. My people don’t.

My stapler rocks. My people don’t.

Other kindly sketchers and drawists chime in with encouragements like “Keep going!” and “Huh.” Of course, I’m committed to the dumb sketch approach to life, and I can find a bit of joy in a well-capture shoulder, or when I drew something very similar to that woman’s posture or her pony-tail. I am increasingly drawn to the very black carbon laid down to hint at a clear edge. I’m trying to take lessons from Edward Hopper, though I think he would have given up on me long ago:

I think we can guess what fascinated Edward Hopper.

I think we can guess what fascinated Edward Hopper.

But all this to wonder aloud at skill-building. There is something about the intentional action—committed in public—that has a way of squeezing us forward. NaNoWriMo used that force, our more successful diets use that force, weddings are a celebration of the force of intentional actions publicly committed.

What skill do you want to grow in 2015?

How will you make it public so we all can take courage from your actions?


Kirk Livingston, Edward Hopper via The Walker Art Center

Fresh Water Fetish (#NaNoWriMo Winner)

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So. That’s what all that writing was about.

Fresh Water Fetish Synopsis

WaterCo, an ethically-challenged international water broker based in Duluth, Minnesota, anticipates the coming fresh-water wars. Water will soon be more valuable than oil. Pericles Paladin, the immigrant founder of WaterCo, has invented an app to track all fresh-water movement and ownership. WaterCo lawyers have been quietly purchasing land rights for fresh-water aquifers worldwide, with the intent of charging nations, governments and individuals for volumes of water used–no matter how small. The seeming suicide of a copywriter in Minneapolis unearths the evidence that topples the large-scale nefarious scheme.



Written by kirkistan

November 30, 2014 at 5:37 pm

Chasing #NaNoWriMo Madness: 3961 to 50,000

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Got no time: we’re all out capturing words.

How to Know2-11282014

Two days left. Plus, this happened:


Image Credit: Kirk Livingston



Written by kirkistan

November 28, 2014 at 11:38 am

#NaNoWriMo Update: Twin Cities—15 Million+ Words in 15 days

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24449 are mine

Nobody claims their words are any good—just to be clear. It’s all quantity over quality—so take that, Mr. Internal Editor. Anyway, that is the whole point of National Novel Writing Month.

I will say an unexpected suicide started the whole thing and now I think I see resurrection on the horizon. Loyalty and romance have turned up, plush a flash of skin and a skinny guy unafraid to take two jelly-filled donuts even with everyone watching. My main character is a strong, passionate woman who can make a CEO bite his lower lip–oh, and she’s been dead for at least a week. Did I mention the oracle named Franklin Delano Sjogren? I’d like to get a coffee with this guy and ask him my most vexing questions. My hometown of Stoughton, Wisconsin took a hit sadly. City fathers will not be pleased.


As always, I have no clue how (if?) this will all wrap up. But for now I’m rooting for a couple characters as I move toward 25000 before midnight. But I sense danger.

Does this count as working out loud?


Image credit: National Novel Writing Month

Written by kirkistan

November 15, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Wait—English Majors Win in the End?

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Start Writing Your Own Future

  • Announce your goal to lose weight and chances are better the pounds will flee.
  • Sign up for NaNoWriMo and chances are better you will actually write that novel (no matter how badly it turns out).

What we tell each other has a way of happening. What we tell each other about our preferred futures has a way of guiding next steps.

  • Write a letter to your collaborative, inventor friend about a business idea and find yourself planning concrete marketing and distribution steps at Spyhouse Coffee.
  • Write a business plan for your startup and suddenly remember your friend who became a venture capitalist. And then remember the friend who bootstrapped her idea.

See the pattern? Each step forward started with communication. You may say,

“No. the idea came first.”


Create in real time as you go.

Create in real time as you go.

But consider: the communicated idea created a spark. And—given the right collaborative conditions—the spark lit a fuse. And the fuse burned, gathering other ideas until the explosive, disruptive future no one had considered.

What if English majors learned entrepreneurship and began to see their talent for orderly, persuasive, deeply-rooted writing as a way to help themselves imagine new futures and chart forward-movement for others? What if they learned to solve real-world problems with story and emotion and analytics? Their solutions would drop-kick the spreadsheet & PowerPoint crowd. What if some English majors created Lake Wobegon while others created the next Google?

What if English majors learned business lessons alongside the standard fare of reading and writing? What if they were expected to serve up the occasional business plan or marketing strategy along with the usual essay, short story and poem?

If that happened, English majors would connect earlier in life that art and work and commerce and fiction and meaning-making all fit together in the same world. And they would begin to write their own future vocation.

By the way: 16 Wildly Successful People Who Majored in English


Caveat #1: I was never an English major.

Caveat #2: I teach English majors. They are smart, innovative people.

Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Five days ago I killed someone. I had to.

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Lessons Learned: 9000 Words into NaNoWriMoStreetLamp-2-11062014

  1. She took her own life, which shocked me. Maybe it was the best thing to generate all sorts of electricity in the people around her. For instance, I’m learning Irvina was fierce, respected and disciplined. She was a steady, planful presence. She was empathetic, maybe because of her failed first marriage and potential underworld connections. And now my characters are starting to wonder: is she really dead?
  2. Dialogue makes stuff happen. It also uses a lot of words, which is perfect for keeping up with the 1667 word daily goal. As Tim and Philip talk, I’m seeing the fierce loyalty they have to each other, their business, and to the woman who (potentially? maybe?) died. I was surprised to find out that Philip was an entitled SOB, but still likable. Who knew?
  3. The way forward is already present. Even with only 9000 words on the page, potential story arcs are presenting themselves. I’m seeing the whole thing laid out, and it remains interesting.
  4. Someone stuck an oracle into a fold of my story. Franklin Delano Sjogren showed up as a calm, deep presence. Where did this guy come from? I really want to sit at his feet and learn from him. I sure hope he circles back into the narrative.

Most of my usual writing is essay: persuasive, informative, educational. My work writing for clients is generally marketing copy for ad agencies, the medical device industry and other industrial clients, along with thought pieces and book chapters.

So writing a story for National Novel Writing Month is a new thing for me. So far so fun—but I hope Irvina survived.

Where can I find 1000 words before midnight?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

November 6, 2014 at 9:59 am

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