You’ll Never Know Until You Try It

The first time a member of my writing group told me about Nanowrimo, I thought they were joking. Then I thought they were insane. 50,000 words? That alone was daunting, but in a month? 30 days? Just under 1700 words a day? I don’t think I’d ever even used the word count feature in the old Microsoft Word. (This was back before the counter automatically came up in the bottom corner.)

I told my friend she was crazy and that I wasn’t doing it.

 

But it niggled at the back of my mind for a couple of weeks. Surely I could write a novel. I’d read enough epic fantasy stories that I could cobble one together. Right? Just go through the cliché’s like a checklist of groceries. Thief? Check. Rouge? Check. Prince? Check. Wizard? Check. Grouchy old guy? Check. Impossible quest? Check. Witty banter? Check. Riding horses? Check. Er, I mean. No. I’m not doing it!

I resisted. I didn’t plan. I ignored the little voice in my head…until three days before November.

I remember it clearly. I was in the doctor’s office. Waiting. I had a pen and paper and I pulled it out and wrote down a single line. My plot. I already had characters I could steal from a stupid story that a couple of friends and I made up. And they didn’t need backgrounds, because I would give them amnesia at the beginning of the story! But not normal amnesia, this is a curse, and they have to figure out who they are, but if they get to close to the truth, their heads will explode.

 

It was so bad I thought it just might work.

However, on the way home from the doctor’s office, I stopped by Barnes and Nobel and got the book, “No Plot? No Problem.” I read through it in the few days I had before November 1st. I psyched myself up, shoved my inner editor out onto the back porch for the month and started writing.

It was amazing. I found out that I could type 1700 words in forty five minutes. I totally used the mental list of clichés. I woke up on more than one morning more excited about what my characters were going to do that day than I was about anything else.

I hit 50,000 words three days early.

The experience really empowered me. I hadn’t planned. I hadn’t agonized. I didn’t even have a thumb drive to save the file on until after I’d started. And yet, at the end of twenty seven days, I had a novel. Sort of. It wasn’t finished, and it wasn’t good, but it was there.

It took me two more Nanowrimos to finish that first story, and since then I think I’ve done it five more times. None of them will ever see the light of day. Sometimes I do a detailed outline, and other times I have an idea in mind and I start to write.

If outlining works for you, do it. If it doesn’t, Nano is a great time to explore a story you’ve been thinking about. If you don’t think you can do it, think again. Toss that inner editor out for the month and start writing. If the story gets boring, find a cliché and use it. Ninja robot monkeys. Flying carpets. Self-braiding nose hairs. Skip whole sections and go to the part you want to write. Don’t stress about it, just do it.

 

 

 

 

NaNoWriMo: The perfect starting place

Like many of the other Fictorians this month, I’ll be talking about Nanowrimo in my post. There’s much to be said on the general subject of pre-writing, but I cannot pass up an opportunity to speak of that magical time in November when the internal editors go on vacation and writers all over the world just let it fly.

Nano was so critical to me in starting my serious writing career that it’s not hyperbole to say that without Nanowrimo I’d likely not be a writer today. Nano provides what I feel is the perfect safe starting point for that writing hobby or career you may have always thought about but never took a serious run at. It certainly was for me, and I can’t imagine where I’d be without it.

In 2013 I was 44 years old, and I had been carrying one story in my head for more than 25 years, an experience I have found many writers have in common with me. Perhaps you have one too. I had taken a few shots at actually writing it, but when I decided to give Nanowrimo a try that year I hadn’t written a word in a decade. 1,600 words a day? I didn’t know if I could do a hundred.

As it turned out, I could do the Nano pace fairly easily that year, no outline needed. I was, after all, writing a story I had been thinking about since I was a teenager. I just learned to turn off my internal editor, allowed my writing to be as good or bad as it was on that first pass and went to town.

It’s repeated ad nauseam in the writing community, but that lesson of my first Nano was one of the most important tools I have learned in writing and one I still have to pull out often: JUST WRITE IT. You can fix it later, you can make it better later. You can’t fix an empty page. Get it written, get it done. This is why you revise after all (and revise, and revise – but that’s a blog post for another day).

Using Nano of 2013 I got that first novel off the ground and put my first 50,000 words into it. Once I had done that, it was easy to continue when November was over and by next spring I had a completed novel of 130,000 words. It was a feeling of accomplishment that is hard to describe. Lots of people talk about writing a novel, but I had done it. It was ugly, clumsy and tropey as all hell, but it was there. It existed. 

I’d like to come back to this moment as I think there’s a key lesson to share here, but first I’d like to talk about my remaining Nanowrimo experiences. I have participated in Nanowrimo every year since, and I have ‘won’ every year and I think it is on the strength of outlining. I say this despite the fact my first win was completely pantsed.

I usually start preparing for Nano in September as I decide what I want to use November for. I then spend October on prep. I have a complete scene-by-scene outline done. I have all my characters worked out in terms of back stories and motivations. I know where my big act breaks are, and a decent idea of themes I want to explore.

Once November starts, it’s time to write and not worry about the polish. I write everything this way now, November or not. First drafts are allowed to be rough, the important thing is to get from the beginning to end. I can’t stress this enough: Start, follow through, finish. You can fix later.

Despite the heavy outline though, I try to leave room for creativity during the writing process. Even though I document my characters beforehand, I usually find their voices while writing the project. I also pay close attention to that little voice that tells me to make radical changes to big scenes, outlines be damned. Folks, listen to that voice: it’s almost always right.

So like writing itself it’s still just about showing up and doing the work. 1666 words a day is more for some than for others, but I think it’s an achievable pace for most. If you are pantser, more power to you. I find that I’ve heard more people go in with some kind of outline, and for me the more detailed it is the more successful I’ll likely be.

One last thing I’d like to add before I close, with the caveat that it’s not really on point. If you are like me and you use your first Nanowrimo to finish that big novel you’ve been carrying around for years, when its done – congratulate yourself. Pour yourself your favorite beverage, brag on social media, pat yourself on the back. You’ve done an amazing thing.

Now write something else.

Put it in a drawer and write at least one other story before coming back to it. I have met many writers on this journey who are still working on that first novel years later. Still polishing, still revising. *Years later*. That may be the correct road for some but I am glad it is not the one I took. That first baby of yours will always be there to come back to but what will really level up your skills is *repeating the whole process*. Of all of my writing decisions, that was one of the smartest for me.

Good luck and I’ll see you in November!

Ready, Set, NaNo

A Guest Post by Wayland Smith

It’s creeping on towards fall again, and that means it’s time to start thinking about NaNoWriMo (www.NaNoWriMo.org). I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve successfully complected it nine times, plus several CampNaNo successes. So I at least know what works for me, which I’m more than happy to share. Hopefully, some of this will work for you as well. If not, maybe it will spark some ideas that will.

While I try not to obsess over my word count, I do like to have an idea how I’m doing and where I need to be. I find the graph on the site a bit hard to read at times, especially if I’m staying up extra hours to write. So one thing I do is create a daily chart of my progress next to where I should be. It goes something like:

Day Target Actual Count
1 1667 2003 (If I wrote 2003 words that day)
2 3334 4107 (presuming 2104 that day) etc.

You get the idea. It’s simple, and I’m sure there are a lot of other ways it can be done, but I’m a big fan of simple. I set it up with the day and needed count for the whole month, and just fill in the right as I go.

With word count potentially under control, on to the next potential problem. One of the things that breaks my writing stride is names. I’ll be writing away and a new character, or place, or business, or whatever appears, and I’ll come to a screeching halt as I realize whatever it is needs a name. So as part of my preparation, I try to name as many characters, places, streets, businesses, and the like as I know about going in. It’s not writing in advance, so it doesn’t break the rules, it just smooths out a spot I know trips me up.

There’s a lot of talk about outlining vs not. Among writers it’s almost as bad as politics or religion. The two sides don’t get each other at all, and usually try to persuade the other that they’re wrong. I personally don’t outline. I have found it doesn’t work for me. Listening to professional writers talk, it seems to be split among them. I’ve found that favorites of mine are in both camps, and there’s no pattern that I can see. The right way to write is the one that works for you. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise, especially if you’re just starting out.

The first year I tried NaNo, I sat down as Halloween ended, midnight rolled around, and November began. I had no idea what I was doing, no idea, no plot, no title, no outline. I managed the fifty, barely. That’s not a brag, that’s telling you it can happen, and not to get discouraged if you don’t everything set up in detail when you get ready to start.

What I use is a system I call landmarks. I don’t try to get the minute details worked out ahead of time, as my ideas, and even my characters, tend not to cooperate when I do that. But, if I know there’s an important plot point, I’ll jot down a few of those. “Hero gets to forest, goes through with monster fights,” “hero finds heroine, flirts, looks like idiot, she laughs,” whatever is appropriate. I’ll write down several of those in the rough order I think they should happen, and stay flexible. Some people use the term “pantser” which I find juvenile and annoying, truth be told. Dean Wesley Smith, a writer who certainly knows more about it than I do, calls it “Writing Into Darkness,” and I kind of like that term. Again, find what works for you. This theme will keep cropping up, because it’s important.

Where you write, and your environment, is totally up to you. Some people insist on absolute silence with just the right lighting. Louis L’Amour, one of the most successful and prolific Western writers, won a bet and proved a point by writing a story on the median strip of a major city street, with cars zipping by. Personally, I can write almost anywhere (I’ve never tried the street experiment and don’t really want to). I prefer some music when I write, often movie soundtracks and tv themes, since they tend to be instrumental pieces. Again, find what works for you.

The NaNo site gives you a chance to look into regions, and if you do that, you can find people from your area to chat with, share frustrations with, or look for mutual encouragement from. Often there are “write ins” where people get together and write. I’ve gone to a few of those, and I’ve enjoyed them, and gotten work done. As much fun as fellow writers might be, the goal is to get those 50,000 words minimum down, not make new friends or chat. If you’re taking a break, by all means, socialize a bit. But if you do that the whole time, you just managed to lose writing time. That’s a judgement call you need to make for yourself.

Breaks are important. You should occasionally stretch, eat, drink, shower, all that good stuff. Go ahead and laugh, but if you really get in the zone, you can lose track of those things. Trust me. Fortunately I have someone to throw things at me or say things like, “Save what you’re doing in the next few minutes, because I’m going to turn off your computer until you eat.”

Which is another point. Talk to your nearest and dearest and tell them what you’re trying to do. As a rule, they’ll be supportive, even if they don’t “get it.” But if you want to hit 50,000 in a month, you need time to write, which usually means less time for other things. You might have to let that favorite show go to DVR. You might need to not watch (or play) the game. If you give people warning ahead of time, they’ll generally understand when you say, “I can’t go out tonight, I have to hit my word count.” Plan your time, and remember Thanksgiving happens in November. If you have a big family gathering planned, you need to take that into account for your writing goals.

My last suggestion, which is a very strong one, is turn off your editor. The goal here is words on page. As many have said, “You can fix a bad page, you can’t fix a blank one.” As others have said, “Give yourself permission to suck.” Your first draft won’t be a publishable, salable story. It’s not supposed to be. It’s the base for making a good novel later. And it also might be that it’s not as bad as you think it is. Don’t reread what you just wrote, don’t go back and rewrite, keep going. You can polish it later, after November ends.

So there you go. Lay in the snacks, stock up your favorite liquids, clear your social calendar, and get ready. To paraphrase a wildly popular tv and book series, “November is Coming.” Give it a whirl, and remember: if you don’t finish, if you only get 1,000 words for the whole month, that’s still 1,000 more than you started with. Which is an accomplishment.

I write under the name Wayland Smith. My NaNo site name is Kingsmythe. Feel free to look me up. Good luck, follow your own path, and see what you can do. You just might surprise yourself.

Cause and Effect in Outlines

In the past year I reviewed story pitches for a small publishing house. Prospective writers were asked to provide an outline of their story, including protagonists, antagonist/conflict, and a brief summary of the plot.

Most writers were able to adequately describe their heroes and the challenges they would face, often from villains/enemy characters, sometimes from nature, circumstances, or their own old beliefs. But several writers didn’t show cause and effect in their outlines. Often, these were the same writers who ran into trouble while creating their stories.

“My hero is captured by the enemy king and put in prison, but she escapes…somehow.”

“My hero”s sidekick finds out…somehow…that his ex-boyfriend is in trouble and decides to go help him.”

You’re writing away, following your outline, and you’ve successfully gotten your hero thrown into prison…but now you’re stuck, because you don’t know any way to get her out without resorting to cliches (look! a loose brick in the back of the cell!) implausible coincidences (the guards all get the Spotted Pox and are too sick to pursue her) or power creep/god-moding (it’s fine because my hero is tough enough to beat up all 20 guards at once!)

Meanwhile, your hero’s sidekick is riding to his ex’s rescue, leaving your readers wondering why anyone would put their entire lives on hold to go haring off after a former lover, or how he even knew his ex was in trouble to start with. You’ll explain it later (like, perhaps, when your editor points it out?)

Getting stuck during the writing process, and weak spots in the story, can be avoided if cause and effect are worked into the outline.

“My hero’s sidekick finds out from his ex’s sister, a prison guard at the king’s palace, that his ex has signed on to a dangerous scouting mission. She begs the sidekick to go with him and keep him safe. He agrees, on one condition: his friend (our hero) has been thrown into the king’s dungeon for speaking out against government corruption. If the sister helps him break our hero out of prison, both of them will go to assist her brother.”

In summary, knowing what happens is only half of what you need….you also need to know why and how it happens. If you’ve pre-planned why and how, you’re less likely to get stuck during the writing process. You’re also less likely to feel tempted to resort to cliches, coincidences, and over-powering your characters just to keep the story moving forward. And your manuscript will have a lot fewer weak spots, where a character seems to psychically know some crucial bit of knowledge, or a glitching machine will suddenly start working properly again, or some other event occurs “because the author needed it to” rather than because of any in-story chain of cause and effect.

Fill your outlines with why and how. Show cause and effect–how one event leads into another. You’ll have an easier time writing and end up with a more satisfying story at the end.