Category Archives: Dave Heyman

The Secret Lessons of NaNoWriMo

All this month the Fictorians have been talking about one of my favorite times of year: Nanowrimo! As I’ve discussed in the past, Nanowrimo was instrumental in my transitioning from desiring to write to actually producing work I was really happy about. What I’d like to cover in my post this month are the ‘other’ lessons Nanowrimo can teach you.

First, let’s cross off the two well-discussed one’s: ‘writing every day’ and ‘turning off the internal editor.’ Several of the Fictorians have covered these this month and there’s a ton of discussion out there about them, so I won’t belabor the point.

I’ll just add that I agree that you don’t *have* to write everyday to be a writer and that word count goals are at best a double-edge sword. For me, Nanowrimo was huge and I personally try to write every day. What works for you is for you to find, of course.

Beyond these two though, I’d like to introduce what I feel are the secret lessons of Nanowrimo. Four years after my first Nano ‘win’, these are the instructions I learned that first November that still stay with me and keep me productive:

GOALS HAVE VALUE

Moving away from a goal of writing x words in y time, any kind of goal is a fantastic motivator. Over time I’ve come to move away from word count goals and into scene goals. Each day I lay out the scenes I want to accomplish with that day’s work and then I don’t stop until I get them done. Chasing that carrot keeps me going, even through sleepy afternoons and days when the screen wants to stay blank. I need to get that goal, so keys get hit and words start to happen. Without a goal oriented approach, I’m doubtful I would get as much done.

WRITING IS AN ENDLESS EXERCISE

When I completed my first Nanowrimo, I had written 50,000 words. I wasn’t done though, there was much more novel to write. I added another 80,000 words and the story was finally complete. But I wasn’t finished, it was a first draft and a lousy one at that. I revised it several times, but I still wasn’t finished, because I needed to get some beta reads on it. After the beta reads came more revisions, and on and on. In truth, it’s never finished. At some point you decide the project it done, that additional work is not going to push the needle much farther.

Then you start the next one.

KNOW WHO YOU ARE AS A WRITER

Before Nanowrimo I didn’t know how important outlines were to me. I didn’t know if I could write 1,000 words a day, or 2,000 or 5,000. I didn’t know if I could write in public, or if I was a better writer in the morning or the evening. Writing every day really answers all those questions for you. After that first Nano, I knew that outlines would be critical to my success. I knew that on a good day I could write 4,000 words, but that I’m unlikely to be a coffee shop writer.

One of the things I love most about writing is that there is no one way to do it. Each of us can learn from other writers, we can read books about writing, we can attend classes and participate in national writing-based exercises. Yet in the end, we each have to find our own method that is uniquely ours. Nanowrimo is a fantastic opportunity to learn what process works for you and start yourself on the path to being a more productive writer.

See you next month!

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!

Readercon

Back in 2014 was when I attended my first (and to date) only true convention: Readercon. At the time I just had crossed into the ‘serious’ phase of my fiction writing. It was now something I tried to work on every day and attending a speculative fiction writing convention seemed like a good next step.

Readercon is a Boston-area science-fiction and fantasy convention that is pretty exclusive in its focus on books as opposed to the other forms of media. It is heavily attended by regional writers and readers of the genre, and at the time was being held in Burlington Massachusetts.

So even though I had signed up of my own free will, I was pretty nervous to attend. At that point I had written a grand total of two things: a 130k word fantasy novel and a 8k short story. I had also submitted a grand total of zero things, to say nothing of being published. While I had plans to attend a writing course, that had not happened yet – so I didn’t really even feel like I knew what I was doing. I also knew no one in the writing community.

In every sense of the word I was a neophyte. I suffered from a problem I think many new writers have: I didn’t think I ‘deserved’ to be there. Yet, I was going anyway. Getting myself to do things that make me a little nervous had certainly worked out in the past, and as I’d find it was about to work out well again.

My plan was simple, if lame:

  1. Get in
  2. Learn things
  3. Talk to no one
  4. Get out

I did learn a great deal, much more than I expected.

PANELS

The panels were lively and engaging and I learned a lot from the content. I also learned how different authors behave when they are on a panel. Some were respectful and appreciative, responding kindly to questions and were effusive in their praise of other authors. Others … were not. Both left impressions on me, teaching me what to do and what not to do.

BARCON / HALLWAYS / SELLER’S ROOM

Yes, there was a barcon. I don’t drink and I have pretty bad tinnitus so I can’t hear that well in those environments. I avoided the barcon.

I did see some authors I recognized walking the hallways, but I never approached them. I wanted to be respectful of their privacy and allow them to enjoy the Con too.

In the seller’s room though I found I had a great time. All of the authors there really wanted to talk about their books, but also their process and just speculative fiction in general. I think the big lesson I learned here was that enthusiasm sells. I bought more books from the folks who were excited to be there and excited to talk to me.

“TALK TO NO ONE”

Yeah this didn’t go so well, and that was a good thing! I was at a reading and signing (Brian Staveley and Max Gladstone) and sitting by myself and some of the other attendees just started chatting me up. They were both Viable Paradise graduates and got me to come out of my shell and talk about my writing. It was a really great experience, finally I was with people who I could talk to about my speculative fiction passions and they got it, because they had the same passions!

SUMMARY

It is worth mentioning I have not been back to Readercon since that time, nor have I attended any other conventions. This is not due to having a bad experience, but more to me moving farther north and just being too far away from the Cons I’d like to check in on. Maybe someday.

So in the end I had a great experience and I learned a lot about how I want to act in the future, both as an author and as an attendee. There’s a great community of fans, readers and writers out there – not everyone is nice but the vast majority are. I’m very glad I attended and I am sure it benefitted me greatly.

Point A to Point B

Hello everyone. I’m back with my second post this month regarding the subject of momentum. It’s been an appropriate subject for me to think about, as I am deep in a writing project with a very tight deadline and I have a strong need to keep moving, no matter what. Fortunately, the Fictorians have been front and center this month with lots of advice that I can follow. Hopefully some of that advice helped some of you keep moving on your projects too.

In this post though, I’d like to steer away from productivity momentum and rather talk about story momentum. How to keep that pace and tempo that will have your reader moving from one page to the next while never losing their interest. Here’s a few tips I’ve picked mostly related to my favorite kind of story: the A to B.

KEEP THAT TRAIN MOVING

I *love* a good A to B plot, and it’s a big feature of most things I write. Readers will feel what your characters feel, so if you keep your characters literally moving the reader will feel that motion. I’d much rather have my characters discussing something while riding through a field or climbing a mountain then sitting in a room. If I decide I am going to use this method, I will try to identify a destination as early as possible and get my characters (and therefore my readers) moving towards it.

Movement is momentum.

DIDN’T WE PASS THIS TREE ALREADY?

When you are traveling from Point A to Point B, it’s not much fun to see Point A again. One of the early writing lesson I learned from David Farland (Link) was to avoid repeating locations, and to make every location interesting. Bringing readers back to the same setting you have already presented them with kills that feeling of movement you were trying to build in the story. Each new setting offers a sense of wonder as well as progression, bringing the reader back to an already established setting will not produce that same effect a second time.

An exception to this would be to travel back to a setting that has been altered by the story in a significant way. A great example of this is that old standby Star Wars (Episode 4 or A New Hope for you young’uns out there).

This movie is in motion from go, and the main character (Luke) is always going from one place to the next, the movement is nearly constant. One of the only times a setting is repeated in the film is the brief return visit to the farm Luke grew up on. Seeing it a second time, with the farm destroyed and Luke’s Uncle and Aunt dead really changes the context of the setting and the story. It sets Luke forever off on his journey and gives us a real and brutal example of the Empire’s evil.

Also I’m sure there was a lot of spilled blue milk, but we don’t get to see that.

OKAY NEAT, BUT WHY ARE WE HERE?

While not strictly related to the A to B plot, nothing will kill your momentum better than a scene that doesn’t advance anything. This is a bugaboo I have to watch myself for, as I have been known to throw an action scene into my story without giving it a strong connection to the plot. Not every scene needs to move the main plot, but each scene should bring something new to the table in regards to a character or a subplot or setting that you need to illustrate. In the A to B plot, taking your readers to a new location but not using that location to move your story will just feel like filler.

IN SUMMARY

As always, your milage through the A to B plot as well as my advice in general will vary. Pacing and momentum are tricky things to manage, but in summary I find I have the most success maintaining story momentum by doing the obvious and just keeping things (and my characters) moving!

See you next time!