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.

 

Winning NaNoWriMo By The Seat Of Your Pants

A Guest Post by Jessica Guernsey 

Welcome to the insanity that is an entire month devoted to writing 50,000 words! You’ll notice I didn’t say you’re writing a book; you’re not. That word count is right around the novella marker for the adult genres. And I didn’t call it a rough draft, either. What you’ll get is much more raw, but it can be a great start to a novel.

Twelve years in a row, I’ve “won” NaNoWriMo, or I wrote 50,000 words during the 30 days of November. For the first 10, I’ve “pantsed” a new project for November, going into the month with little more than ideas in my head. There’s something freeing about not knowing where the story will take you. And there’s a whole lot that’s terrifying. But getting the words down is the essential part. I could paralyze myself for days over finding the “right” way to enter a scene or I could…just start writing. One of my favorite quotes is from Shannon Hale, multi-genre author and NYT bestseller: “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” NaNoWriMo is like digging up all the sand that you want to build with and shoving it into the sandbox that will become your book. You might end up with a fairly decent base and maybe the east wing has a good start, but this is by no means a finished book.

No Plot? No Problem!

That title is from the founder of NaNoWriMo, Chris Baty, who believed in literary abandon and getting those hoarded words out onto paper so the real writing could begin. A few weeks before November, I’ll start jotting down ideas, character notes, maybe plot points. Some participants use a new notebook or start a file on their computer. Whatever works for you to get your ideas together. One year, all I had was a two-sentence idea for a magic system and nothing for the characters. That was the year I crossed the finish line four days early.

Sometimes, the story doesn’t turn out like I thought and that’s okay, too. Be flexible and follow where the words are flowing. My very first year, I attempted a historical novel. When I got stuck on the plot after the first week, I came up with an interesting tangent. That tangent changed everything about the story (including the genre) and ended up getting me the needed word count.

The Big Two

My two main rules for a successful month are “Do NOT delete” and “Let go of perfection.” I could write entire articles on just these. If you’ve done any research about the whole NaNo thing, chances are you’ve already come across tips for these. Along with my rules, the whole goal of writing in a caffeine-induced frenzy for a month is to write new words. Old outlines, short stories you played with months ago, or the character sheet from that workshop last year do not count. New words, written during the month of November. Those are the only words worth counting.

Don’t Stop Believing (or Writing)

National Novel Writing Month is not about writing the next bestseller. It’s not about winning a Hugo or some other accolade. Nope. NaNoWriMo is about getting the words down, writing massive amounts, and just letting it flow. So I don’t stress over having my character outlines in perfect order or knowing exactly when to hit certain beats. I can figure that out later, after November. Now, I’m digging in the sand.

For so many people, this is where they fail. They have to “get it right” during this first pass so they stress and flail and never end up reaching the goal line. Because they stopped writing. If I’m in the middle of a scene and I realize it’s not working, I hit the return key a few times or squeeze in a hashtag (because I can search for these during my editing phase) and write a little about how I got off track, where I want the scene to go, or maybe why it’s not really working for me at this point. Usually, “talking” it out leads to a breakthrough and I can re-enter the scene and keep writing. Also? Those words all count toward the end goal.

Use the Resources

NaNoWriMo has an extensive forum with all sorts of magical threads. If you’re stuck, scroll through the various Orphan threads and find a setting, character, or conflict that sparks new ideas. Accept a Dare from that thread and work that into your story. Attend write-ins with other real live, actual people. Brainstorm a dialogue with your region in the local chat rooms. All of these things are fantastic for keeping your story going.

My Secret Weapon

How have I won NaNoWriMo 12 years in a row? I have multiple projects. When I stall out on one, I switch to another where an idea itches, and keep writing. One year, I did a series of connected short stories and that was lots of fun. Only two characters existed at the start of the month but more kept wanting their own part of the story. Another time, I had a sort of angsty angels vs. demons story going along with a squeaky-clean, fluffy romance. Those two wouldn’t normally mix. When I fell flat on the big battle against the demons, I switched over and wrote a really dark chapter in the romance story that changed how I viewed the entire plot. It was much better with more struggle. Now, I intentionally match up projects from different genres for the month. This year, I’m working on the second half of YA contemporary and a couple ideas for short stories that are decidedly more thriller.

To cross the goal line, you need 50,000 new words, words that you strung together during that month alone. This includes any plotting you’ve done, character notes, even those false starts that fizzled out. It all adds up in the sandbox. And you need all the sand you can create. Once November ends, that’s when you can structure those castles to reach for the sky.

Jessica-Guernsey:

A Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo’s Utah::Elsewhere Region, Jessica Guernsey writes Urban Fantasy novels and short stories. A BYU alumna with a degree in Journalism, her work is published in magazines and anthologies. She is a manuscript evaluator for Covenant Communications and slush pile reader for Shadow Mountain, along with providing freelance feedback. Frequently, she can be found at writing conferences and isn’t difficult to spot. Just look for the extrovert with purple hair.

While she spent her teenage angst in Texas, she currently lives on a mountain in Utah with her husband, three kids, and a codependent mini schnauzer. Connect with her on Twitter @JessGuernsey

NanoNewbie – Goin’ For It

Nanos have come and gone and I’ve watched them pass, focusing on editing or letting my corporate gig monopolize my time, while my writer friends crow in triumph as they type across the finish line in frenetic bliss. Well, time to snatch me a piece o’ that bliss ‘cause I’m going for it this year. Consider me a Nano contender.

By throwing my keyboard into the ring, I’m committing to writing 50k words in the month of November. It’s doable, with direction and dedication, but by no means a simple feat. Not for me at least. I’m trying to get my daily/weekly/monthly wordcount up, but this is gonna be a stretch.

So be it. I’m ready…or will be by the end of the October.

Several, if not most, Fictorians’ posts on NaNoWriMo will focus on preparing for Nano. Each of us has his or her own basic needs to satisfy at the beginning of a project. Some writers can jump right in. Give her a name, place, and basic concept and she’s off. Me, I need a bit more. The pantser-style and I don’t work well together, so I need to outline. Over the past year, I’ve developed the basics of a middle-grade fantasy—settings, characters, conflicts, and key scenes. Now I need to create the scene-by-scene breakdown. I write more efficiently having mapped the story out prior to planting my butt in the seat to type the first sentence.

I also need to map out my character’s conflict against the main story arc to make sure I nail the emotional beats at the key points in the story to ensure her growth and development. Give me a conflict map and a scene-by-scene breakdown and I’ll fly the alps in a plane with no windows. (bonus points if you know that movie reference)

That’ll give me enough of a strawman to start pounding the keys, but I still need one more big thing out of the way— the edits on my current WIP. I’ve had them hanging over my head for a long time. And I’m close…so close, but I need the Knight of Air off my back and into my publisher’s hands. I won’t be able to focus on the new book while still having that tale in the drawer. I’ll feel like I should be working on the Knight’s book and lost focus and drive on the new one.

So here’s what I need to do:

  1. Finish edits on “Knight of Air” and submit to publisher
  2. Complete the scene-by-scene breakdown of “Brownie King” (working title)
  3. Complete the “Brownie King” conflict map

Hmm…not so bad. Only three things on my writing “To do” list for October. I got this.

What about you? Have you thought about what you need to do to be ready to write your brains out next month? Maybe it’s clearing out old projects or negotiating writing time with your family or plotting out the next story. Take the time early this month to figure out how to be successful in November, so we can both crow triumphant on 11/30!

Later,

Scott