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.
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
I had the pleasure of asking Randy for his tips and insights into establishing a successful writing convention. There’s a link for some special content at the end of the interview so please don’t miss that!
WWC’s tagline is A Reader’s and Writer’s Festival. Why this branding rather than simply making it a writers’ convention or a writers’ and fan convention?
If you are a writer, you will know that there are numerous writers conferences out there, even in western Canada. When looking to start a literary event in Calgary, I didn’t want to start an event like one I could already go to, but something different. I did want to provide a networking opportunity for writers and publishers, but I also wanted to create an opportunity for readers to meet authors they might have read as well as discover new authors. The tag line is a very good description of our event. We chose the word ‘festival’ over ‘convention’ because it is more apt to what we are about. Though we are educational, we are also fun. Smiles and laughter are encouraged.
Our demographics show that almost half of our attendees consider themselves readers. We attract readers by offering inexpensive passes ($45-$55 for a weekend pass, depending on when it is purchased), while most writers conferences cost much more. Inexpensive passes are common to speculative fiction fan conventions that are designed primarily for non-professionals. Very few readers will spend $100-$300, not even to see their favourite author (especially as we also provide several free events where the public can meet our guests.)
Though many conferences and festivals are genre-specific, it has always been my feeling that genres have more in common than differences. Most readers, also, read across multiple genres. The speculative fiction convention model is not common outside of SF&F, but we wanted to see if other genres as well as literary readers & writers would give it a try, so we invited them. To our delight, they came. We now try to have representatives for each genre an well as literary and poetry on our organization board.
There is a very dynamic dealer’s room at WWC. Writers congregate, presses sell books, writers and presses are talking business and making book deals, all the while books are being sold by writing groups, book sellers, and publishers.
Many conferences (and book stores) offer a range of non-book products. Our Merchants Corner is a book-only room, though we do include some art. Our most unique table is the Shared Authors Table, where attending authors not represented by other vendors may have their books sold. This table typical does over $2,500 worth of sales over the weekend. As far as I am aware, we did it first back in 2011, though I have seen the concept more recently at other events.
We also have a hotel-provided snack bar and seating area in the Merchants Corner where people can get drinks, soup, sandwiches, and salads. Something I haven’t seen anywhere else.
For a convention to have a good reputation, several factors must come together from programming, to guests of honour, attendee packages, and advertising. I’d like to talk about some of these aspects so that we can understand what it takes for them to work well.
Any event must decide on a mission statement and a business model. Our mission statement is: to bring readers and writers together in a celebration of the written word. Our business model is a fusion of best practices I’ve taken from other events I have attended. A few important concepts are:
Inclusive and inexpensive to attend.
100% volunteer run.
Multi-track so attendees always have something of interest going on.
A safe and fun environment.
Since an event will fail if no one shows up, let’s begin with advertising. While we do have a modest marketing budget and place posters and pamphlets in book stores, word-of-mouth is by far the best advertising. When we started in 2011 we made sure to promote our new event by speaking to writers groups and placing marketing literature in books stores. Even so, we budgeted for 150 people showing up. 280 did, so we were off to a good start, growing each year until we are now peaked out at 750 people. Most people found out about us from a friend. We have no desire to grow past 750 attendees as I find larger events too impersonal.
Guest speakers are tricky as no one can agree on who to invite. If we receive 100 feedback forms from attendees we will receive 100 guest suggestions. Each year we try to invite guests that cover a range of disciplines who are good speakers. If we need to reduce our budget somewhere, we look to the guest budget first (example: finding guests closer to home).
Our attendee package is very simple and economical: a plastic name badge on a string, a 5.5” x 8.5” stapled program book, and a single sheet quick guide. We don’t have a welcome bag, though book bags and fancy badge holders are available.
Our venue, the Delta Calgary South, has meeting space for as many as 15 concurrent events, giving attendees lots to choose from during the weekend. This means our program has over 200 different sessions to plan. Again, using the speculative fiction model, we open the program to attending professionals, encouraging them to speak, take manuscript pitches (if they are acquisition editors), and participate in our Blue Pencil Café, all on a volunteer basis. Each year around 150 attending experts join with our 5 or 6 festival guests to provide a dynamic and diverse program for the attendees.
There are other aspects to the festival, including a hospitality suite, a mass autograph session, a banquet, and even awards ceremonies as we sometimes host awards. As you can imagine, all of this requires a large number of volunteers putting in time and effort. We also try to do things efficiently with the lowest demand on volunteer time as possible.
On the topic of programming, in WWC 2017, there were ~80 panels on craft and business, blocks of time with guests of honour, blue pencil cafes, and pitching sessions. There is a variety of topics which appeal to both readers and writers and this can be seen by the packed rooms at many of the panels. How do you assess and what is needed and then deliver it?
The short answer is: we don’t. Like our staff, our presenters are volunteers. We ask them what they would like to present, and then we try to accommodate them. We do let them know what types of programming, such as what you listed above, we are looking for. This approach has some drawbacks, but in the end I believe it has more advantages. Presenters come up with all sorts of brilliant ideas we would never think of. This approach also greatly reduces demand on volunteer effort to put the program together.
Guests of Honour Guy Gavriel Kay, Diana Gabaldon, Brandon Mull, Brandon Sanderson, Jack Whyte, Kevin J. Anderson, David B. Coe, Robert J. Sawyer, Ian Hamilton, Patricia Briggs, Anthony Bidulka, Kelly Armstrong, Sam Hiyate (The Rights Factory), and Sally Harding (Cooke Agency) are a few of the big selling authors and agents who have come to WWC. Some continue to come back as festival attendees because, as I’ve heard them say, it’s an awesome experience.
Since we are a 100% volunteer event, we do not budget for speakers fees. While we do cover travel and hotel for our festival guests, they, like everyone else, are donating their time and talents to participate at our festival. People need to understand that the business model of many speakers does not include speaking at events such as ours on a voluntary basis. Many of our invitations have been turned down. No hard feelings. That’s just the way it is. The outcome, however, is that speakers who do accept our invitations enjoy events such as ours and regularly accept invitations such as ours. And yes, we are fortunate that many of our guests choose to return when they can.
The main reason that guests return, I believe, is that we are different from most other conventions. We chose to call ourselves a festival rather than a conference or convention, because we want our event to be a party. While many writers do network and learn from each other, they also attend our festival because it is fun. People are having a good time. Our guests have a good time.
The other reason guests return is because we treat them well. Each guest is assigned a liaison to handle transportation and any needs they may have. We provide our guests breakfast and banquet tickets and take them out to dinner a couple of times. They each receive a welcome basket with souvenirs and goodies. In other words, we give them the respect they deserve for agreeing to join us on their own time.
I must say, that attendees really appreciate how accessible the guests have been, not only with their readings and key note speeches, but some hold workshops and most are willing to chat informally with readers and writers.
One of the things that makes us different from other conventions is that we don’t have a presenter green room. I never understood the point of separating the speakers from the people who have come to see them. Our guests usually spend their free time in the Merchants Corner, the Hospitality room, or the bar where they can mingle with attendees.
We also give our guests the option of holding a master class so that a smaller group of attendees can spend several hours with them. I, for one, very much enjoy attending master classes whenever I can.
In 2011 WWC had 282 people attend. 2017 had 750 attendees. WWC has been nominated for the Aurora Award for best volunteer-run organization every year and has won the award 6 times. Incidentally, for those who aren’t aware, the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s Aurora Award is a fan appreciation award so being nominated and winning is a great vote of confidence. Obviously, you have a lot of happy customers! What have they told you why they like WWC so much and what does your volunteer core do to ensure their satisfaction?
We are thrilled to be nominated for the award each year and to have won so often. As you say, the award is for fan-run events (meaning volunteer-run), such as CanCon in Ottawa, VCon in Vancouver, and numerous other volunteer-run events across Canada, ranging from international conventions that are sometimes hosted in Canada to various public reading series.
All volunteer-run events, no matter the size, are limited by the ability of the organizers to put something together. For free. In their spare time. When Words Collide is fortunate in that we have a board of 20+ volunteers to plan each year’s festival. We also rely on an addition 50+ on-site volunteers during the festival. Even so, there is only so much we can do, so we try to make sure that whatever we do looks, from the outside at least, amazing and flawless. We are regularly asked by attendees why we don’t add something to the festival. My reply is always the same. It would require more manpower than we have. This might be a good time to ask your readers if they are interested in joining our board or participating as an on-site volunteer. J We can always use more help.
What tips do you have for anyone wishing to start a convention in their community?
First off, a convention is big. Very big. WWC costs around $40,000 to put on. When Creative Ink (Burnaby, BC) asked for advice getting started, I suggested they do a 1-day event to get their feet wet, which they did in 2015. They learned a lot and went to a full weekend in 2016. Here are some quick tips to consider:
Attend other events to see what they do, what you like, and what you don’t like.
Do what you want to do, not what others want, even if it is totally different (like WWC was in 2011).
Find some good help.
Start small and set the bar low. Grow as circumstances allow.
Spend money wisely and build a modest rainy day fund.
Make sure you have fun doing it.
Something to know is that people are happy to be helpful. If you are unsure about anything, ask around and you’ll get lots of advice. If something sounds like it will work, problem solved.
Any special announcements for 2018?
Our 2018 festival is 11 months away and we have already sold 25% of the passes. We are typically sold out in June, so don’t wait too long to get your pass. The only thing I’d like to say at this time is that we have an amazing line-up of festival guests next year: Peter V. Brett, Harold Johnson, Erin Lindsey, Deanna Raybourn, and Arthur Slade. If you are unfamiliar with these authors, you will want to change that. Literary agent Sam Morgan of Foundry Media is also joining us. Several of our past guests are returning. I’m looking forward to yet another excellent festival.
And now for the SPECIAL LINK: WWC has a variety of podcasts available on it’s website and they’re awesome! Check them out here! Who knows, maybe they’ll inspire you to come to When Words Collide in 2018.
RANDY MCCHARLES is a full-time author of speculative and crime fiction.
He is the recipient of several Aurora Awards (Canada’s most prestigious award for speculative fiction) and in 2013 his short story Ghost-B-Gone Incorporated won the House of Anansi 7-day Ghost Story Contest. Randy’s most recent publications include the 2016 Aurora Award shortlisted novel Much Ado about Macbeth from Tyche Books, the short story Murder at the Mall from Coffin Hop Press, and the 2017 Aurora Award shortlisted novel The Day of the Demon. In addition to writing, Randy organizes various events including the award-winning When Words Collide Festival for Readers and Writers. To learn more about Randy and his books, go to www.randymccharles.com.
prompts. Those clever little devils can really get the creative juices flowing, ya know? When I’m having a rough time creating, I hit up my dear friend Google, and I get myself some clever, witty dialogue prompts. From there, it just comes naturally. When I hit my groove, and I mean really hit my groove, I am able to write for hours. I ride that river of creative momentum and I don’t stop until my fingers bleed. Well, not literally bleed, but you see my meaning.
Finding what brings out your creative flow is VERY important in building up that momentum. Without momentum you are literally stuck, unmoving, not writing! And for us authors that is incredibly bad place to be. Writers Block……a few heathens say it doesn’t exist. That you can just pick right up where you left off….Well to those nay sayers, I say booo!!!! If you are experiencing lack of momentum—writers block, you are among friends here at The Fictorians. We have all experienced writers block at one time or another. Well, thats great Aubrie, but how to I get my momentum back? Well listen up my friend, for I am about to reveal to you a secret that all authors wish they knew….
I have absolutely no idea.
However, I do know that if you don’t at least try to get your mojo back, its gone for good. As I said before, dialogue prompts are very helpful to me. I don’t even always use them for my current WIP (Work in Progress). Sometimes its a completely new story that I spout off with. It really doesn’t matter, as long as I am writing. Another tool I have found helpful is the 22 rules of story writing from Pixar. One of my favorite things from their advice is this:
Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
It literally helps me create new characters and story ideas all the time! You can find the rest of the rules here:
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Aubrie is 24 years young. She plays mom to a cutest demon topside, and is married to the hottest man in the Air Force. When she isn’t writing she is daydreaming about hot brooding anti-heroes and sassy heroines. She loves Dragon Age, rewatching Game of Thrones and reading all things fantasy. She runs a local YA/NA bookclub with 3 chapters, and over 200 members. Her favorite thing to do is eat, and her thighs thank her graciously for it. If she could have dinner with anyone living or dead it would be Alan Rickman because his voice is the sexiest sound on earth. He could read the dictionary and she would be enthralled. Her current mission in life is to collect creepy taxidermy animals because she finds them cute and hilarious. She resides just outside of Washington DC.
The resident dictionary in my computer defines setting as “the place in time in which a play, novel, or film is represented as happening. As is its job, the ole dictionary gives you a sterile definition of something much more … alive.
A novel’s setting is its history, its present, and its future. It is the body inside which the story lives. Without it, you just have characters in a vacuum. I’m reminded of the time I took a mocap (short for motion capture) class. After I slinked into the skintight black mocap suit, and they fitted me with all the little white dots, I moved into the center of the circular space to go through the motions.
There was a giant screen on the far wall that displayed my movements in the form of all the dots on my body. For the purposes of this post, I’ll gloss over my elation at imitating Ken and Ryu movments from Street Fighter, or Scorpion and Sub Zero from Mortal Kombat. Or even Eddie Gordo from Tekken. While those moments were a fun and laughter-inducing reliving of childhood/young adulthood, the memory of this adds a layer to this subject. The character in a vacuum.
While I was busy playing characters onscreen, the guys on the computer were creating a troll to inhabit the white dots that I provided. Soon we had a big hulking troll monster on screen, and I was its brain. Now, while seeing the guys behind the computer screen work their magic so quickly was cool, and me making the thing move even cooler, it sat on a screen, by itself, in a vacuum. The truth is, they could have gone on to inhabit that screen with thirty more trolls, included a giant, or even a dragon. But at the end of the day, they would all have been really cool figures in a vacuum devoid of any life but themselves.
Setting, is not just the location a story takes place. It’s not just a mass of buildings, mountains, lakes, flowers and trees. It’s a character in the story, whether background or lead. In The Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth was very much a main character of that series. The sense of vastness and wonder of the place, the mines of Moria, the forests home to powerful sprites such as Tom Bombadil, the lush green homes of the Ents, on their endless search for the Ent Wives, who probably left because they were tired of picking up after their Ent husbands. The darkness and evil of Kazaad Dum. It goes on and on.
The setting is everything that a character loves or hates about their lives, their situation, their past, the anxiety of their future. It is that place of danger and deviousness that the protagonist has been told to avoid, yet dreads the inevitability of her having to go. Throughout her journey to this horrible land, the protagonist is filled with worry about what she will find there. She mentally and even physically prepares herself for the sly, conniving men, the whip-like wit of the women, and the defiant children she will encounter. She hones her senses, wary of the packs of feral dogs roving the city borders, the twisted and gnarled trees reaching their clawed branches over the trail to snatch up foolish travelers passing through the dark night. She thinks of the black buildings, sitting prostrate before the giant black tower glaring down on them.
But when our protagonist reaches what her friends have described as this place of unending darkness and despair, she discovers a city with buildings dark of color that appear black at night, but are quite beautifully designed homes, pavilions, tailor shops, bakeries. The old gnarled trees are actually thousands of years old, and she can feel the silent wisdom of many ages past wafting from the regal figures. Packs of dogs do indeed rove the city limits, chasing off bears, making wolves think twice about venturing too close to the meadow where families like to picnic. The families bring extra food that they happily share with their canine protectors.
The men of the city are excellent at a game called Spy’s Eye, in which their team uses treachery and deceit to win over their opponents. It is such a beloved game that they playfully prank each other in daily life. Women have a whip-like wit that is seemingly present at birth, since the society is matriarchal, and women hold the most powerful positions of politics.
Children are trained from a young age to be strong of mind, for the world is dangerous outside the borders of their home, and one never knows what or whom they will encounter during their travels.
Our protagonist is instantly overwhelmed at the sight of the dark-colored buildings downhill from the huge tower that provides a breathtaking view of the surrounding land. It is a tower of observation that all may enjoy. Climbing the steps of the tower is a tiresome affair that not many will complete, yet those who do reach the top are afforded the perspective of a view of a world much bigger than they are; a reward for the labor of achieving it.
In these two examples, we have a setting built in the imagination of our protagonist based on rumors from her childhood. Her friends may have ventured to this place when very young, been frightened by the trees, the large buildings, the people who might have been very different from those from the land of their birth. This setting is stays with us and the protagonist all the way to her destination. Then we see that this is actually only partially true, and that with her own eyes, the protagonist sees the buildings, the trees, the dogs, the people, for what they really are.
Our setting has changed.
In any given story, we will more often than not have multiple settings. Even if it takes place in only one city throughout the entire story, there will be more than one. Our characters will venture from the slums of their home, to high society once they’ve attained a job. They may perhaps earn enough money to move from the slums to middle society where they will own a home in a nice community.
One day a dragon may fly overhead and torch the entire city. Now we have another setting; one of fire, ruin, and death. To stop the dragon, our protagonist may seek the help of a wizard who gives him the ability to breathe underwater, and he ventures deep into the caverns of the ocean to seek help from a water dragon to battle the evil wyrm who destroyed his home. In his journey to the water dragon, we see all manner of sea life.
Why have I illustrated all of this? That’s the fun part. We go to a film, open a book, go to a play, to suspend real life for a while. We wish to be transported into a setting not our own, whether real or fictional. Some readers love political thrillers, while others enjoy flying on the back of a dragon. With either of those genres, a character must be somewhere. Be it in a courtroom, in front of the desk of the Prime Minister of a country he was just caught spying in, or in the lair of a dragon who would love to know why he shoved that one coin into his pocket. A character’s journey cannot happen without a place to journey within. Even in their own mind, there is some kind of setting.
So go forth, lovely readers. Find a setting and dive into it. Pick up a game controller and do things in ancient Egypt, Rome, Japan. Open a book and leap through the treetops over the shoulder of a band of wood nymphs. Settings are as endless as our imaginations, and our abilities to use the built-in virtual reality of our own minds to visualize them. And isn’t that, a truly wondrous and wonderful thing?
About the Author:
Ramón Terrell is an actor and author who instantly fell in love with fantasy the day he opened R. A. Salvatore’s: The Crystal Shard. Years (and many devoured books) later he decided to put pen to paper for his first novel. After a bout with aching carpals, he decided to try the keyboard instead, and the words began to flow.
As an actor, he has appeared in the hit television shows Supernatural, izombie, Arrow, and Minority Report, as well as the hit comedy web series Single and Dating in Vancouver. He also appears as one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men in Once Upon a Time, as well as an Ark Guard on the hit TV show The 100. When not writing, or acting on set, he enjoys reading, video games, hiking, and long walks with his wife around Stanley Park in Vancouver BC.