Monday, October 10, 2011

Three Tips for Nanowrimo

It's October. November is almost here. If you haven't heard of it yet, November is National Novel Writing Month. Nanowrimo takes the loneliest art form on the planet - novel writing - and turns it into something like the Boston Marathon.

Sign up on the website and you've pledged to write a new rough draft novel of 50,000 words or more. It's not about quality. That comes in the editing process. It's about quantity.

It's about busting writer's block to smithereens and developing good writing habits. If you create 1,667 words a day during November, you'll win your Nanowrimo Winner's Certificate. You can print it out, frame it, hang it on the wall next to last year's and the year before.

Every year the certificate looks different too. The big game of writing 50,000 fictional words always has a new win screen. A substantial number of entrants succeed in writing a Nanowrimo novel in the first year they try. Even more come back again and again till they win.

If you are a total beginner, I have another website for you too. is another writing blog by Larry Brooks. He's doing a series of 31 posts in 31 days helping folks prepare for Nanowrimo.

If you've never tried writing a novel before, use Larry's method pure. If you are a planner, his structural approach is fantastic. IF you are a pantser, you should still read all the posts.

I'm a pantser. That means "fly by the seat of your pants." I write intuitively. I start at the beginning on November 1st and get lost in the story. I write The End when the structure is complete and then I give it a break before I start to edit. I'll write another one or start editing last year's November novel.

I've won Nanowrimo nine out of ten times. In 2002 I had pneumonia and didn't get started till November 25th. I still made a respectable 25,000 words that year, if I'd had five more days I'd have won. Today, I could do it in those five days.

I also participate in the Three Day Novel Contest every year. This is like trying to do a sketch of a live model in two minutes. If you do a lot of two minute gesture sketches, then a model who holds still for twenty minutes feels like you've got all the time in the world to draw her.

It's much the same with novel writing. I have two natural advantages for speed writing a rough draft. One is that I'm disabled and don't have to work around a schedule that includes a "job" or anything like it. The other is that I type very fast thanks to the Dvorak keyboard layout.

Dvorak increased my typing speed by at least 20 words a minute. I was up to typing 81 words a minute on a normal keyboard because I was a typesetter - it's a typing job. Dvorak adds 20 words a minute on average to anyone's typing speed. I'm pretty sure I went way over a hundred once I was used to it.

Do not change to the Dvorak keyboard layout in October or November.

I felt brain dead for the first month as I was typing by hunt and peck. I practiced in a chat room with a bunch of writer friends who were all learning Dvorak. We made some hilarious typos, we typed so slow it was ludicrous, we joked about it and had fun. By the end of the month I was up to about 30 words a minute, comparable to longhand writing. From there in a few more months I was back up to speed.

By November of the following year I was typing faster than I had before I started. The best time to switch to Dvorak is in December. Give yourself a whole year to get used to it.

There's another benefit to Dvorak besides typing faster. I was starting to get sore wrists from using a normal Qwerty keyboard. I dreaded having to stop typing for ten or twelve hours at a time. Because Dvorak layout is more ergonomic, that wrist pain went away and I haven't had it since.

So there's a useful tip for next year's Nanowrimo. I can just hear you say it.

"Come on, what can I do to win this year?"

Tip number one: warm up by freewriting.

This is an exercise I got taught in high school by Mr. Mazurek in his Creative Writing class. I got an A on it as an assignment and thought I was cheating because it wasn't a story or an essay. I know now that I deserved that A because I started writing the minute he said "Start" and didn't stop till he said "Stop."

If you make a mistake, just type the changeed changed version next to it. That's given you an extra word, easily edited out. Let it go. Let it flow.

I didn't stop or hesitate in my first Freewriting exercise. I didn't stare off into the distance wondering what was going to happen next. I didn't stop to ask myself what to write about. Instead, I wrote one of many miserably pity-party themed creative nonfiction pieces on the theme of "I need to write and I can't write. I'm blocked. It hurts so bad. I feel like I want to die..."

Ever get that feeling?

Write it out. Start a personal journal today if you don't already have one. Set a timer for fifteen minutes. That's all you get. Now turn it on and write as much as you can in those fifteen minutes.

If you're blocked, write about the block. If you can't think of something to write about, write about that awful feeling. Just get words down. Think about quantity, not quality.

Title it with the date and the word "Freewrite." That'll help you distinguish it from personal journal intended to say, sort out your personal problems or get along with your sweetie. Even if those topics come up, calling it a Freewrite is a reminder that you're a writer and this is a writer's exercise.

Write as much as you can in fifteen minutes and then stop. Read what you've written. Look for ideas in it. You may have started pumping out good novel, scene or character ideas when you were done wibbling about not having any ideas.

Go on the opposite of a fault finding mission. Look for anything that's good in that freewrite. Find memorable sentences or phrases. Laugh at any funny line you came up with. Filter out any cool ideas for stories, novels, essays or articles.

Most of all, read it in a warm friendly encouraging way as if you decided to read a friend's freewrite exercise. Not as if it's yours. As if it's from someone you care about who has a lot of talent for writing. Someone whose stories you want to read.

There is a great and glowing prize at the end of Nanowrimo beyond this year's cool art on the certificate and being able to change the color of your progress bar.

You get to read a new book by your favorite author.

You can't help liking your own writing. You're going to do it your way. You'll choose your favorite genre, write characters you like, a theme you're passionate about. Write the book you wish Stephen King or Nora Roberts would write.

It's like cooking. You start out with no idea where the ingredients are in the cabinets or fridge, even choosing a recipe is tough. You goof up now and then, maybe a lot. But you eventually learn to cook well and along the way, to cook to your own taste. Trust your taste.

It's a lot higher than your skill for any beginner. You've had wonderful books written by skilled professionals and edited by brilliant editors all your life. Maybe you read classics as well as genre or mainstream novels and dream of writing like Dickens. All that goes into the place the stories come from.

Book Next is the one Dickens would have written in 2011. Or maybe it's a Victorian historical novel and the research is going to keep you busy all October. Write the book you want to read and it will flow better than any other.

That's tip number two: write the book you want to read.

Nanowrimo is tough. You've got a hard deadline, a difficult assignment. One way that Nanowrimo works is that you got trained from first grade to turn in writing on time to a deadline. Even if you were home schooled, you had assignments that needed to be turned in on time. Nanowrimo is a game that includes accountability and a fun prize. Win it and you've won a lot more than a cool winner's certificate.

The first novel you write is always the hardest. That's because you're teaching yourself all the skills needed to write a good novel. Your taste is higher than your skill. You want it to come out a brilliant work of fiction right up there with all of your favorites. Instead, it reads as if a beginner did it.

Don't sweat it. You have no idea how bad the rough drafts of your favorite novelists are. Stephen King writes a rough draft to know what happens in the story before he writes the version he's going to sell.

There is no such thing as a bad first draft once it's been written.

My third tip is for writers like me, Organic Linear Writers. That is, you hate outlines, you've tried outlines, they just don't work. Maybe once the outline is done the book feels done and you have a hard time forcing yourself to actually write it.

I used to cheat in grade school and draft my outlines by reading my essay and writing it out after the fact. If a teacher wanted it turned in before the assignment, I kept my essay back till the day it was due. I didn't try outlining till I was in my forties.

I was in an online writing class and did all the exercises and planning steps in order. I got similar results to my Linear Organic method but it took longer, took more work and wasn't as much fun. That left me satisfied that yes, I could use an outline if I had to.

Using an outline is comparable to a beginning artist using a ruler. Some artists don't bother with rulers. They take longer learning to draw a straight line freehand. Others get much faster good results as beginners by using the ruler. So if you're a total beginner, go to the beginning of Larry Brooks' blog and read forward from October 1st. He has a great planning method and it's worthwhile contemplating it even if you are a pantser.

I have a method too. I treat the structure the way I would a sonnet structure. I just don't fill in any of the blanks till I'm actually writing.

I decide at the start what length of novel I want to write. Let's say, 50,000 words. I'll scale the chapter length to that in order to have a comfortable number of chapters. For a 50,000 word novel, if I average 2,000 words a chapter I'll have 25 chapters.

Gee, at a chapter a day, that gets me to the finish line with six days to hang out and brag on my lovely purple bar!

The story has a beginning, a middle and an end. At the beginning of a novel, it's all introductions. For the first five or six chapters, I toss in whatever I think of from the top of my head. I introduce new characters, new situations, bits of new backstory. I make up how the magic works if I'm doing fantasy.

Around the middle, I slow down on introducing new characters and new aspects of the world. I've got a fifty-fifty split between tossing in new elements or looking for consequences of what the characters did. The pace balances between Fate and Choice.

Fate is what I tossed in because it'd be cool. Choice is consequences of how the characters faced their troubles. Most of what amuses me in novels is very hard on the characters, they'd rather not have to deal with it! Sometimes it's a wish story though. The characters want something, put in the effort, get it and then find out that has consequences.

Toward the end, I start throwing in fewer and fewer Fate elements. By then the amount of Consequences has exploded. If I need something new, I flip back through what I've written to see if there's a good consequence to toss in or a minor character I haven't used again yet. This is where walk-on bit part characters turn out to be significant.

The waitress the protagonist tipped heavily in the beginning, who hasn't been seen again throughout, will turn out to be critical in the end. She might recognize him and become a character witness in the trial. Or she'll lie about him to the bad guys and send them in the wrong direction.

Consequences aren't just the negative consequences. Characters who do the right thing reap immediate negative consequences but also leave a trail of small kindnesses and moments of doing what's right that come back to help them in the end. They all get karma.

Within the big structure of the novel as a whole, each chapter has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has an opening conflict, it has some sorting-out involved, and at the end of the chapter it'll either be a cliff hanger ending or something minor will be resolved so that the story moves on.

It's almost like writing a 2,000 word short story, except that all the separate little stories jigsaw into each other to create a great big novel.

Within the chapter, there will be one or more scenes. Each scene also has a beginning, a middle and an end. The ends of scenes may or may not be as conclusive. If nothing else the argument between the characters comes to an end when one of them walks out leaving it unresolved.

A pantser gets used to that structure. An idea that has inherent conflict and an interesting character becomes a scene, a chapter, a novel. A novel has a whole lot more elbow room for subplots, secondary characters, interesting side trips into the waitress's love life (which could be with one of the bad guys). That's what makes novel writing so much fun.

If novels aren't your natural length, short stories will come easier. My suggestion for natural short story writers is to create a Mosaic Novel. Build a "series plot" that has a beginning, a middle and an end by writing a lot of short stories about different characters that all come together at the end. It's still a novel, it's just a cool variation on one.

When I follow the story structure by intuition, I don't need to map out and decide everything scene by scene. The scene I'm in will influence the one ahead. The more I have written, the clearer it is to see where the story's going.

Sometimes I know how it's going to end. Sometimes I don't. If I do know, it's only a basic idea of the ending. The old Smilodon female would break her back, survive five or six months by others hunting for her and eventually wind up in the tar pits. Why she went into the tar pit was something I didn't know until the last scene.

Other times the only guess that I have about the ending is what the protagonist wants. Sometimes he or she gets it before the ending because other conflicts emerged that were more important to the story. That's okay - that hero develops a new goal and the previous, attained goal becomes part of why.

If you are a natural pantser and feel as if the novel's finished once the outline's done, spend your October doing something else. Develop a good Starting Conflict - a character in a cool situation that carries a theme. A solid opener has all three of those elements - at least one interesting character, a setting that includes an inherent conflict and a theme that the writer's passionate about.

My third tip is simply this: write what you want to read.

Don't go dithering around wondering what will sell or whether your friend likes a different genre. This is not about selling a book. Whatever you write, there is probably a genre audience that shares your tastes. Write for them. If you write the best book you can for yourself as reader, it will have a deep integrity, a truth that goes deeper than all the fictional details.

It'll also be a lot easier to motivate yourself to go back to it every day during November. If it's a page turner to you, it's got the potential to be a page turner to your readers too. Your core readers share your taste in fiction.

If you are true to yourself and write a novel that says what you mean, that's going to shine compared to anything just written for the money. Even in its rough form it'll keep you engaged and it's easier to focus on the story. If you run out of story too soon, look at the situation and do the next mosaic piece of a mosaic novel. You've got an opinion and everyone's entitled to read it.

Most of all enjoy the process. November is National Novel Writing Month! You can do this - and no matter what help your rough draft needs, the process can be learned.

Every novelist reinvents the process of how to write a novel but the results all share the same structure. We grew up reading novels, not hearing ancient Norse epics in verse. It's like learning to write a sonnet - the content of the poem is unique but the structure is recognizably a sonnet.

You know what goes into a good book. It's already there in your mind. You have good taste in books. A rough draft is just that - it's messy and it's not finished in terms of quality but you know what happened.

I'm going to post some more Pantser tips next week. I can't cover everything that would help you win Nanowrimo in just one essay. So warm up, have fun and if you're a pantser, try sketching your characters or hanging out reading articles on how to write. If you're a planner, read Larry Brooks. His blog rocks.


  1. So much wisdom here, Rob, especially the advice to warm-up for NaNoWriMo by doing some free-writing. Especially good advice if you haven't actually written in a while.

  2. Thank you! You're so right. It's freewriting that lets me relax with my rough draft and just accept anything the characters do or any odd thing that comes up unexpectedly in a chapter.

    It kills that self-critical voice that would have you noodling over the first paragraph for a week and then forget what the book was about by week three as you finish the first scene. I used to have a domestic partnership with a writer who literally did that.