NaNoWriMo Prep

TypewriterAre you participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year? It starts this Saturday (November 1st) and is a mad dash to write 50,000 words of a novel in one short month! I participated for the first time last year and loved it. It’s true, I was a big snob about NaNoWriMo before I tried it, but now I’m a complete convert.

If you’re taking the plunge and trying NaNoWriMo this year, I have a few quick suggestions that I learned from my experience last year. Hopefully these will help you stay on track and reach your 50,000 word goal.

1) Make an Outline

Make a list of scenes you want to write for your novel. This doesn’t need to be fully formed outline. All you need is a list of events or moments that you think might be a part of the book. The fun thing about NaNoWriMo is that you’re writing so fast that everything you try counts toward your 50,000 word! Even if you cut it later, you can try it now and it’s productive. You can pick a scene to write each day and see where it takes you. If it doesn’t go anywhere, try another scene on your list. You’d be surprised to see how many scenes will snowball into whole sequences, chapters, and eventually full novels! An outline gives you a place to start each day, and a new scene to jump to if the one your working on isn’t going anywhere.

2) Create Scene Cards

After you make your outline, create scene cards for each of your scenes. These cards outline the major action and emotional change of the scene. This will help you to make sure you have a plan and direction when you write. This way you won’t sit down and stare at a blank page. When I re-read my novel after NaNoWriMo, one of the big things I learned was that scenes I had a plan for were worth keeping. Scenes I didn’t use a scene card for often got cut. Read more about scene cards and see examples here: Scene Cards Blog Post.

3) Don’t Edit

I know it seems counter intuitive to not edit. Part of writing is choosing the right phrase and sentence to communicate your ideas. But when the end goal is word count, editing is your worst enemy. NaNoWriMo is about getting your ideas on the page and moving forward. It isn’t about writing a masterpiece in the first pass. That’s what revision is for. Who cares if you’ve added adverbs everywhere. Who cares if you spend half a page describing a character’s hair style. This draft is about creating the raw material that you can shape and mold later. It’s easier to revise a novel once you have that raw material to work with, rather than trying to come up with a brilliant and perfectly crafted page out of nothing. Yes, your NaNoWriMo novel isn’t going to be spun gold. That’s not the point. The point is to get material on the page that you can revise with.


4) Write the Fun Scenes First

We often think we have to write in linear order. We also think we have to finish scenes. I give you permission leave scenes half-finished and to write out of order! Write the scenes you’re most excited to write first. Those scenes are going to have the most energy and excitement behind them. They’re going to create inertia that gets you excited to get up and write again tomorrow. If a scene isn’t going well, don’t finish it. Leave yourself a big note that says: finish this scene later and move on. Don’t worry about it right now. There are going to big plot holes, sure, but you can fix them in revision. Focus on what is fun and keeps you excited to keep writing this project. That’s the trick to writing faster than you should. Have fun and forget all the rules you’ve made for yourself in the past. Create, enjoy, and fall in love with your story.

5) Write in the Morning

Not everyone is a morning writer. I understand that. But personally, I’ve have found that writing in the morning during NaNoWriMo keeps me motivated. It allows me to get through my 1600 words a day early on. This also means any additional words I write that day are a bonus and help get me closer to 50,000 words faster! If you get behind in NaNoWriMo it can be discouraging. So don’t wait. Write first thing and make it a habit. One of the great side effects of this exercise is the way it motivates you to work on your project every day.

Looking for more tips to help with National Novel Writing Month? Try these:

Five Things I Learned From Doing NaNoWriMo

It’s been nine months since I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and wrote 50,000 words of a novel in under a month. It’s one thing to bask in the manic euphoria of pounding out 50,000 words like an intense sprint around a track. But it’s completely different thing to step back and look at what you’ve written and see if it’s worth anything. Yes, I braved reading my NaNoWriMo draft, and I’ve even begun to draft revisions. But what I’ve discovered in the post-NaNo-creation glow is pretty surprising…

First draft button

1) My First Draft Isn’t Shitty

First off, I’m not a fan of the term shitty first drafts. Yes, it was created to help us deal with our need for perfection in the first draft, but I also think it creates a cycle of negativity. The idea of telling ourselves our drafts are shitty, only reinforces the negative feelings we already fear about our work. Sure, a first draft may not be publishable, but honestly, I never think they’re shitty. However, if there was any instance where my theories on shitty first drafts would be overturned it would be NaNoWriMo … after all, I pumped out this draft in 2 ½ weeks. Only…

My NaNoWriMo Draft isn’t shitty!

Sure, it’s not polished gold, but there are so many important discoveries in it, explorations that led to new plot points, beautiful lines, sassy sections of dialogue, and even entire scenes that are good. Not scenes that are okay… but good!

My point is: we should trust our first drafts more. Trust the joy and the positive energy that can come from freeing yourself up and writing quickly. Trust the fact that you do know what you’re doing and your writing is better than you think it is!

female-empowerment2) Revisions are Empowering

Okay, so my first draft isn’t complete crap, but there’s still plenty of work to do. The second great discovery about writing a quick first draft is that when you approach revisions you immediately know what to do to make the book better. Revisions don’t become nail-biting, hair-pulling, exercises in frustration. Instead, revision become empowering!

For me, it can be the despair, the sense that I don’t know what to do, that makes writing so hard. But revising this novel has been invigorating and fun. There’s power and purpose in sitting down with raw material and knowing exactly what to do to shape it. It helps me to see how much I already know about crafting good stories, and that I’m able to do it with intention.  

old chronometer3) It Doesn’t Take as Long as I Think to Write a Novel

Looking back at my NaNoWriMo time sheets, I’ve discovered that I spent an average of 1½ hours writing per day. Yes, there were a few days where I put in 3 to 4 hours in a sitting. But mostly it was 1 ½ hours a day. As I’ve moved on to revision, I’ve also put in an average of 1 1/2 hours per day. By keeping a time sheet I’ve started to see how much I can accomplish in a short amount of time. In fact, I haven’t even put in a full month’s worth of work into this novel yet!

One of our big struggles with writing is finding the time to get it done. But I’ve been floored to discover how much I can accomplish with only 1 ½ hours a day! I bet most of you could find 1 or 2 hours in your day to write.

no_plan_road_sign4) Scenes That Went Nowhere…

Not every section of my NaNoWriMo draft works. But, I discoverd a pattern to the pages that fell flat or went nowhere. These scenes were searching for direction, and without it they floundered.

In my pre-planning stages I outlined and created scene-cards for the scenes I knew existed. I did, however, leave a few blank. I made the excuse that I’d figure it out later, while writing. It turns out that every scene I promised to figure out later on, didn’t go anywhere. Sometimes I’d know the general action of a scene, but the things that really killed my momentum were not knowing what my character wanted in the scene, or what his or her emotional change would be. All the scenes with a clear character goal and emotional change came alive on the page. Perhaps this is the through line I needed to guide me while writing really fast.

blinders5) Everything You Think You Know is Wrong! Or… Don’t Put On Writing Blinders.

I was certain that NaNoWriMo was going to be a huge failure. I had some snobby ideas about how a novel should be written. I was certain those participating in NaNoWriMo were wasting their time. But boy was I wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong!

I don’t think I will write every novel in my future this way. But I do think it will be a great way to write some of them. But man, if I’d stayed in my stuffy singular way of looking at things, I would have never discovered this amazing tool and these important lessons.

So get out there and try new things with your writing. Try things you’re certain will not work. Allow yourself to fail. We never know what will work until we put it into practice and give it a whirl.

What Did You Learn from NaNoWriMo?

Did anyone else participate in NaNoWriMo this year? Have you re-read your work? Started revisions? What discoveries have you made?

Scene Cards

P1010936For those of you doing NaNo, creating scene cards is going to be a great technique to help you prepare. However, if you’re not doing NaNo, a scene card is still a technique you can use at anytime in your writing process.

What’s a scene card?

A scene card is a tool to help you think about what you are doing with a scene before you write it. It’s like having a mini outline for your scenes. They work as a guideline to help you have an idea of where you’re headed, before you sit down to write.

Creating a scene card is really simple.

1) Start by establishing where the scene takes place (location/setting), the time of day it happens, and if the action is interior or exterior.  Example: Interior, bank, morning.

2) In one sentence, (and force yourself to keep it to a single sentence), write out the action or what happens in the scene. Example: Mary robs the bank.

3) Identify the main conflict in the scene or the character’s agenda in the scene.  Example: Mary’s agenda is to rob the bank without hurting anyone. The external conflict: Mary has to make sure the patrons and employees don’t stop her. The internal conflict: Mary needs to overcome her fear that she can’t do this, and that it’s illegal, and pull it off anyway.

4) What is the emotional arc of the scene? What emotion does the character start with? And what emotion does he/she end with? Example: Mary begins the scene afraid and nervous, but she ends the scene feeling empowered after she thinks she’s pulled it off. 

That’s it!

Only, that is actually a lot of information to know before beginning a scene! Instead of meandering, a scene card can help you stay focused on what the scene is really about.

Now make one for every scene in your book!

Many people like to use index cards for this process. Personally, I type them up in word using the template below.

Scene Card

As many of you know, I’m not a huge advocate of over-planning. This is the kind of tool that could be taken too far. I suggest using it in broad strokes. Give yourself the basic idea of where your scene is headed. But don’t write down every look, beat, or turn of dialogue. Leave some room for freshness when you put the pen to the page!

Happy writing!

Five Quick Tips for NaNoWriMo

Fast-Typing1As you know I’ve decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year! In preparation, I asked for some tips from fellow VCFA grad (and Dystropian) Shayda Bakhshi. Shayda is a long time veteran (and winner) of NaNoWriMo, and she also gave her graduate lecture on how to succeed at writing waaaaay faster than is probably advisable!

Here are five of her tips on how to succeed at NaNoWriMo:

1) Focus on Something Happening

The best way to get a story moving is to have something happen. The age-old rule is to find the conflict, but sometimes that’s not as easy to come by as you want it to be. Instead, simply try to  focus on action. Ask yourself if the “action” of a scene is physical or emotional? Is the underlying conflict introspective or external? Push yourself to identify it and see how it plays out.

2) Give your Character Agency

What does your character want? Underneath everything, what is it that your character yearns for? Dream for? Desire?  How will that desire lead them forward through the story? Giving your character agency to act is essential in moving the narrative forward. Without it, you’ll find your character wandering about or running around in circles.

3) Emotional Contouring

Ask yourself what the emotional change of every scene is. Does the scene begin happy and then end in disaster? Are your characters angry at each other, but then end up in a kiss? You want an emotional direction for each scene. Identify what it is so you know where your headed before you write it.

4) Time Management

Keep track of your work habits during NaNoWriMo. At the end of each day catalog how many words you wrote. But also, calculate how many hours and minutes you spent writing them. And what time of day you wrote them. At the end of your first week look for hot spots of productivity, as well as areas where you may have slacked. See if you can organize your next week for optimum time efficiency. Plus, this is useful information for how you manage time outside of NaNo as well.

5) Enthusiasum

If your bored writing a scene, your reader will be bored reading it. But even worse, you won’t want to write the next scene because you’re sick of the first one! Cut it. If you’re not liking it – jump to another scene that you can get behind and enjoy. Half of your success comes from your enjoyment of the process. The only rule is word-count. You can write out of order. Cut scenes or head in a new direction. Always write a scene that you’re excited about!

Have you completed NaNoWriMo in the past? Do you have some helpful tips to share? Put ’em in the comments!