Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems.


5 Tips for Writing Your (NaNoWriMo) Novel

“Walker, your treads are

the path and nothing more;

walker, there is no path,

the path is made by walking.”

— from Caminante No Hay Camino by Antonio Machado

“Do you have any advice for writing a novel?”

The question both amused and touched me. Amused because I’ve never actually finished a novel. Touched because this friend believed I knew enough about writing one to have accumulated shareable wisdom with him. (I love my friends’ faith in me!) What he doesn’t know is that my journals and Google Drive folders are littered with abandoned drafts of sci-fi, horror, historical fiction, humor writing, poetry, non-fiction, memoirs — you name it. My writing life looks a little like the Winchester Mystery House: staircases going nowhere, doors opening out onto thin air, and rooms that have no actual purpose.

I’ve read a lot about writing over the years, believing that someone out there would have the answers I needed to finally motivate me to become the writer I think I have the potential to be. I’ve read books and articles about process, motivation, technique, theory…the list goes on. What I’ve found most successful, though, I’ve learned through failing, again and again.

My failures during National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo) have been especially instrumental in learning about myself as a writer. Writing a novel in 30 days is ridiculously compressed, an artificial situation. (Having said that, plenty of writers have eventually published their NaNoWriMo novels, as did my friend Tim, author of Davy’s Savior.) But the pressure of meeting daily word-count goals — yeah, that’s right, writing every single day, which isn’t something I find easy to do — uncovers a lot of attitudes, beliefs, and bad habits lurking in the shadows.

So, here are a few hard-won tips from my NaNoWriMo experiences, some of them offered by writers much more successful than I, and some of them things I’ve stumbled on accidentally as I wrote.

Tip 1: Don’t force yourself to write from beginning to end

I tried this. It sucks. Just don’t.

Even if you have an outline — you know, like your high school English teachers used to require — and you think you know exactly how you want your novel to unfold, you’ll find yourself miring in your own, well-planned storyline. If you insist on writing linearly, from beginning to end, when the wheels fall off — and I guarantee they will — you’ll grind to a halt and will find it difficult to get started again.

The funny thing about deviating from The Plan — whether it’s an outline for a novel, a driving route, or a vacation itinerary — is that you often end up in much more interesting places than you’d imagined existed. If you let the story unfold, it takes on a life of its own, and while that can completely blow your well-planned outline out of the water, it can also mean a more interesting character, subplot, or scene.

My first NaNoWriMo attempt taught me that writing in chunks not only enabled me to better develop my characters and story, it also allowed me to keep moving when I felt stuck. If I couldn’t figure out how to wrap up the scene I was writing, I simply picked up and moved farther down the story’s timeline — or reversed and added a chunk somewhere else that would better allow me to develop the scene where I was stuck. (Mind you, I didn’t edit — see Tip 2 — I added.) I’d either add the new material to my outline, or I’d do a little journaling around it to help set up something I planned writing later in connection to it. (See Tip 4, below, about handwritten notes.)

Had I insisted on writing linearly, beginning to end, I never would have gotten as far as I did — and I wouldn’t have a great start to a novel I plan to finish in the future, now that it’s had some time to marinate. Like, a lot of time. Um…two years. But who’s counting?

Tip 2: Write first; edit later

I’ve read this bit of advice in so many books and articles that I’ve lost count. The bottom line is that if you start listening to your inner editor, you’ll quit writing, and you’ll never finish your novel. Simple as that.

The writing doesn’t need to be a great work of art as it flows out of you (or claws its way out, in a kind of eviscerating birth, as in the Alien movies) — heck, it doesn’t even need to be good. It just needs to be written. Get it out. Get it down. There’s time later to shape it up, and you might miss writing a nugget of brilliance if you’re wrestling with trying to turn what feels like piles of poo into gold ingots before you even finish the story.

So tell your internalized college professor — you know the one — to shut his or her trap. You have work to do, and you need to concentrate. (And I’m betting that critical voice in your head has never even attempted, much less written, a novel of its own, so it has no right to criticize yours.) I frequently have to turn “we are not editing right now” into a mantra I repeat while breathing deeply and forcing my fingers to just keep typing.

Tip 3: Set a timer and write until it dings

I’m not sure where I first heard this bit of advice, but I most recently heard it from Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) in her Master Class, “Creative Living Beyond Fear.” She suggests using a plain old kitchen timer rather than your phone, which, as she says, should be nowhere near where you are working so you don’t get distracted. Then you write for that period of time — no getting up to make a cup of tea or look at email or play with the dog. Just keep your heinie in the seat and write until the timer goes off, even if it’s only one sentence, over and over…

As a twist on the concept, the NaNoWriMo site builds in opportunities for timed writing as a speed-writing/brain dump exercise, called “word sprints.” You log in and set a timer, then write as fast as you can as the seconds tick by. When the timer goes off, you enter your word count for the sprint and move on.

Again, it’s artificial, I know, but I’ve found it useful, especially when my internal editor won’t shut its loud mouth. And I’ve also used the word sprint approach when I have just 15 minutes and am tempted to head out to social media for a little distraction. (I’ve been pretty successful with staying out of there, but relapses are starting to occur, especially now that I’m making progress, which might make no sense to you unless you read Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art. Resistance to creativity is real, folks.) Instead of distracting myself, I set the timer and write until the (rather humorous) alert tells me to stop. The funny thing is that, once I’ve input my word count, I often find that the sprint has kick-started my creative energy, and I’m ready to keep writing.

Sometimes, though, I just close my laptop and go do something else for a while, letting the writing marinate for a while before returning to it. What I write next often has more texture and interest.

Tip 4: Keep a journal with handwritten notes

This is me, all me, as far as I know. What I’ve found is that writing notes by hand engages a part of my brain that my laptop keyboard simply can’t access. Moving my hand across a page, pen in hand, triggers a different mode of processing than typing does. I often switch back and forth, from computer to journal and back again, allowing the different modes to activate as necessary.

My handwritten notes range from outlines to bits of dialogue to character descriptions to notes about scenes I want to write. Sometimes they’re stream-of-consciousness conversations with myself that morph into storyline. Sometimes, they’re notes on something I’ve researched — like geographic locations, terminology, or the stages of decomposition — that I need to work on or work out through the physical, manual act of writing. Highlighters occasionally come out; color-coding occurs. Margins fill with jottings. Diagrams and maps get drawn. Oftentimes my handwritten notetaking never sees the “official” writing pages, but it informs them.

And jotting things down by hand allows me to keep writing because I’m not distracted by the worry that I’ll forget a little gem that has potential or a fact I need to check about dog behavior. Or whatever. In short, journaling allows me to…

Tip 5: Just freakin’ write

Seriously. The only way to write anything is to write it. Sit down. Open a laptop or notebook. Write. And keep writing until the writing is done.

You’ll know when that is.

Photo of journal pages

Messy journal pages from my 2016 NaNoWriMo attempt.

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NaNoWriMo – Day 3

According to Chris Baty, Founder of NaNoWriMo, most Wrimos (the nickname for participants in National Novel Writing Month) hit the creative wall during the second week. After screaming through the first week, creative juices flying everywhere (I know: Ew.), it seems second-week Wrimos suddenly screech to a halt during Week 2. They see plot holes. Their characters refuse to develop beyond anything but fuzzy old Polaroid photos. They have no idea where to take the story next.

Or, if you’re me, it happens on Day 3.

OK, it wasn’t quite that bad. I mean, I did have what I’m affectionately calling the drunken Alanis scene (think: “You Oughtta Know”) between Jaqi and her ex-boyfriend to write. And I wrote it with great gusto, plunging in and letting Jaqi pour out her rage at Adam in all her drunken glory, with Demon (an internal demon who has somehow become an “outie” kind of demon) poking and prodding her and whipping her up into a fine frenzy before Adam delivers his final line and Jaqi passes out on the sidewalk.

I sat back. I stretched. I yawned. (This NaNoWriMo stuff requires later nights than I’m accustomed to!) And I did my word  count.

584 words.


I wasn’t even halfway to the recommended daily word count, much less to my personal word count goal for the day, in order to meet the 50,000 word requirement. I had two significant hurdles to cross.

Hurdle 1: All that pesky (but fruitful) dialogue

Now, I’ve already been plagued by the fact that my novel-in-training is mostly written as dialog, with little description. It was, after all, supposed to be a play script, not a novel, so the writing I’ve been doing in my head over this past year has been in scenes (e.g. the “drunken Alanis” scene; the why-the-heck-is-there-a-demon-in-my-apartment” scene). So dialogue is natural. And I’m pretty good at writing it because I sort of experience life as a series of scenes. Besides, a lot can be revealed through dialogue, which is why theater and film can make people laugh and cry and think. But a novel needs…more.

The problem with “more” — description, back story, character details — is that trying to insert it into my writing at this point would mean having to stop and think. Stopping and thinking defeats the purpose because it decreases word count. OK, it’s not all about the word count, but the word count is the tangible measure of novel-writing progress. The point of NaNoWriMo is getting the darned novel out of one’s head and into some kind of format to be read by other humans.

In No Plot, No Problem, Chris Baty offers this bit of advice: “[D]on’t worry too much about lending an enormous amount of realistic detail to the tale’s backdrop. In the same way that a theater set will use two or three potted trees to suggest a forest, so should you leave much of your setting to the reader’s imagination in the first draft.” Oooo! I thought. Advice with a theater spin, which is apparently both my curse and my “out” on this detail thing!

So, for the moment, dialogue is keeping me moving forward on my (very drafty) draft.

Hurdle 2: Now where did I put that plot?

So, now Jaqi is passed out on the sidewalk, where Adam has just left her, and I somehow have to explain how she gets home. This really isn’t something Demon can accomplish by itself because no one can see it, and a floating Jaqi would likely get her burned as a witch or something. I’m guessing most taxi drivers in this day and age would conveniently remember another fare in another city, rather than take responsibility for an unconscious woman, and I’m really not ready to have Jaqi spend a night in the drunk tank. So…now what?

I hadn’t actually planned on having Jaqi pass out. She just sort of did it. And that’s something else Baty predicts: Characters take on lives of their own and move the plot forward in surprising ways. He provides this little gem: “Just focus on creating vivid, enjoyable characters, and a plot will unfold naturally from their actions…and there’s something uniquely thrilling in that moment when you see them take charge.”

OK, I thought. Jaqi’s out cold, and Demon is more-or-less a figment of her imagination. Adam just drove off with his new girlfriend. Who’s left?

The valet, who happens to be dating a cabbie and who convinces his boyfriend he’ll clean out the cab should Jaqi barf all over it or something.

Tah-dah! Jaqi wakes up, safe and sound, with Demon tormenting her in her hung over state. Even better: The unexpected exchange between Jaqi and Demon opened the way for the first real conversation she and Demon have about her inability to stay in a relationship. Which is kind of the point of the story.

Characters took charge, and the plot moved on.

Oh, and my final word count for the day was over 1,800 words. Go me! (And The Demon Project cast.)

Day 4 dawns bright

Late tonight, I’ll plunk down in front of my laptop for Day 4 writing. I still have to get Jaqi through the weekend. She still has to have an uncomfortable scene with the Nice Guy, whom she stood up for coffee because she was too hung over. Her best friend needs to see the ruin that was once her apartment, and some backstory about their relationship would be helpful, since it will impact Jaqi’s relationship with Demon — and, frankly, everyone else. Tall order.

But I’m learning: Trust the process. Or, failing that, let my characters take charge.



NaNoWriMo Eve

It’s Halloween. Children dress up and beg for candy. Parents snap photos like mad, posting to various social media sites. Costume parties belch odd beings onto the streets and into local pubs. It’s a strange and magical night.

And, for me, it’s somewhat terrifying. My fears stem, not from the ancient holiday itself with all its witches and ghosts and Old World implications, but from the fact that tonight is also NaNoWriMo Eve.

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is a yearly event where hopeful, somewhat insane would-be novelists pledge to write 50,000 words — roughly the length of a short novel — during the month of November. I’ve paid it little attention over the years. I mean, I don’t even have time for my poetry, so the idea of writing a whole novel is ludicrous. Besides, what in the world would I write about? Sure, I have my funny little stories about my hiking adventures, my consulting work, and raising dogs. Facebook-worthy, to be sure, but enough to craft into a novel? Heck no. Novels need plots and characters and conflicts and resolutions. There are rules to follow, styles to master, research to be conducted, back stories to flesh out to make characters real.

So what am I doing signing up for NaNoWriMo 2016 and announcing to friends and family that I’m about to write a novel? Why am I copying invitations to both local and virtual Wrimo meetups and write-ins to my calendar? Why am I reading tips and tricks and planning suggestions — as though I actually thought this endeavor was achievable?

Because this is the Year of Trying Stuff. This is the Year of Daring Feats of Courage and Ridiculous, Death-Defying Antics. This is the Year of Getting Unstuck — or Bust.

None of it has been easy. Some of my attempts have been successful. Some of them have been rife with failure. Even now, the specter of Public Humiliation floats outside my door, grinning its evil grin and waving: “Soon you’ll be mine!” The goblins of my Inner Editors scamper about, sharpening their claws and growling with glee, anticipating shredding my self-confidence and crippling my storytelling. In my kitchen, a couple of gremlins are busy mixing the mortar they’ll use to build a wall of Writers Blocks for me to slam into (which previous participants predict will happen during week 2). It seems as though all my demons are coming out to play.

And that’s what my “starter novel” will be about: grappling with inner demons. Or, rather, one demon who goes from being an “innie” to becoming an “outie.”

I’ve temporarily titled it The Demon Project. The synopsis:

We all have demons. Some of them are just a bit…smellier than others.

When Jaqi is dumped by Adam, she thinks her life is over. She begins a slow spiral into a depression that affects her work, her friendships, and her personal hygiene. Then she wakes up one morning to find a Demon in her bedroom, and no amount of screaming, threatening, or cajoling will make it go away. As the demon settles comfortably into Jaqi’s daily routine (breaking things and generally causing trouble along the way), what at first seems like a nightmare to Jaqi slowly reveals itself to be an opportunity for spiritual growth, weight loss, and — ultimately — forgiveness.

If time permits, I’ll post about my experience here. (I make no promises.) Maybe I’ll even post excerpts. They’ll be the rough, unpolished, ungainly work one might expect of a first draft of a first novel. But, dammit, they’ll be somethingwhich will be better than the nothing I’ve been doing for decades.

Wish Jaqi and me luck. We have a lot of work to do these next 30 days.