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#NaNoWriMo Writing Tips

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NaNoWriMo Advice

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Every November, hundreds of thousands of people around the world  prepare to test themselves for something that might break them spiritually, psychically, or psychologically — though probably not physically: they set the month aside and attempt to write an entire novel in 30 days.

Besides training for and entering an Iron Man Competition, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, has to be one of the most challenging and demanding tasks anyone can voluntarily give himself. According to the organization which started the “contest” about 13 years ago, the goal is to write a 50,000-word novel (175 DS manuscript pages, based on a count of approximately 300 words per page) in thirty days. That’s about 1,700 words, or six DS manuscript pages a day.

Sure, it’s a first draft: you’re not supposed to publish the book you write during NaNoWriMo as is. You’ve got to revise, edit, get feedback from readers, re-write, edit, revise some more, have some coffee, then decide whether you want to Indie publish or attempt to get an agent and try for the traditional New York publishing route.

NaNoWriMo isn’t about getting published and becoming an author: it’s about being a writer.

So this post isn’t about the revising, editing, or publishing part: it’s about strategies to help you survive NaNoWriMo in the first place. It contains strategies to give yourself a fair chance to discover if you really want to be a writer, because writing is very hard work.

If you’ve done NaNoWriMo before, you know it’ll strain every relationship you have, make you want to quit your job, convince you that you are not a writer after all, and make you wonder if you’ve completely lost your mind. If you’ve never attempted it, you’ll find those things out soon enough. Some people who think they want to be full-time writers quickly and irrevocably discover that they do not, indeed, want to be writers. Ever again. Not even of something as simple as a grocery list.

This post isn’t for anyone who’s already successfully written and published several novels because writing a novel is something you must actually do before you can decide if you are able to do it, if you even want to do it, or if you just want to read novels for the rest of your life instead. This post is for those who are attempting to do NaNoWriMo successfully for the first time. Or the second. Or the third. Because NaNoWriMo is the closest you’ll ever get to being a full-time writer until you really are one.

Today is the first day of this year’s NaNoWriMo. Since it’s a Saturday, many of you may have already begun. If, by the end of the day,  you haven’t given up or decided to change your dreams and goals to something you’re more comfortable with, you will have discovered that you have embarked upon a momentous and burdensome task.

No matter how supportive your family and friends might be — not calling you during the hours you’ve set aside to write, silently bringing you meals and carafes of coffee to keep up your physical strength during this endurance contest, listening without judging when you rant about all the difficulties you’re unexpectedly encountering during this grueling test — no matter how supportive your family and friends are, NaNoWriMo, at any time of the year, is like dying: each of us must go through it alone.

I admit that I have never written an entire novel, not even a first draft, in a month. I don’t believe I could do it. But I have written a novel, from first draft, through 39 revisions, to beta-readers’ feedback, through 7 more revisions, to completion in one year.

12 months from start to finish.

In the beginning I was writing 2-4 hours a day; by month 6, I was writing 8-10 hours a day; by month 9, I was writing 12-14 hours a day. I had to set alarms to remind myself to eat and drink something, and often, I didn’t hear the alarms. But that book was finished at the end of those 12 months. (So were my wrists: the muscles were so swollen that all the nerves were inflamed. The diagnosis: DeQuervain’s Syndrom, an overuse injury. I was in casts from knuckles to elbows for 3 months.)

4 months of queries after I’d completed the novel, I had an agent. 2 months later,  my first novel was sold to HarperCollins. I’d done it. I was ready to start my next one. Only this time, I had to do it while working 3 jobs. So I know what a determined writer can do in a relatively short, highly concentrated, completely focused time period.

I do not think that what I did in a year can be accomplished in 30 days, however, no matter how brilliant you are. I could not even get out a rough-draft of a novel in 30 days, but NaNoWriMo has proven that many people can and do. Every year.

John Grisham used to brag that he wrote his novel The Firm in only 6 weeks, and it became a bestseller. I say it looks like it was written in six weeks, was a bad first draft, know for a fact that it wasn’t even his first novel, and that sometimes the public has bad taste, and that some mediocre and even poor writers can get lucky financially.

All those things aside, however, I do know what it’s like to write full-time, with an extremely limited time to finish a book, so I know some of the challenges and roadblocks you may encounter during NaNoWriMo. For example, I was given one calendar year to research and write my non-fiction book on creative writing Mastering Point of View. After 9 months of intensive research, I wrote the book itself in 4 months. (Yes, I was technically a month late, but since the editors and publishers saw what I had already written, they gladly extended the contract’s “due date” by the additional month.)

This year, I voluntarily set myself the task of writing a novel in three months (I’m now retired from university teaching, live on my limited retirement, and so am able to write full-time. By next week the book will be completed: it took me four months.

Again, I do not know if I could get an entire first draft of a novel done in one month, even writing full-time, but I’ve proven to myself, twice, that I can write a book of approximately 70,000 words in four months, but it takes planning, perseverance, and incredible commitment.

Here are some tips to help you through NaNoWriMo, whether it’s your first time or not.

Skip the Outline

I know some people are convinced that they cannot write a novel, especially if it’s in a series, unless they have the entire novel outlined in advance. Some people even outline all the novels they project in the series before they have even written the first book. Last year, someone contacted me to ask my opinions on outlines: it seems he had 59 books in one series outlined. It had taken him five years to do all the outlines. How many of those books had he written? Not a one.

Writing outlines, no matter how detailed, is not writing a novel.

Just as thinking of a scene is not writing the scene. Not even in a rough draft.

You have to actually sit down and write the scene to be writing, not just outlining it.

How do I know this? Because I wasted 2 full months on the outline of my first novel (within that one-year period), an outline that kept changing, before I realized my time would be better spent  writing the novel itself and worrying about revisions and plot discrepancies afterward.

Though I was not writing my first novel in a month, I had borrowed $18,000 at 17 7/8% interest from the bank, taken the year off teaching without pay because the University thought it was a pretty silly idea for anyone to write a novel since it wasn’t scholarly and so would not pay me to take the time off (though they graciously assured me that I could have my job back — at the same position and salary — at the end of my year off from work, as everyone continually referred to my writing sabbatical).

I  had a time limit for writing full-time: one year, living on money I’d borrowed from the bank, at outrageous interest rates, with my house as collateral. I know what pressure is. When time is limited, drop the outline and concentrate on writing a draft of the book itself.

Spend your NaNoWriMo time writing the novel, not perfecting the outline.

If You’re Going to Ignore My First Tip
And Write an Outline Anyway
,
Then Ignore Missing Parts

Even when you have an outline, you may think you have scenes A, B, C, D, and E firmly in mind and jotted down in whatever system you’re using. Then, after outlining scene E, you realize that the next scene in your head seems to be J. It’s not directly connected to E. It doesn’t even come close to following scene E.

What happened to scenes F, G, and H? You have no idea, but they’re not there. And waiting for them won’t help. So do not stop writing while waiting for F, G, and H to come to you: you don’t know when they’ll drop by for a visit.

If you insist on outlining, and there are missing parts, say between E and J, then just ignore those missing parts for the present, and continue outlining: J, K, L, M, N…

O, P, Q will probably be missing, though you’ll know what scenes R, S, and T are supposed to be.

That is normal, and, as far as I know, all writers experiences these initial “gaps” in their vision while writing novels, even if it’s not their first. So, if you want to outline, do so, just skipping over the missing parts and getting down the scenes that are readily there.

But if you want my real advice, it’s this: drop the outline altogether and start writing down the scenes. Yes, some of them will be missing. There will be gaps. Some necessary parts of the novel, like setting, perhaps, might not be filled in. Just acknowledge that it’s a normal part of the process (you won’t believe it until you’ve done several novels and had the same thing happen to you time and time again) and keep writing.

If you are going to write an outline during NaNoWriMo rather than exclusively working on the novel itself, then limit yourself to one or two days of writing a bare-bones outline. You’ll need the rest of the month to write the novel itself.

Write a Draft of the Novel Itself

So many people believe that just because they’ve thought of a scene, they’re “done” with that scene; if they’ve thought of an idea for a book, they’re “done” with the book.

There are vast oceans and shifting tectonic plates between an idea for a scene and getting the scene written, my friends, even in a first draft.

Writing an idea is not writing the scene.

Outlining a novel is not writing a novel.

Write the novel during NaNoWriMo.

Remember that you don’t have to have a completely polished product at the end of 30 days. If you could do that, you could also sell your secret (I’d buy it) and make billions. You just want as much of the first draft of your novel actually written as you can get done in a month. A short month. A month with a major holiday for everyone in the US, at that. (Who ever picked November in the first place?)

So write. The actual, real scenes. If there are some things missing, don’t worry about it. You can fill those in later. Whenever I write a first draft, it’s filled with plot and dialogue and lots of character development. No setting, however. No symbolism. No polished, lovely, shining language.

That comes later. I’ve learned, from experience — which is the only way you can learn to write a novel — is that plot/dialogue/character development in the first draft is what’s normal for me. I fill in the rest later. I’ve talked to other writers who say they have nothing but plot in the first draft. Some have 90% dialogue. It’s different for each of us, but seems to be consistently the same for each individual. Something in particular in the novel consistently appears in the first draft, and then the writer has to go back during revision and fill in all the missing pieces.

Therefore, I’d advise you to write the first draft of your novel during NaNoWriMo.

Don’t worry if some things, like setting or even dialogue, for example, seem to be missing. You can fill them in later. That’s what revisions are for.

Don’t Count Words

I know that NaNoWriMo’s stated goal is to write at least a 50,000 word novel this month, but less than 10% of NaNoWriMo’s official participants reached that goal in 2012. More important, absolutely no agent, editor, or publisher has ever asked me, in my entire writing career, how many words were in one of my novels. No one. Ever. They either love the book or they don’t. They either think they can sell it to potential readers or they don’t. None of them cares how many words are in your book.

One caveat is necessary to point out to new writers who have never been published, however. If you’re an unpublished writer, want to be traditionally published, and your manuscript has 100,000-150,000 words in it, agents will tell you to go back and start cutting things out. They’ll tell you that without reading it.

Why?

Because you’re an unknown (or little known) author, and the cost to print such a large number of words as a paper book would make the list price so high that it’s not likely you’d get many readers. The price to publish a format a first ebook that large would only cost the price of formatting, but that could be quite expensive, depending on who your publisher is.

Profit margin rules in New York’s traditional Houses.

That’s it.

That’s their job, those people in New York — to make a profit — and, trust me, they’re good at it.

So don’t count words as a measure of your progress, especially during NaNoWriMo. No one in the business cares because it won’t mean anything to them. Just write as many or as few as you think you need. This is a first draft of the novel — a draft of the entire novel, remember?

I realize that the sponsors of NaNoWriMo want you to write at least 50,000 words but that’s because the traditional division between a novella and a novel is by word count, with anything around 40-45K words usually considered a novella (under 40K words is definitely a novella), while books with more than 50K words are considered novels.

You may think I’ve just contradicted myself by saying that no one in New York requires a word-count and then telling you the word-count difference between a novella and a novel, but experienced agents, editors, and writers can tell the difference between a novella and a novel by many other ways: the number of pages is one way. Reading it is another.

Write for a Specified Amount of Time Each Day,
Every Day if you Can Manage It

Instead of counting words, set yourself a time limit for writing each day, and write for that full period. Give yourself a schedule. If you have the luxury of being able to do it full time, start by 9 a.m., say; take a break for 15 minutes around 10:30; eat lunch between 12-1 p.m.; write from 1-4 p.m.; etc. Don’t worry about the quality of the writing.

If you can only do it part-time, that doesn’t mean you cannot write for a specified amount of time each day. When I taught University, I got up every single day at 5 a.m. and wrote for 2 hours before I had to get ready to go to work. On weekends, holidays, snow-days, and summer breaks, I still got up at 5 a.m., but wrote all day on those days. All year long. For almost 30 years.

I discovered that the more often I wrote, the more I produced. I likened it to pumping water out of a rarely used well: at first, it’s difficult to get the flow started, but if you work that pump every day, for a predetermined amount of time, the pump gets used to working, and more water flows.

Alternately, you could pretend that writing your novel is your job this month. That’s what I did when I took that year off from work without pay, borrowing $18,000 at 17 7/8% interest to write my first novel. Writing was my job. I had to do it every single day.

You have to spend a certain number of hours a day or week on your job, no matter what it is.  This month, writing is your job, and you have to set aside a specified amount of time doing your job. Just do it.

List your writing schedule on a calendar and keep to it. Remember, it’s your job this month. So, get to work and concentrate on getting the whole book written in its first draft this month.

Don’t Re-read what You’re Writing

NaNoWriMo is 30 days to get yourself disciplined enough, to give yourself official permission, to announce to your family, friends, and to the Universe itself, that you are going to write for the entire month, and that you are going to attempt to get a first draft of an entire novel done in that short period.

If you read over the parts you’ve already written, do you know what you’ll want to do?

Re-write, revise, polish, perfect. And that takes precious time away from writing the initial draft.

Don’t do it. Just write.

The time for re-reading and re-writing and revising will come afterward, because you simply don’t know how long that will take. During NaNoWriMo, do not re-read anything you’ve written. Just write. Try to get that first draft of the entire novel out. That’s what the month is for. That’s what you’ve committed yourself to. Do it.

Always Be Prepared to Write,
No Matter Where you Are

Whether you believe this or not, depending on your actual experience writing a novel, your subconscious brain — where your artistic intuition resides — never sleeps. Ever. It gets tired. But it never sleeps. Even when you’re not working on any particular scene, or you think you’re not working on the book at all, the writer in you is working on something.

You think you’re sleeping soundly, and you suddenly awake with a new scene, and it just happens to be that missing scene F that needs to follow scene E, which, in theory, you should have already written. You think you’re taking a walk, and suddenly scene G appears. You think you’re driving your children to a swim meet or to football practice, and scene H pops into your head.

Even when you think you’re taking a break from writing your novel by taking care of yourself or doing chores that simply must be done for life to continue, the artist in you is still working. On your art. All the time.

I’d advise always carrying a notebook, laptop, tablet, or voice recorder (most Smartphones have them) so that you can get these scenes down whenever they come to you. If you don’t, they won’t be there the next time you sit down at your desk to work on your novel. No matter how many times you repeat the exact words to yourself on the drive home from the soccer field, your brain will be blank when you get to your desk or computer and attempt to write it.

Be prepared to write anywhere, any time during NaNoWriMo.

And, yes, I have been known to write entire scenes on napkins at restaurants in order to remember them. My boyfriend is very patient and extremely morally supportive (I was a published author by the time we met, so my being a writer and an author was simply a part of being in a relationship with me.) Now, I carry a notebook and pen with me at all times, even if I’m just walking on the treadmill, but I’ve discovered that my iPhone’s Voice Notes works even better for me if I’m in the store or exercising. I simply talk the scene so that I won’t lose it.

During NaNoWriMo, especially, since your time is so strictly limited, write down a scene (or record it) as soon as it comes to you. Otherwise, it’ll be lost.

Eliminate All Negative People
From your Life & Environment

Committing yourself to writing a draft of an entire novel in only 30 days is enough hard work to kill some people, so you don’t need family, friends, colleagues, the bagger at the grocery store, or that Time Entertainment reporter (November 2012) making snide remarks, negative comments, expressing their doubts at your ability to write a draft of a novel in one month, or listening to their declarations that writers “like you” and writing projects like NaNoWriMo announce the end of literature and are a “threat and menace” to good writing.

Keep away from those people at all times during NaNoWriMo.

This is mandatory and non-negotiable.

Do not answer the phone while writing. Do not return anyone’s calls while you are working on your novel. Do not listen to voicemails. Do not read emails, blogs, articles, reviews, interviews. Even supportive, loving people can be a serious time-drain, and you need to lovingly inform them that you will be busy this entire month. Writing a draft of your novel.

As for any negative people, keep away from their darkness. It will suck you into an area of self-doubt — and writing a book, especially if it’s your first or if you’ve never been published, will give you plenty of of self-doubt for free. Don’t take any from anyone else. Not during NaNoWriMo nor during any other time either.

There’s enough rejection in this business without getting it from people who claim to love and care for you. Stay away from them during NaNoWriMo and concentrate on writing your novel rather than on their “good advice”.

Take Care of Yourself Physically

You must eat, stay hydrated, sleep, take breaks from writing — even during NaNoWriMo. One of the biggest causes of “writer’s block,” is exhaustion, trying to “push through” the hard spots, not taking care of yourself, needing a break.

Just as you must sleep, eat, and stay hydrated every single day just to stay alive, you must take breaks from writing the novel, stretch muscles that will become sore and painful from prolonged overuse (and may even become injured), exercise muscles that stiffen from sitting in one position for prolonged periods.

Walking and yoga work best for me. Still, I regularly have to pay a Physical Therapist for a Medical Massage, and then take the rest of the day off. During that time off, I might sleep, watch a movie, nap, read a book, nap some more.

During NaNoWriMo, you are working extra hard on a task that is already extremely challenging and difficult — physically, mentally, and spiritually. You must take care of your body — with exercise, rest, regular breaks, naps, food, and non-alcoholic liquids in order to survive and pass this endurance test. Take regular breaks, including for exercise and resting, to survive NaNoWriMo and you’ll get even more writing done.

Ditch the Jammies
& Write Like a Professional

Since I have always regarded writing as my job even when I wasn’t getting any money for doing it (I still don’t make much: I live on my meager retirement income), I treated it as my job by getting dressed. I never write in my pajamas. Even when I hurt my back (or sprained my ankle) and had to write exclusively on the laptop while in bed, I was dressed, the bed was made, and I was propped up against pillows. I’d brushed my teeth and washed my hair. I’d eaten and had my coffee by my side, albeit on the nightstand next to the bed. It was as professional as I could be at the time considering I was injured.

I know there are some writers who wear their pajamas to write. Or they wear the “outdoor” equivalent of pjs: sweatpants and T-shirt. That’s fine for them. But when I worked as a University Professor, I dressed up, complete with heels, jewelry, and makeup (even if I only wear mascara and lipstick).

When I write, I do the same thing because it’s my job and I’m going to work. Yes, I work and home and no one ever sees me but the cats, the dog, and my boyfriend. But after I’m dressed, he always asks, “Going to work?” and then stays away from my office when I’m in there (unless there’s an emergency that he can’t handle).

Just as my getting dressed for work is a visual clue for him, it’s an emotional clue for the artist in me. Don’t lounge around in bed in your jammies during NaNoWriMo and expect to get a lot of writing done. Get up, clean up, get dressed, and go to work.

Take Care of Yourself
Spiritually & Emotionally

If you’ve never written an entire novel before, you have absolutely no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into. Don’t look at the novel as a whole: break it down in to parts. A section. A chapter. A page. A paragraph. A sentence.

Then congratulate yourself at the end of every single writing session on how much you got written. Even if, at that moment, you don’t think it was as much as you would have liked to have gotten done. You must nurture the artist in you spiritually and emotionally because the publishing world does not think in those terms: it thinks only of profit and loss. It’s up to you to pat yourself on the back, be proud of yourself, congratulate yourself for a job well done every single day during NaNoWriMo.

Start with this:

I’ve made a commitment to write a draft of an entire novel in one month.
I’m brave, courageous,
and dedicated.
No one else can do this as well as I can, so I’m giving it my best shot.
This is going to make me happy, no matter how tired I might sometimes get.
I’m a writer, and writers write.

Now, your break is over.

Stop reading my blog, and get back to work on your novel.

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