Sunday, December 12, 2010

10 Writing Tips from NaNoWriMo

Last week I reflected on my first time through the NaNoWriMo experience. One month to produce a novel. I enjoyed it. The discipline confirmed some lessons in the craft and gave me new insights on others. So here are my top 10 tips from NaNo. Useful, I think, whatever your normal pace.

1. Loosen Up

If we're not careful with our writing we can get too tentative about it. We write too carefully at times. The old "inner editor" gets bolder and louder. Writing fast under a looming deadline forces you to free yourself. Which is a good thing. Even now, after NaNo, I feel my normal daily writing is a little freer. For this reason alone, NaNo was worth it.

2. Study the Craft

I benefitted from having novel structure wired into me. For example, whenever I'd reach a point where I wasn't sure what to write, I'd take a moment and think about my Lead character's objective. Then I'd start a scene where the Lead takes steps to solve the problem. I'd find the material coming to me as I needed it.

Lesson: Keep studying the craft when you're not writing. Then when you start putting down the words, you'll be doing some of the right things by instinct. We don't tell somebody to just go out to the golf course and start swinging. You can kill somebody that way. We try to get them to practice and drill, and then try to have some fun when actually playing.

3. Bring in the Unexpected

When writing a scene, if things were slowing down or conflict was lagging, I'd ask the boys in the basement to send up something that was the equivalent of Raymond Chandler's admonition to just "bring in a guy with a gun."

Peter Dunne, author of Emotional Structure, gives similar advice. "If you think things are slowing down then throw something at your hero that forces him to run like hell."

I did this a number of times and it worked every time.

4. Don't Be Afraid to Skip Around in Your First Draft

I would sometimes leave one scene and jump to another scene and work on that. Then I'd go back to the previous scene and find my mind had been working on it subconsciously.

I had a special folder in Scrivener called "Random Scenes." This is where I'd start writing a scene that came to mind, but had no idea where it would go. Some of my best writing is there, and will find its way into the book.

5. Write Everywhere

I wrote mostly in my home office, but sometimes I'd strap my AlphaSmart to my back and walk or ride my bike to Starbucks and work there for awhile. I had a doctor's appointment, and tapped out 300 words in the waiting room. I wrote on the subway going downtown, and in my car waiting in a parking lot. And on the treadmill, of course.

I snatched time, rested, snatched more time. Taking breaks was important between intense spurts. I'd lie on the floor with my feet up for ten or fifteen minutes. Then I'd put on rock music or suspense soundtracks and pump up the volume and write.

Those of you who have trouble finding time to write, cut out some non-essentials. Do you really have to watch Dancing With the Stars? And then snatch time to write.

6. Like Voting in Chicago, Write Early and Often

Get as much writing done as you can, as early as you can. I tell writers to follow the "Nifty 350" or "Furious 500" plan. That is, get 350 or 500 words done the very first thing in morning. Get them out of the way, and your quota seems less daunting.

7. Don't Be Afraid

By its very design, NaNoWriMo forces you to let the story lead. You're not always going to be able to stick to a plan. Even if you're an outliner by nature, you have to be ready for organic rabbit trails to emerge in front of you, and have the courage to follow them. But if you do, you're liable to find gold at the end. This happened for me several times. 

8. Journal Daily

Keep a running journal. Sue Grafton does this for all her books. It's like a letter you type to yourself each day, asking where you are in the story, jotting down some ideas that have percolated in the night. Just five minutes of this is worth it. You stimulate something in your mind this way, and get ideas you don't get by just waiting around.

9. Let Things Cool Before You Revise

That's what I'm doing right now. I'll print out a full outline (again, something Scrivener lets you do) then do a read through of my full draft.

10. Enjoy Being a Writer

I said last week that I felt the joy of just pure writing again. That's one of the things I like best about NaNoWriMo. It celebrates the experience and discipline of writing. And we need all the joy we can get in this crazy racket.

My advice to you writers out there is this: start planning ahead for next November. Give NaNoWriMo a shot. Go to their website and sniff around. Read some of the "pep talks" given by well known authors.

Try it once. Even on the sly. No one will have to know but you.

But I'm betting you'll have fun and will come out of it a better writer.


  1. Very helpful post. I've been psyching myself up for NovelTrack next month (Nano with a different name), trying to think through and anticipate what the writing days will be like and best methods to achieve my word count.

    I have found myself instinctively studying craft books before I start, and had already decided the Nifty 350/Furious 500 were going to be essential to daily word count goals. Also figured I'd have to skip around.

    I hadn't thought of the running journal. Sounds like a good plan.

    My biggest challenge in final prep for the 50,000 word push is that with less than 2 productive weeks left in December, I still have to plot things out sufficiently to prevent what Jack Bickham calls "Don't wander around in a fog." Since I tend to like plots that reach far and wide, in the early planning stages this is a particular trap for me.

    But I figure I have nothing to lose in a 50,000 word/30 day push. I write very messy first drafts whether it takes me 3 years or 30 days to write a first draft.

  2. Very nice tips. I would like to share my experience in this year's NaNo where for the first time I wrote several chapters simultaneously. It helped in a couple of ways, for one it increased the word count across chapters instead of having one too slim and another too big. Secondly, it allowed me to have a bird's eye view of the story in its totality. I didn't have to go sequentially from the start to the finish.

  3. Great tips, Jim - I need to work on the inner editor and loosen up and I like the daily journal about the novel idea (although what would I do with all my post it notes round the house:)!)

  4. I did the same thing you advocate this year- the nifty 350 -500 first thing in the morning. I found for me, the absolute best time to write was in the morning about a half hour before I had to leave for work. It was my most productive time of each day, usually scoring me 500-1000 words and having my mind prepped so that when I wrote on breaks and lunch I had somewhere to go with it. I learned this year that mornings seem to be gold for me and evenings are more like lead.

  5. BK, I wish you well in NovelTrack. As I mentioned in the post, if I have my Lead's objective down, and have set up high stakes opposition, I could pretty much find my way out of any fog.

    Prem, thanks for that. It sounds like a great idea.

  6. Clare, I have found that Sue Grafton idea very helpful. And old Post-It notes can be used to plug up the holes of virtually any didjeridu.

  7. Chaco, I'm with you. Very first thing in the morning, I write, getting out the stuff the boys have been working on at night.

  8. Great post! Thanks so much! My debut novel is a NaNo grad, coming out five years after I wrote it.

    Funny how easy it is to forget the joy of writing fast and furious. Thank you for reminding me!

  9. James, this is a tangential question, but I'm curious...what proportion of published novelists use a software tool like Scrivener?

    Is is a small minority? The majority?

    And, how did you come to use it?

  10. I did NaNo this year for some of the same reasons. Mainly to get the internal editor off my shoulder. I plastered my Mac screen rim with notes like "Just write" and "Make a mess". And it worked.

    The biggest benefit was giving myself permission to leave things to fix until later. I used a change log file in Scrivener to keep track of needed changes. In probably half the cases, the changes became unnecessary later. So, I saved myself all those unneeded edits, and moved forward on the book a lot faster.

    Great tips, thanks!

  11. Philip, I really have no idea of the number. I just know a some of my novelist friends started using it and loved it, so I gave it a try. It's not the sort of program that tells you what to write (plug plot element A here, plot element B here) but rather provides a way to organize your material and see it in different, helpful ways. The guy who designed it clearly thinks like a writer.

  12. Gwen, I like leaving those little notes around, too. Another good tip.

  13. Thanks Jim!
    Number 4: Don't be afraid to skip around in your first draft. This really works for me. I worked on a book this summer and using this strategy and it was very freeing and helped me produce more than I thought I would regarding word count.

  14. Jillian, I know. That's incredibly freeing. And fun. And even if you don't know where it will fit, the "boys" have probably already worked it out. You just have to get the memo!

  15. Great list.I plan to refer to it often.

    Does the 'scrivener' program allow you to load/merge a completed draft(Word format)into it electronically?

    Your suggestion to allow 'skipping around' is one that really frees me up. Strongly advanced by Mary Carroll Moore, both an author and instructor like yourself, I find it jacks up output. The temporally linked page one until done approach leads me into roadblocks.

  16. I can't write in the mornings. Just can't do it--I end up sitting staring dumbly at the cursor until I realize I'm still not writing, and go do something else.

    The best writing schedule I ever had was when I worked 2pm-midnight. I'd come home and write till dawn, then go to bed. That was before the internet, though, so who knows if I'd still write like that since I'd have something else I could do.

    Evenings, though. That's when I write. And it does make it hard, because I have to find that point at which I can stop doing other things and get on the writing.

  17. tjc, I think you could do that, but the value of Scrivener is writing in sections or chapters, then compiling a draft. When you write in sections, that gives the outline feature its value. But there is no Scrivener umpire, so you can do with it as you please.

  18. KD, there are writers who are just not morning people, and that's fine. Just so long as you find your own sweet spot and get there and do the words.

  19. Thanks for the great tips. Bringing in the guy with the gun reminds me of something you mentioned at the Surrey International Writers Conference. Your suggestion was to write "over the top". Don't be afraid to be over dramatic because you can always pull back. Whenever I feel stuck those two ideas oil my cogs and grease my fingers. Writing early is also fabulous. I've found it's best to write early before I do anything else, especially reading blogs or email. The days where I write first and read second leave me with the best output. Thanks for keeping me on track.

  20. Great tips and so glad to see something positive written about Nano. Thank you. For the first time I started writing scenes out of order and it was very freeing. If I had no idea where to go with one scene, I started another than I had in mind.

    I especially like your idea of write early, write often. Will have to start doing that especially on the days I have little time before heading out for the day. My key is not to turn on the computer in the morning until writing is done. Yes, I write everything long hand and type it up later. I discovered the story flows better than sitting staring at a computer screen. I'm less apt to edit as I write, versus my brain wants to edit when typing.

    What is Novel Track by the way? Never heard of it.

  21. Jocosa, thanks for the good word about Surrey, and I'm glad to have offered a bit of help.

    Robin, good for you. Get something out early, and the day goes so much better.

    NovelTrack is similar to NaNoWriMo, put on by American Christian Fiction Writers. Here's a bit on it by my pal Ane Mulligan.

  22. As I dive back into a WIP, I am elated to find your blog via Twitter.

    Thanks for the excellent tips.

    I am now following.


  23. Great post. It reaffirmed advice I've heard before: don't be afraid, and instilled new advice: journal about your novel daily.

  24. Excellent advice for my first NaNo.

    Scratch the last four words, Robin

  25. My favorite tip here was to use a writing journal. I'd never heard of such a thing, and look forward to putting it to use come November. Thanks so much for the suggestion!

    I mentioned {and linked to} this in my NaNo Prep post - hopefully it helps others as well as it helped me!