Posts Tagged how to succeed at NaNoWriMo
Are you planning to take part in National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)? Briefly, it’s a worldwide online event where thousands of writers buckle down and steam through a novel. The nominal goal is 50,000 words in November – which might be a whole novel or a good chunk of one. Whichever, it’s a great way to sprint into a first draft because you’ve got a support team of other writers cheering you on, sharing their goals and buddying up to drag you over the finish line. If you’re a first-timer, NaNoWriMo is a great way to have a go and surprise yourself. And many seasoned writers use it as a way to get their first drafts motoring.
November? I’ll wait until then
No, start now. One of the keys to success is preparation. Although you’re not allowed to start the draft until NaNoWriMo month, you can plan beforehand. Research, plot notes and story summaries are all permitted – and serious contenders will be limbering up right now.
Or perhaps planning is the last thing you want to do. Maybe you want to sit down on day 1, summon the muse and channel the voices. Let the novel gush into your head and onto the keys.
Whichever way you work, there’s one kind of planning that will help you steer a steady course – AND write with your gut instincts.
Plan your characters
Indeed, if I had to choose whether to outline plot or characters in detail, I’d spend the time on creating the characters.
Once I know who my fictional people are, they start acting, talking and steering the show – merely by being themselves. This streamlines the writing process enormously, helps you write in a natural flow. It’s especially useful for project like NaNoWriMo, where you want to get your wordcount done – but still have fun.
Here’s what you need.
Work out their central problem The story will come from this. What do they want to achieve or prevent? What makes this problem desperate and ultimately unavoidable? How much of it comes from their personality or life situation? Is it something they have been suppressing or muddling along with? Perhaps they don’t admit to it, because that would open a box they don’t want to look in. The problem might be obviously significant, such as losing a job or discovering a murder. Or it might be apparently trivial – such as buying a puppy that turns nasty or forces the character to face up to responsibility. Whichever it is – whether solving a murder or wrangling with puppy ownership – it will be a big deal for them; and thus will be a landmark episode in their life.
How this generates the plot Devise two scenes. Your climax – the horrible moment near the end where the character confronts the thing they want to avoid. And a scene you can put in early that shows the reader they dread this.
The climax confrontation might be much deeper than the early scene suggests and therefore address a more fundamental problem. These fundamental problems come from a character’s deep needs. So, if your MC is trying to solve a murder, they might ultimately discover that the murderer was their own husband. This might prove that she never really knew him – something she’d always been denying or laughing off. You can still have the plot need – to catch a killer. But the deeper arc that makes it such a landmark will have come from the character’s innermost life.
If you want, you can stop planning there. But if you prefer to build a skeleton story, work out the steps between those points. Especially, concentrate on the ways the characters try to avoid or evade this worst-case scenario. Make those escapades create complications and ensnare them further, taking them down twisted alleyways, so that it seems the universe is conspiring, in sidelong ways, to throw them to that final confrontation.
Add other character details Once you have this core, fill in other details. Early life, job history, interests, relationship status. These will almost write themselves because you’ll have an instinct for what fits.
Add complicating factors These might be a wish to protect someone, a job that drains their energy or makes life difficult. If you’re writing historical fiction, look at constraints from social position or the characters’ way of life.
Respite You might also want to give your main characters some respite – a hobby they retreat to, a way they regroup to feel more like themselves and demonstrate a lighter side. Or maybe they need a dark release, an obliterating escape – an addiction, an illicit love affair, a dangerous sport.
Antagonist or antagonists
Their central problem. For the protagonist we asked ‘what’s wrong’ and ‘who are they’. For the antagonist we begin with ‘why’.
Why do they cause trouble? Is it their personality, a need to cause mischief or take revenge? Are they the protagonist’s opponents in a competition? Do they have a duty to uphold a law of the land or some other obligation that pits them against the protagonist?
Here’s another why: why are they a serious threat rather than something the protagonist can shrug off?
If the antagonist is an entity (such as society or an organisation), considering creating a character who embodies its role. Or perhaps this could be several characters. Faceless organisations are not as interesting to read about as characters who act for them. And characters are more interesting to write about because of their humanity. They will act unpredictably – get tired, bad tempered, unreasonable. They will perhaps feel the voice of conscience, or be in conflict themselves. They might make us laugh.
How this generates the story. Once you know these essentials, you will find it easier to decide how they’ll intrude on and threaten the protagonist.
Lastly, if you need to, develop some background details as for your main characters.
You need a few significant others – your supporting and secondary characters. Add the people who will regularly interact with your protagonist and antagonist (although they don’t necessarily have to belong to both).
You might want to start with just a handful – perhaps a colleague, romantic partner, close friend, henchman – and add others as new roles become necessary. Or you might sketch out a complete network of people who your leads will regularly see.
Focus on relationships As these characters are secondary, focus on their relationships with the principals. Are they willing participants, wise observers, moral support, meddling do-gooders? Do they have needs of their own that could help or hinder the main characters?
Some salt and sugar in everyone
Protagonists will be tedious if they’re thoroughly good. Antagonists will be pantomimish (and wearisome) if thoroughly evil. Give each of your nice people a dash of vinegar, and each antagonist something good (even if it’s only the conviction that they’re right).
Relationships – again
Now you have a rough cast list, take another look at how they feel about each other. If you do this, you’ll never be at a loss when you wriggle inside a scene with them. You’ll know how to make them distinct in their dialogue because you’ll understand their hidden agendas and individual voices. If one of them needs a favour from the other, you know how easy (or otherwise) it will be to get it. If one of them tells the other off, you know whether they gloated about it or found it extremely uncomfortable; whether it drew them closer or drove them apart.
If you know your characters, you’ll want to tell their stories.
There’s a lot more advice on developing characters – and detailed questionnaires to help you create distinctive people – in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.
If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, including my own (much drafted) third novel, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
Ready, steady… write!
You’re out of the starting gates, pounding the keys or working the pen, head full of characters and plot and a big dream of a finished book. What do you need to know to keep going to the end?
That’s what we’re talking about in today’s episode – getting the first draft done, from start to finish. Also, the little things that might trip you up – and how to take them in your stride.
ANOTHER TIMESLIP NOTE! You might notice, when you start listening, that there are several references to NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month), which takes place in November. As ever, this is an artefact of when the show was first recorded, in the run-up to NaNoWriMo 2014. (More here about NaNoWriMo if you’re discovering this post at actual NaNoWriMo time, or you want more info on what it’s about.) But the advice is also good for starting any book at any time – the prep is still the same, and so are the obstacles and the techniques for dealing with them.
And if you’re tempted to NaNo, you could always bookmark this page and come back in autumn.
Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!
Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.
PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
November is when web-aware writers get their speed boots on; NaNoWriMo is afoot. We’ll see growing wordcounts reported around the tweetwires, in the forums and Facebook groups. I’ve never formally Nanoed, but I’m definitely a fan of the fast first draft. Here’s why.
It’s not just about speed for its own sake. It’s about harnessing all possible oomph from that initial ride of discovery with the characters. This draft is when we first make them speak and act instead of viewing them from a distance in note form. I’ve found a fast, intense blast is the best way to capture this in full vividness.
I’ve also learned what disrupts the flow – so here are five tips to keep the ideas coming.
1 Ignore the language. If the perfect wording comes to mind, fantastic. But my main aim is to write what I see, and that’s a scramble in itself. I just get it in the can. In any case, those scenes might be repurposed in edits, given to different characters, the roles may be swapped. Buffing the nuances would be a waste of time. So I don’t worry at all about whether my prose is fit to show around. I just hurl it onto the page.
2 Postpone the research. There are two kinds of facts you need for a novel.
1 The facts to check your story events are possible, or to find ingenious surprises from the special conditions of the story world. Usually we sort these out while we’re outlining.
2 Smaller details that arise while we’re writing the scene. Oh dear, you need to know what pall-bearers wear? No you don’t, because it doesn’t greatly affect what anyone will say or do. I scrawl a note in square brackets – [find out] – and continue to channel the action.
3 Don’t worry about factual consistency within the book – did this event happen on a Thursday, and was it twenty years ago? In most cases, you don’t need to sort your timeline out as you draft. Again, a short phrase in square brackets will allow you to flag it for later.
4 Or what characters look like. Eek, you’re writing your main character’s ex-lover for the first time. Or your main character. What do they look like? What’s it like to be in a room with them? If you haven’t already thought about this, you might grind to a halt, go squirreling off through Google, looking for actors who have the qualities that you’d like, or other things that help you visualise. But you don’t need to know this now. Write [what does he look like] and carry on as if you already know.
5 Or the beginning. You can’t know what the proper beginning of the book should be until you’ve polished the draft multiple times, so don’t fidget and dither about it now. Write a scene that roughly does the job – and you’re in.
Thanks for the lovely racehorse pic, Paul on Flickr
Do you have any tips for smart drafting? How detailed are you about your first draft, and are there any tasks you leave until later?
I recently published a post about NaNoWriMo prep, and it provoked this interesting comment on Facebook:
I really hate this initiative! Shouldn’t we be learning to write novels that are better, higher quality, more considered, more rounded, better thought out, that TAKE MORE TIME!!! rather than just trying to whack one out in a month? We don’t need more books on Amazon, what we need are BETTER books if we are to promote reading in the twenty-first century.
So who is this firebrand? It’s Kevin Booth @Kevinbooth01, a writer, translator and editor, who writes contemporary fiction and arts-based commentary as himself, and eco-fantasy as K. Eastkott.
I don’t disagree with him. And yet I barefacedly, two-facedly, published a post promoting NaNoWriMo?
I think it’s time to discuss the good and bad of NaNo.
In a nutshell (or a nanobyte):
The good – NaNoWriMo can be the confidence boost to get you started. NaNoWriMo is a community; a race; a deadline. It’s an appointment to get something done, like a new year resolution, but just in time for the Christmas letter. Beginners use it as their first go at writing. Seasoned writers use it to get a first draft done, for yea, drafting always makes us as nervous. It’s like the London Marathon, open to all to use as we wish. Perhaps as a one-off special event, this year’s challenge; or a handy lockdown in a bigger writing plan.
The OhNo – NaNoWriMo creates the idea that you can rattle out a book quickly, without editing, redrafting, or, as Kevin says, thought. And woot, a lot of them get put on sale. Look at Twitter in November and you’ll see anguished messages from literary agents, imploring people not to send their NaNo draft in search of fame and fortune.
Here’s where I’ll echo Kevin. A month is not long enough to write a worthwhile book. When good work arises from NaNoWriMo, it’s been planned beforehand, drafted in the crazy race, then honed and tended for many more months afterwards.
And Kevin told me he’s seen too many writers – talented writers – use NaNo as the culmination of the writing process:
As an editor, I’ve seen that, however well-structured a novel’s plan is, when you tell your brain to slap those words down at speed, the grey matter has a horrible trick of blind obedience. And once words are stuck on a page, they become surprisingly difficult to budge. I’m not talking about bad writers here, but talented individuals who have a love of words and should know better—because sections of their work are brilliant. Yet they’ve failed to constructively revise those thousands of words written in haste.
That remark I just made about revising? I’ll repeat it. Your draft is the time you transform your ideas from notes into an experience for the reader. It won’t be perfect first go (unless you’re a genius). It will change as you write it. The first draft is an exploration, not a presentable product. You need a thorough and considered revision period afterwards. And a break, so that you can see what needs changing (I refer you to Kevin again, and my self-editing masterclass snapshots).
But it’s just a game
Fair enough, some people take part in NaNoWriMo just to have a go. There’s nowt wrong with that. We all do hobby projects in the privacy of our own homes, for the kraic, for the experience, for the bucket list, to enrich our lives, to express ourselves.
Where to share
This is the bigger question. What should we do with those have-a-go manuscripts, if the month of writing was quite enough, thank you? (Listen for those agents wailing in the wires of Twitter. That’s a warning.) There are plenty of places where you’ll be among like-minded writers – you can use Wattpad, or blog your book. Other options are no doubt available. You can immortalise it in print – Lulu, Createspace and Ingram Spark will let you do personal, limited distribution.
But please, don’t put it in places where the public deserves properly finished books – Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble et al. Even if it’s extremely unlikely that your NaNo splurge will be found among the millions, there’s a principle here.
No, I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to have just a few months’ experience under my belt and think I knew everything. And a story I was burning to release, and a career I was desperate to start. But we need to discuss where it’s appropriate to share our work. Is that a great unmentionable? C’mon. We’re all grown-ups here.
Encouraging people to read
Kevin mentions the question of encouraging people to read. And he’s right to. We don’t have to try to change the world, or lament that we have so many forms of entertainment that now compete with books. But with every book we publish, we have the chance to prove that reading is still a great experience. So let’s make our books as good as we can, as a matter of pride, and of respect for our readers, and for the joy of doing absolute justice to our potential (yeah, you know what I’m like when I get started).
(Thanks for the speedbump pic Andrew Rivett)
If you’re planning a NaNoWriMo novel, there are plenty of tips in Nail Your Novel. There’s also a discussion about it on this episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, with bookseller Peter Snell. You can get notification of new episodes by signing up to my newsletter.)
Have you done NaNoWriMo? What were your aims, and what became of the manuscript afterwards? Are you doing it this year? Whether you’ve NaNo-ed or not, what would you add, agree with, disagree with, protest about to your last breath? The floor is yours.
You might have spotted it’s uncharacteristically quiet here today. Wednesday has, from time immemorial, been Undercover Soundtrack day, and yet you find instead a deafening hush. Rest assured, the series will return next week and I have the post in my paws already. In the meantime, I have a guest post today at Romance University.
And is that an unseasonable word in the post title? Nanowrimo: isn’t that in November? Well, one of the keys to Nano success is preparation. To make sure you keep as much of the creative fun as possible, I’ve focused on designing your characters – and then letting them run riot to give you the plot. Do hop over. (You can also get there by clicking the pic. Last time I ran a guest post, Jonathan Moore pointed out it was idiotic not to link the pic too. Jon, I have at least entered the point-and-click age. Your wish is my command.)
Are you making an outline for NaNoWriMo?
We all need different levels of planning. Some writers like a step-by-step map so they can settle back and enjoy telling the story to the page. Others want the joy of discovery while their fingers are flying.
However you do it – whether formally beforehand or as your wordcount builds, these are the questions you need to tackle. (And even if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, you might find them useful.)
Why is this story going to grab a reader?
All stories need to dangle a lure – an element of intrigue, the remarkable, the sense of something unstable, a disturbance. That could be:
- a literal outrage like a murder
- a dilemma that puts a character in an impossible position
- an event that appears to be ordinary to you or me, but is a profound challenge in the character’s life.
Unless you are deliberately exploring the ‘anti-remarkable’, ask yourself what will make the reader curious from the start? Something exciting? Something weird? Something horrifying, unjust or wrong? Something comical? Something the readers will recognise as part of their own lives? This will probably be your way into the story too.
Why are your protagonists and antagonists compelled to take part in the story? Why couldn’t they just turn around and walk away?
What is the first change that starts the story rolling?
Why does the story begin where it does? Have you started too soon, in order to get set-up in? Might you be better cutting those scenes and filling in the back story at natural moments further in? Or have you started too late and missed some moments the reader will enjoy?
How does it escalate?
No matter how bad the situation looks from the start, it needs to get worse or the story will seem stuck. As the narrative goes on, the events and what people do must matter more. The price of failure must rise. If you’re writing in conventional three-act structure, which movies follow, there will be definite points where the story shifts into new gears – these will be the quarter, half-way and three-quarter marks. But even if you aren’t, you need a point where everything totally blows up, and a moment where the characters feel the worst has happened.
I never would have thought…
How does the story take directions the reader wouldn’t have guessed – and how will you convince them that they are fair?
Is it still the same quest as it was at the start?
Most stories start with the main characters wanting or needing something, but that goal can change. A simple search for a lost dog becomes a crusade against the fur trade. Perhaps at the end your characters want the opposite to the thing they fought so hard for in the early days. Stories where the characters’ priorities shift are very powerful. Stories where they don’t can seem predictable.
In the end…
What does your ending resolve? How has the characters’ world changed? Can the story really go no further? Is anything left unresolved – and if it is, does that suit your needs?
Speed is of the essence in NaNoWriMo and it’s much easier to write characters when you’ve spent time getting into their skins.
Do you know a few trivialities about their daily lives? You might need a hobby for them to do to get themselves out of the way, or a commitment that might put them on a particular road when something happens. Have a list of a few likely trivialities about your characters, and then when you need one you don’t have to stop the flow.
But if you don’t have time for that, just insert a tag such as [findout] and come back to it in the revision.
Much more important is to know how they relate to each other in the story – because the best plot moments will grow from friction and alliances. Do you know who gets on with whom (or would if they got the chance to meet)? Which characters would never understand each other? If you gave them all the same challenge, how would they show their different mettles? Which story events will really push someone’s buttons?
That’s my template for starting a NaNo novel. What would you add? Share in the comments!
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.