Three Things I Learned from NaNoWriMo

November has been dubbed National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) by Chris Baty, a writer from San Francisco. For 11 years, he’s sponsored an event for writers, challenging them to write a novel (50,000 words) during the month of November. Thousands of writers have taken him up on the challenge and participated through the NaNoWriMo website.

I’ve been a part of the challenges for several years and I’ve learned some things in the process that I’d like to share with you.

Challenge Yourself

Use NaNo as an opportunity to challenge yourself. You don’t have to adhere to the “50,000 words on a new novel” rule. It’s more of a guideline, than a rule. The point of NaNo is to challenge yourself–stretch beyond what you think you’re capable of.

  • If you already have a story started, write 50,000 more words on it in 30 days.
  • If you’re writing short stories, instead of novels, write 50,000 cumulative words on a variety of stories in 30 days.
  • If your novel is done, edit 50 pages a day on it.
  • If you’re submitting, send out 5 queries a day for 30 days.

Think of what you could accomplish under normal circumstances and then double your output for a month. You don’t have to keep it up forever, just for a month. See what kind of a kickstart that gives to your writing.

First Draft Freedom

NaNo requires fast writing. For many writers, 50,000 words in 30 days is really fast. You don’t have time to edit, to fuss with point of view, to layer your characters. You just write and get it down on paper.

As a writer who gets stuck in perfectionism, NaNo is a refreshing change for me. I can’t fuss over the first chapter for six months, getting the words just right. Instead, I have to throw something on to the page and keep going.

Now, mind you, I’m not deliberately throwing garbage on to the page and calling it my novel. No, I’m writing the story the best I can without self-editing during the process. Forward motion is my goal. I’ve come across several writers who feel that writing the first draft is necessary for you to figure out what story you’re actually telling. Then in the second draft (and subsequent ones), you shape the story to that vision. Since I know the story will change (possibly radically), then getting my first draft perfect isn’t necessary. It’s kind of useless, even, since I’m going to change it. So write fast and get to the end of your first draft so you know your story.

Help, My Plot Has Fallen and It Can’t Get Up!

One of my favorite “tools” I learned from NaNo is the plot ninjas.

Let’s pretend that you’re writing along on your novel and you start to realize that your characters have been sitting in a kitchen, sipping tea and chatting for the last 30 pages. Drinking tea in a kitchen is the kiss of death for a novel. Where’s the tension? Where’s the conflict? You need to get those characters moving and reacting to something.

Suddenly there’s a knock at the back door. Your main character answers the door and discovers ninjas who immediately start attacking him!

Now there’s tension and conflict in your story. Nobody stands passively by while ninjas are attacking.

Ninjas may not fit your genre, but you can adapt the plot ninja idea to other types of stories.

  • If you’re writing a mystery, someone totally unexpected is murdered.
  • In a romance, another man (or woman) shows up and claims to be married to your main character.
  • In a scifi story, aliens attack or a nanite plague breaks out.
  • In a crossover novel, the secret spouse of your main character’s love interest is murdered by aliens wielding nanites.

The only criteria for using plot ninjas in your story is that the ninja event be something unexpected and startling. Something that your characters must react to. Then they’re no longer in the kitchen drinking tea.

I’ve learned other things from participating in NaNo, but these are three biggies–enjoy the challenge, write freely in my first draft, and use plot ninjas to shake things up when my story has stalled.

What things have you learned from NaNoWriMo?

I’ll be participating in NaNo again this year. If you’d like to follow my progress, add me as a Writing Buddy.

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Showing Your Private Parts

There’s glitter on my laptop keys. Hmm. Wonder how that happened.

I’m knee-deep in the fleshing out of my latest humorous women’s fiction piece, tentatively entitled “Gemma.” I’m really digging where the story is going. The book idea came from a great opening scene that I’ve had forever, it just took a couple of years for the scene to tell me what it wanted to be when it grew into a novel. I know what Gemma’s arc needs to be, and I have other characters talking in my head telling me how they plan to contribute to her growth in both supportive and not-so-supportive ways. (*Note to self: Next month’s blog post to be about the challenges of starting with characters rather than story.)

Interestingly (to me), the more I work on this idea, the more I find that parts of my actual, real, often boring and sometimes comical life are making their way into the story. Of course there are autobiographical elements in nearly any work of fiction, even if they’re minor, like a character’s tendency to use a certain expression. But this time I’m taking big bits of Sara and assigning them to Gemma.

Starting right in the title, in fact. Gemma = Gretchen Elizabeth Mary Mueller Arnold (although her name was actually Mary Miller Arnold Mueller). That’s my mother and my grandmother’s initials, conveniently arranged. There’s a reason for that: my mother hid from life, and my grandmother chased life, and Gemma is the story of a woman’s progress from meekness to boldness.

There are more tangible connections. My grandmother makes an appearance in the story, setting into motion the external conflict. There are “Sara” details: during the two years my mother and I were on our own, we pretty much lived on breakfast. Since that was one of the happier times of my life, breakfast is something I hold dear and turn to during times of stress, and I pay homage to my love of all things breakfast by collecting waffle irons. Gemma, I’ve decided, also collects waffle irons, and there will be a scene with her having breakfast with her mother as a small child. I also have an unfortunate tendency to have funny but somewhat ego-bruising public calamities – ask me how I broke my leg in 9 places, or just last week ended up sandwiched between the treads of my staircase and a 300 pound sofa – and I’m assigning that talent to Gemma, as well.

In many ways, Gemma may be my James Frey novel, although I think there’ll actually be more truth in mine than there was in his. (My root canals have involved lots and lots of pain meds.)

As all this became more concrete in my mind, I began to wonder: how comfortable are you as writers really putting yourself in your stories? Could you put an emotionally raw personal experience on paper for the world to see, if you knew they might discover it was based on fact? What are you personal boundaries?

Querying Agents On the Super Technology Highway

I read somewhere that it’s very difficult to get an agent to look at a manuscript. In fact, people often spend big bucks to go to conferences just to have the chance to get in front of an agent for five minutes. That’s why, when it came time for me to consider looking for representation, I was a little – or a lot – lackadaisical.

I did my homework, poring over Publishers Marketplace to determine who might best help me sell my stunningly brilliant novel, Living in Bliss. I queried the deal database every way from Sunday to see who did well selling debuts, who was especially interested in comedy (nobody, it seems!), and who repped my favorite authors. Then I checked out each of their websites to learn whether my favorites were accepting new clients (alas, many were not), if there were other people at those agencies who might be a match, and if each individual agent as a whole looked like someone I would like to get into bed with, so to speak.

That task accomplished, I whipped up (okay, cried and slaved over) a query letter. Query letters are a challenge, but I felt good about mine: charming, fun, an enticing and brief overview of my plot, ended with a character sketch of who I am as a person and a writer. For good measure, I included the first 10 pages of the novel in the email; might as well tease them with my talent. Ta da! I was ready.

My logic was as follows: Send electronic queries to my top 4 choices. Wait weeks for them to respond, which would give me time to – ahem – FINISH THE BOOK.

That’s right. I was 90% done, but not completely done. Some twisted part of me thought that if I sent off agent queries, I’d have no choice but to finally wrap up the little bitty loose ends that had been torturing me for a year.

Let me tell you, this is not a good plan. Why? Because three of the four agents responded within hours, requesting full manuscripts and a synopsis. Holy crap. Those were my exact words (uttered at the top of my lungs as I jumped up and down, freaking out my dogs and cats and sending the bird into a tizzy of flapping wings). Woo hoo! I didn’t suck! Or, at least my suckiness wasn’t such that they didn’t want to read more…

And then it hit me: I hadn’t finished the darned book, much less written a synopsis.

Fortunately it was Friday. And I’ll admit, I used the Iowa floods to my advantage. (I wasn’t lying, exactly; my basement did have nearly a foot of water in it.) I asked each of the three requesting agents if I might send along the information on Monday… and then spent every waking moment of the next two days writing, editing, polishing, writing some more. I added 10,000 words that weekend. And that’s not counting the 7 page synopsis.

Did I screw up? I’m sure I did. I’m sure there were things I could’ve polished even more. In fact, I have a scene in my head that needs to be inserted into the final act, which I’ll probably do, although that makes me very nervous with the manuscript out. There’s a very good chance rushing like a madwoman lessened the strength of the book as a whole. But if nothing else, I learned a big lesson: don’t pitch a book that isn’t finished. Because in this era of super-fast technology, you never know when you’re going to be called upon to produce what you’ve promised. It may be a lot sooner than you expected.

Happy writing! Sara