Tag Archives: NaNo

Hard-won Na No Lessons

November 1 is the start of National Novel Writing Month, that insanewonderful competition in which aspiring novelists attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

I have competed in NaNo and won each of the past three years. This year, I’m going to take a pass–not because I don’t get a lot out of the competition, but because I am much too busy. I do urge all writers to try NaNo.

There is some controversy when it comes to NaNo. Critics say it encourages novice writers to rush books into publication too quickly. But NaNo’s website advises writers to take the time to revise their work and there are loads of tips on how to do that.

The chief benefit of NaNo is that it instills the daily writing habit. Writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days breaks down to 1,667 words a day. This is a real stretch goal. It is beyond my comfort zone. My sweet spot is about 500 words a day. So why crank out 1,667 words per day for 30 days? It challenges writers to discover what’s possible. It causes writers to break their outer limits.

As we embark on NaNo month, here are some hard-won lessons:

–Write every day, even if you’re not feeling it. Our region’s Municipal Liaison (ML-what NaNo calls its regional leaders) offers this advice to every contestant. If you keep up the pace for 10 days and then you don’t write at all for a couple of days, you will fall way behind. Even if you don’t write 1,667 words, write 500 or 1,000.

–Take your story wherever it leads you. This is a big one. All three years in which I competed, I finished my story well short of 50,000 words. What did I do? I kept going. I challenged myself to take the story in a new direction. And I discovered new dimensions to all three stories.

–Don’t give up. I almost did last year. I kept the pace for 21 days, then I did some revising and actually lost words. I was at 42,000 words on the last day and wrote 8,000 words in two long writing sessions. It can be done.

–Don’t stop to edit. It’s tempting to want to revise your story as you go, but it will bog you down. As much as you might want to stop, you have to keep going.

–Find your regional group and attend their events. Regional groups are tremendous resources for writers. You will find your home region on the NaNo website once you register. Get to know your ML and folks in your region. Events in your region are posted there. Attend at least one event. It’s fun to write with others. You will share ideas and make new friends in the process.

NaNo is grueling, but it is loads of fun. I would do it again. Good luck, NaNo’ers.

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NaNo Update: We Have a Winner

The muse is over-rated. Experienced writers know that. The best motivator is a hard deadline.

Last weekend I was ready to give up my quest to “win” the National Novel Writing competition for the third straight year. Winning means writing a 50,000-word first draft of a novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. By November 22, I had fallen behind—not by a lot but by enough. I was under 40,000 words with a week to go. After an unproductive weekend in which I did not meet the daily word count of 1,667 words on either day, I decided to pull the plug.

Then, on Monday, I changed my mind. I had come this far. I had written more than 35,000 words. I couldn’t give up. I had plans that night and when I returned home, I decided to write. It was nine o’clock and I was tired, but I would give it one more shot. To my surprise, I became immersed in the story and I wrote 1,800 words. Then, I wrote 1,800 words on Tuesday and 1,000 words on Wednesday. I even cranked out 1,000 words on Thanksgiving night. I was at 42,000 words with two days to go.

I knew a productive Friday could put me over the top. I went to Starbucks early in the morning and wrote 4,000 words. I took a break, did some errands and sat down and wrote another 3,600 words. I finished early Saturday morning and uploaded the novel to the NaNo site, where it was validated as a winner at 50,600 words. I was exhausted, but thrilled.

So what did I learn from this year’s experience? Let me share these lessons:

• Write every day. Our Municipal Liaison advised a first-timer that the key was to write every day, even if it’s not 1,667 words. The worst thing to do is to fall behind. Even when I was about to give up, I still sat down and wrote and that is one of the most valuable benefits of NaNo: the daily writing habit.
• Pressure produces creative ideas. I wrote myself into a corner. My basic story was over at 35,000 words. I had to invent a new story on the fly that put the main character in mortal danger and I did. I wouldn’t have been able to do it, though, without the intense pressure of a hard deadline. Otherwise, I would have procrastinated and ruminated for weeks.
• Fatigue is an excuse. Many of my writing sessions took place after nine o’clock at night when I was tired and just wanted to go to sleep. Often I wrote until 11 or later and produced some of my best writing.
• Challenging yourself produces results. I found I could do more than I ever thought I was capable of doing. I had been working on this piece for months as a novella and had gotten nowhere. Starting afresh under extreme deadline pressure produced a workable first draft.

To every writer out there who thinks NaNo is an impossible challenge, my advice is: Go for it!

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NaNo Update: Down to the Wire

As I write this, I have 36 hours left to reach 50,000 words and “win” the annual National Novel Writing competition, the goal of which is to reach that word count with an original first draft of a novel in just 30 days.

I kept pace with the daily word count until last weekend, when I reached the end of my story. What followed was an intense period of brainstorming as I frantically searched my brain to invent new plot lines to extend the story. I was at 35,000 words on November 21 with only the denouement to write. I wasn’t going to make it to 50,000 words unless I came up with a new story line. I was ready to throw in the towel. It didn’t help when I went back to rewrite a scene that didn’t work (a real no-no in Nano land) and I ended up having to change several other scenes and I ended up losing 300 words. Okay it did create a much better story.

I took a day off to regroup, and then I decided I had come this far. I just couldn’t give up. My brain miraculously came up with a way to extend the story and create new tension. I had back to back 1,800-word days on Monday and Tuesday, but I had fallen way behind thanks to my unproductive weekend. I was determined to catch up. I even wrote 1,000 words on Thanksgiving and I am up to almost 4,000 words today, but the clock is ticking.

I will update my status on Sunday, but I have to get back to my story.

If you are doing NaNo, how is it going? Keep writing!

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Speed Kills—Or Does It?

Day 6 is a critical juncture for National Novel Writing Month competitors. That is the day when we should reach 10,000 words, or 20 percent of our goal, that is, if we are maintaining the pace of 1,667 words per day every day to reach the summit of 50,000 words in 30 days. As I write this, my word count stands at 10,061 words.

There’s a school of thought that warns nothing written that fast could be any good. I recently came across an inspiring Pep Talk on the official NaNo site (one of the benefits we NaNo’ers receive is a daily Pep Talk email from a veteran NaNo competitor). This one was written by author Catherynne M. Valente.

“I discovered NaNoWriMo in its second year and just the notion of it—the challenge, the seeming impossibility—lit a fire under me,” Valente wrote. “I even wrote a little manifesto about it. But it turned out that I couldn’t wait until November to start. And being 22 and thus full of equal parts arrogance, stupidity, and ambition, I decided that 30 days was too easy. I would do it in 10.

“And I did. My first novel, The Labyrinth, was written from October 1 to 11, 2002. I didn’t know I couldn’t do it. So I did. That novel became my first published book,” she wrote. “It was rereleased in a brand-new edition last year and I am still proud of it. Without NaNoWriMo, the lost 22-year-old poet working as a fortune teller in a little shop next to a Starbucks in Rhode Island, the girl with no particular prospects and even less clue how to write something longer than her (admittedly long-winded) poems, might never have figured out how many novels she had waiting inside her.”

Valente writes most of her books in four to 12 weeks, though she adds that the ideas percolate in her head for much longer than that before they get on the page.

“Yes, this is an experiment. Yes, it is difficult and not meant to be the scaffolding of a career. But the fact is, it can be,” Valente said. “A professional, full-time writer quite often writes more than 1,667 words a day for periods longer than a month. Learn how to flex that muscle, and how to build it up so it looks back on the early days of 50,000-words-in-a-month as an easy gig.

“To show up to play, puff out your chest like a damn proud toucan, and get shit done.

“That is, perhaps, the single most important skill of a working life, no matter what that work may be.”

As someone who has won at NaNo two years in a row, I will admit that 1,667 words per day every day for 30 days is an insane pace. I could never keep it up for any sustained length of time. I have a huge advantage over some writers because I cut my teeth as a newspaper reporter. I learned how to write on deadline at an early age and that habit, if maintained, never goes away. Whether you’re covering a city council meeting or a legislative session or a car wreck, your editor is not going to say, “Oh you don’t feel like writing today. That’s okay. File your story tomorrow.” I’ve written stories in as little as ten minutes, because that’s all I had.

The word count isn’t important. The daily habit is. Each writer must find the sweet spot. For me it’s between 500 and 750 good words per day. I can handle that. NaNo is a stretch goal for me, but it proves that a writer can push himself when he needs to get it done on deadline.

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Gearing Up for NaNoWriMo

I just uploaded the description of my next novel on the National Novel Writing Month website. This will be my third NaNoWriMo try. In case you have not heard of this program, it is a competition to write a 50,000-word first draft of a novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. I entered for the first time in 2011 with a novel called Bonus Baby, a murder-mystery involving the murder of a hot major league prospect and I won with more than 51,000 words. In 2012, I won again with a story called Say a Prayer for Maura, about a dying father’s attempt to make peace with his estranged daughter.

So why would anyone in his right mind make a commitment to write a 50,000-word novel in just 30 days? It can’t be done, you might say. One would have to write, 1667 words per day, every day, for 30 days straight. Impossible! Believe me, it can be done. The reward is not to “win” by racking up 50,000 words in 30 days. No, the reward is the discipline NaNo instills in writers.

When you participate in NaNo, you discover you can carve out a little time each day to write. Instead of spending 20 minutes checking your Facebook page, you could write. Instead of spending 15 minutes channel surfing you could write. Instead of the luxury of a long, hot shower, you could write.

The program started in 1999 in San Francisco and has grown exponentially since that time. Here are the numbers:

1999: 21 participants/six winners.
2000: 140 participants/29 winners.
2001: 5000 participants/700 winners.
2002: 13,500 participants/2,100 winners.
2003: 25,000 participants/3,500 winners.
2004: 42,000 participants/6,000 winners.
2005: 59,000 participants/9,759 winners.
2006: 79,000 participants/13,000 winners.
2007: 101,510 participants/15,333 winners.
2008: 119,301 participants/21,683 winners.
2009: 167,150 participants/32,178 winners.
2010: 200,500 participants/37,500 winners.
2011: 256,618 participants/36,843 winners.
2012: 341,375 participants/38,438 winners.

A number of these first drafts later became top-selling novels published by traditional publishes. Among these were The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

My advice to all writers out there who don’t think they can do it: try it. You might be surprised.

Have you ever participated in National Novel Writing Month? How was your experience?

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Platform in Perspective

Platform, platform, platform. The blogosphere is filled with that word. An unpublished writer must have a platform to get an agent or a publisher. Your blog doesn’t have ten thousand followers? Don’t even talk to an agent or a publisher. You can’t write.

In late December I received an Annual Report from WordPress (another reason why I love WordPress). Let me share my stats. I had 8,300 views in 2012. I posted 89 new essays (for a total of 140 in the 15 months since I started my blog). My busiest day was October 17, 2012, with 117 views. My most popular post was titled, “What Drives Your Main Character?” My most commented-upon post was, “Are You NaNoing This Year.”

My posts have been viewed by people in 102 countries, with the U.S., the United Kingdom and Canada showing the most views.

What do all these stats mean? Judging by the numbers, I am a rank amateur who has no right to call myself an author. That’s the trouble with numbers. I don’t spend my day promoting my blog posts on social media. I don’t have the time. There are only two numbers that mean anything to me: my word count on my Work in Progress and the number of blog posts (I try to blog every three days) I generate. My expectations are low, but realistic. I’d rather spend my energy writing the best book I can and sharing what I’ve learned with the good people who are kind enough to read my blog. The big platform benchmarks touted on blogs mean little to me. They’re not worth the price.

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Goal: 500 Solid Words Per Day

The recently concluded National Novel Writing Month competition got me thinking about the daily writing habit. To win NaNo, a writer must write 1,667 words per day—every day, for 30 days. That’s a nearly unachievable pace for any writer to maintain for long. If it wasn’t for a few 5,000-word days in late November, I never could have reached 50,000 words.

So my question is this: what is a realistic daily word count for a writer? For me, the answer lies somewhere between 500 and 1,000 words, but I’m convinced it’s 500. Why 500 words? It’s achievable. During our regional NaNo writing sessions, we would take part in “word wars.” Our leader would set a timer for 15 minutes and we would write. I was consistently around 450 words. These were not Pulitzer Prize-winning words, but they were good enough to advance my story. And let’s face it: everybody has 15 minutes to a half-hour of down time each day. Take your laptop or tablet with you in your car. When you sit down at a coffee shop with your latte, do some writing. Write on your lunch break, or before or after dinner. Write first thing in the morning or last thing before going to bed.

Writing 500 words per day six days a week (one day of rest will help to fill the creative tank) will produce 3,000 words a week, or, 12,000 words a month. In eight months, a writer will have an 84,000-word first draft. Of course, 500 is an arbitrary number. If a writer is in a creative groove, there’s nothing stopping her if she wants to keep going and achieve one of those glorious 5,000-word days.

When it comes to word count here are some considerations:

  • Determine first what you are capable of achieving and how much time you have in a given day. Do you find yourself losing steam after 500 words? One thousand words? Does your writing time consist of sneaking 15 minutes here or there between household chores or work?
  • Set a goal that is achievable. For me, 500 words is do-able.
  • Decide whether you need a daily word count or are you the type of “binge writer” who can crank out 5,000 to 7,000 words in a productive weekend.
  • Test your limits. If 1,000 sounds like a mountain you can’t scale, try for 300. When that becomes too easy, go for a higher number.

There’s no doubt writers benefit from putting words on the page every day. It’s a tough habit to get into and an easy one to lose. Distractions abound, from social media to the natural tendency to procrastinate. If NaNo proves one thing, it’s that the daily word count is a good habit.

What is your daily word count? How did you determine your word count?

 

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NaNo Update #5: Goal Achieved

My National Novel Writing Month entry, “Say a Prayer for Maura,” was validated on November 29 at 50,706 words. That makes me a “winner” for the second straight year in the annual contest to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. It wasn’t easy this  year.

Here are some lessons I learned:

  • When a character is not working, focus on the character or characters who are working. There’s little time to fix what’s broken. I changed main characters in the middle of my story. My original main character was Frank O’Malley, a family patriarch who was dying of cancer and wished to see his estranged daughter, Maura, before he died. I was 20,000 words into the piece and I couldn’t seem to write a decent scene focusing on Frank. Every time I wrote about Maura, the scenes flowed logically from one to the next. Maura became the main character. It was like unclogging a drain.
  • Focus on the scene level and cause-and-effect to move the story forward. At one point I was struggling. The story had lost its momentum, so I walked away from my laptop and brainstormed. I played with different possibilities in my mind, trying not to limit my thinking. The solution popped into my brain. It was a scene in which Maura was seven months pregnant and living in a home for unwed mothers. One young woman living in the home was about to give birth and I was planning to have the woman who ran the home leave her job under circumstances I hadn’t figured out yet. The plan was for Maura, who was always helping her with chores, to take her job, but that lacked drama. So I gave the poor woman a stroke in the middle of cooking dinner. Maura saved her life by administering CPR, called for help, and finished cooking and serving dinner. The next morning, the woman who was having the baby went into labor and Maura managed to enlist the help of the other young pregnant women and they delivered the baby. This led to several follow-up scenes.
  • Write with your regional group. I attended four sessions with my regional compatriots. The sharing of ideas and solutions that takes place is amazing.
  • Stay ahead on your word count. Writing 1,667 words a day is unbelievably hard, but even if you don’t reach that number, write every day.
  • Strive for the super-productive day. This will allow you to take a day off from writing if needed. I was at 39,000 on Thanksgiving (November 22) and I reached 50,000 words on November 25. I wrote 5,000 words on November 23 and blew away the daily word count on the next two days.
  • Take time off from work around Thanksgiving if you can, as a safety valve. Knowing I had those four days at the end helped me to avoid stress.

Writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days is crazy. I didn’t believe it could be done until I did it, two years in a row. But whether you achieved the 50,000-word goal or not, it’s the journey and the discipline it instills in the writer that counts.

How did your NaNo experience go this year? What lessons did you learn?

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NaNo Update #4: I Made It! No, Wait. I Didn’t.

I was there–at 50,000 words in my National Novel Writing Month entry and I was five days early to boot. I was with my regional NaNo group when I hit the magic mark. I drank in the applause when our Municipal Liaison made the announcement. I had won. And then I lost it the next day.

Blame it on my first chapter. I never liked my first chapter and I just had to go back and fix it. I did a complete rewrite. It wasn’t the greatest piece of fiction in the world, but it was a marked improvement over the original. I cut the original chapter one and pasted it into a fresh document (always save your work, even the parts you don’t use). I inserted the new first chapter and guess what? My word count dropped to 49,700. I looked at it again. I added details to it–a dash of setting here, an amplified piece of dialogue there and soon I once again surpassed 50,000 words.

I hated the ending as much as I despised the opening chapter. I vowed to rewrite the last chapter as well, but this time, I’m only adding words and not taking any away.

My plan is to finish polishing the draft on Wednesday and upload it for validation (that’s what they call it on the NaNo website) on Thursday, one day ahead of the November 30 deadline.

This was my second NaNo and my second “win,” but I found this year’s competition much more challenging than last year’s, but equally rewarding.

How are you doing on your NaNo novel?

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NaNo Update #3: Writing All Over the Place

The challenge of writing 1,667 words a day that comes with competing in the National Novel Writing Month means writers must seize every opportunity to put words on the page. A writer who has become accustomed to writing in the same work space at the same time might not be able to stick with his habits.

I have written in more places than ever this month: at the library, at coffee shops, and even at a café where I only had a half-hour of writing time.

I’ve done little writing at home since I lost my writing space recently. In early November I was writing most of my NaNo novel at the local library. On Veterans Day, the library was closed, so I hunkered down at a nearby Starbucks. I only had two hours to write but I managed to crank out 2,400 words.

Our regional group has sponsored several writing sessions at different locations. I’ve learned no matter where I write, I can zone out the distractions. An i-pod and ear buds help. Our Na No group also does “writing wars.” Our leader sets a timer for 15 minutes and we just write. Whoever produces the greatest number of words wins. I am consistently between 445 and 475 words.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned this month:

  • There’s no such thing as having too little time to write. A thirty-minute block can be enough to produce 500 to 1,000 words.
  • Take your laptop everywhere. You never know when an opportunity will present itself.
  • Good writers can write nearly anywhere. I’ve written in five different places this month. It’s all about training one’s self to focus and filter out any distractions.
  • The daily word count creates enormous pressure, but motivates the writer to produce work he would not otherwise generate.

There are seven days to go and I am at 44,000 words—6,000 words from the finish line.

 Does it matter where you write? Can you adapt your habits to meet a deadline?

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