Tag Archives: NaNoWriMo

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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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 #2

November 15 marks the halfway point in the annual National Novel Writers Month competition. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. As of November 15, I was at 27,500 words. This should be cause for celebration, but I’m worried about not having enough “story” left to get to the magic 50,000 number.

I’m getting helpful advice, though. One of the great benefits of “doing NaNo” is the opportunity it provides to network and brainstorm with other writers from your region. At a recent writing session the other night at a coffee shop in Hartford, CT, I shared my dilemma with my NaNo compatriots. Our Municipal Liaison, aka Fearless Leader, made a couple of good suggestions: add a dream sequence or another murder. My brother gave me the same counsel on the dream sequence. I’m not a big fan of dream sequences. They take the reader out of the story and can often confuse or disorient the reader. But, hey, this is NaNo. This is the time to try something unconventional. If it doesn’t work, I can always cut it later. The second murder idea intrigued me. I did this in last year’s NaNo entry and it added a layer of intrigue to my story.

Other suggestions from my colleagues included adding another character and a new story line and writing out of sequence, which I did last year to great effect. These are all sound ideas, but this is where my cautionary light goes on. When considering things like new characters or story lines, the writer must be careful not to merely pile on extra character or stories just for the sake of stretching out the word count. These enhancements only work if they flow organically from the core story. For example, if a writer is contemplating adding a murder, it cannot be a gratuitous killing of a minor character, which will have little effect on the story arc and serve only to distract the reader. And the writer must also select the right character to kill off. In any case, the act must flow naturally and logically from the prior events of the story. The writer must also consider how the solving of the murder plays into the resolution of the story.

One could argue these are questions for the revision phase of the process. The great thing about NaNo, though, is that for 30 days, writers can write with reckless abandon if they choose. Or not.

 

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NaNo Update #1

We’re ten days into National Novel Writing Month—one-third of the way there—and after the first nine days, I’m at 15,000 words. My stats page on the NaNo website tells me at this rate I will finish on November 29, one day ahead of the deadline. I have 35,000 words to go.

I should be feeling pretty good about my chances to achieve the goal of writing a 50,000 word first draft in thirty days, right? There’s one slight problem. I’m about two-thirds of the way through my written outline. In short, I’m running out of story.

So what do I do now? Here are my choices:

  1. Keep going and I might get to 30,000 words.
  2. Think hard about potential new scenes or story lines and add these to the draft.
  3. Begin writing the ending first and see how many words I can generate and whether the resolution of the plot jogs any additional story strands I can pursue.

I am leaning toward a combination of #2 and #3. I have already written two completely new scenes that were not in my original written outline. I was pleased with one of these scenes and unhappy with the other. If not for the word count pressure of NaNo, I would not have written either one, but that is one of the benefits of putting myself through the process. It has forced me to employ the most intense type of creative focus. If I was merely slogging my way through a first draft, the word count wouldn’t concern me and I wouldn’t have challenged myself to think about all the story possibilities. Some of these won’t work and I will go back and cut them, but there are those little nuggets in there that I will keep and polish.

There’s nothing to lose when the word count rules the day. When I revisit the draft later on, I will keep what works and cut the rest. And when I reach that 50,000 words (or should I say if?) I will have discovered the core of my story. And in my desperate desire to maintain 1,667 words per day, I will unearth some precious jewels.

If you are doing NaNo, what challenges do you face? How are you coping?

 

 

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Are You NaNo’ing This Year?

A colleague at work approached me several years ago about “doing NaNo.” I looked at her as if she was out of her mind. “What’s NaNo?” I said. She explained it was the National Novel Writing Month and the goal was to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. A look of terror came across my face. I thought, “Now that’s really crazy.” At the time, I had two awful starter novels in the drawer and was struggling with a 120,000-word opus that would become my first published novel. I knew what it took to write a novel. I couldn’t wrap my mind around producing 50,000 words of fiction in just 30 days. Thirty months maybe, but 30 days? No way. Undaunted, she said, “You should try it sometime.”

Though it seemed an impossible feat, the idea of cranking out a 50,000-word novel in 30 days intrigued me. It was the ultimate challenge. The idea of a confirmed “pantser” like me attempting a feat that required writerly attributes like planning, outlining, character development and the like, was farfetched, but if I could pull it off, it would prove I possessed the discipline to meet a daily word count.

I didn’t “do NaNo” that year, or for the next three years, but last year I decided to give it a try. The deciding factor was a full-blown idea for a novel that had been rattling around in my head for 10 years. I never could sit and write it. My trepidation was that the story was in a different genre (murder/mystery) than I usually write. It was a huge leap for me, but the story was terrific. It had all the elements of great fiction: suspense, conflict, romance, murder, and, baseball—one of my passions in life. So I climbed the steps to that high diving board and leaped headfirst.

I learned a number of things. The most important lesson was that coming up with 1,667 words a day, even armed with a fully fleshed out story, is really hard. Another big lesson was to expect the unexpected. On October 28, 2011, the northeastern United States was hit with a freak snow storm and the region lost power for nine days. That’s right. No electricity. No laptop. So I adapted. I used pen and paper to write the initial chapters by candlelight. I hunkered in coffee shops with my laptop. We traveled to Vermont to stay with relatives for a weekend and I increased my word count from 3,000 to 11,000. The biggest lesson, though, was the value of discipline and determination.

On November 29, 2012—one day ahead of the deadline—I finished my 53,000-word first draft of Bonus Baby. What was then a first draft is now my work-in-progress.

Here are some lessons for writers thinking about doing NaNo:

  • Plan out your story ahead of time. If you have a premise and major characters, write an outline a month or so ahead of time. Don’t wait until October 31 to work out your story arc. Having a complete story outline was the difference for me. Even then, I found myself wondering if I could meet the word count and I ended up making a major plot change mid-course, which brings me to my next point.
  • Be open to unplanned changes to your story. For many writers (myself included) the first draft is a period of discovery. The major story elements are there, but those moments of intense creative brainstorming often produce magical surprises that enhance the story.
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to come up with the perfect sentence, paragraph or scene. Just write and keep moving forward.
  • Carve out time every day to write. Tell your loved ones and friends you may not see them for a month and ask for their support. If you are married tell (beg) your spouse to take on more of the household chores during the month.
  • Take time off. I took some time off from work around Thanksgiving just in case I fell behind and needed to catch up. It made a difference for me as those days produced strong word counts.
  • Become part of the support group in your region. When you register on the NaNo website (www.nanowrimo.com) you will see a link for the regional online forum in your region. Each region as a leader called the Municipal Liaison (ML), who organizes in-person meetings, writing sessions, and orientations for newbies. We are blessed in my region with an energetic and committed ML who organizes meetings, including the legendary “Night of Writing Dangerously,” an all-night writing marathon.
  • Take advantage of the resources on the NaNo website, which include inspirational essays and online forums where you can get answers to just about any question you pose (including how to poison someone, which was the question I posted last year).

If you have done NaNo, what tips do you have to offer to newbies? If you have not done NaNo, what is holding you back?

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