Tag Archives: National Novel Writing Month

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: 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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Getting Out of Your Box

It started as an experiment about a year ago. I was tired of writing stories in my chosen genre—family sagas. I yearned to try something new. Out of that desire grew an unwieldy novella called, Life of the Party. I wrote 56,000 words and I hated it, but I really liked one of the characters. He was a fledgling rapper named Shabazz Horton—a Kanye West wannabe who was working as a club DJ to raise money for his recording ambitions. I went back to the drawing board and decided to construct a short story trilogy around him.

I began forming a new plot around Shabazz. He would be caught in the middle of a sticky situation in which his boss, the club owner, was a drug kingpin under investigation. A police detective would lean on Shabazz to cooperate with the law, but Shabazz would be loathe to turn against his boss.

It was a story with all kinds of possibilities, but I kept going down rabbit holes. I rewrote the beginning four times, the most recent about two weeks ago. Something wasn’t working. When I get stuck like this, the first question I ask is this, “What is the heart of the story?” This triggered several other questions. What is the main character’s journey? How will he be transformed? I knew the answers to these questions, but that wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was that I was veering off into a police procedural and that wasn’t the genre I intended. I also suffered from an utter lack of knowledge of the culture of the club DJ and rap music in general. I follow rap to some degree, but not enough to write with authority about it.

My solution to these problems presented itself when I was searching for a story idea for the 2013 National Novel Writing Month competition, which begins November 1. The pressure of a 30-day deadline will force me to just write and (I hope) after I havae a 50,000-word first draft, I will have figured out some things about this story.

Am I sorry I went off-course for a year and abandoned the genre which is my strength? Not at all. It’s healthy for writers to get out of their boxes and try something completely different. Even if the story never sees the light of day, it will challenge the writer and open new vistas. I will return with new energy and purpose to the comfort of family sagas when I finish this work-in-progress.

What about you? Have you ever attempted to write in a different genre? How did it work out?

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That Elusive Thing Called Motivation

Robin LaFevers wrote an excellent post on Writer Unboxed on the three stages of commitment to the writing craft that writers must go through to reach the goal of truly becoming a productive and fulfilled writer. LaFevers identified three progressive levels writers must reach to achieve an ideal state: discipline, dedication, and devotion.

“At its most positive, discipline is the building of new muscle stage,” she wrote. “Discipline is the axle grease we apply to our flighty, frivolous, perception of what is actually involved in learning how to create something.”
The next level is dedication. “Dedication implies a level of mastery. It is the point at which you no longer need to apply discipline because your creative work flows out of your own organic desire to do that work…”

The ultimate level a writer should want to reach is devotion. LaFevers wrote, “Devotion implies joy and zeal and ardent affection…It is a process oriented stage. It encompasses dedication and can appear from the outside to look a lot like discipline, but its origins are very different. When we are devoted to something, there simply are few things on earth we’d rather do or spend time with.”

At some point, LaFevers wrote, a writer’s internal motivation should shift from discipline to dedication. Ultimately the goal is to get to the devotion stage. “The story becomes the most important thing—the characters, the truth, the world—are all more important to you than your publishing contract.”

I wholeheartedly agree with LaFevers. However, while devotion is what I strive to achieve, I’m stuck in the discipline bucket. It’s not that I’m not trying to get to the next level, but external factors keep getting in the way. The biggest obstacles are time and competing priorities. This may seem like a copout, but work is busy and my personal life has suddenly gotten active, which is good for me but bad for my writing habit.

While I have limited time, I recognize I must make the time to write. I do it every year during National Novel Writing Month, which begins in less than a month. It’s hard to write a 50,000-word novel in a month. It’s incredibly hard. It takes 1,667 words per day, every day, for 30 days. And yet I’ve “won” the last two years. Will I get to 50,000 words this year? I don’t know, but I am going to try.

One of the best points Robin LaFevers made in her post was that the writer must get past the discipline part to reach the devotion stage. The writer must master and live the daily writing habit. That’s where I need to get back to in order to reach the highest level.

What about you? Where are you on the spectrum from discipline to devotion?

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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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