can will survive November together.
If you’re into reading, writing, editing, publishing, or any other creative writing outlet or profession, you’ve probably heard all about NaNoWriMo. For those of you for whom that it just a strange jumble of letters, that fun little name stands for National Novel Writing Month. And if you have bookish friends, get ready — it’s happening next month.
Every November, millions of would-be novelists leap into the creative fray, pushing themselves to complete a 50,000-word novel in the thirty short days of the month. (It also doesn’t help some American contenders that they’re more or less out of commission at least two of those days, consuming far too much on Thanksgiving and then sleeping off a turkey-hangover the next day.) In the weeks leading up to November 1, and then throughout the month, writers are given email pep talks from WriMo staff and published authors alike. The WriMo site also boasts an extensive system of forums, where writers can let free their plot bunnies, work through a tricky plot device, or just take a breather. The advice and insights gleaned in these safe havens are invaluable.
But the advice can also contradict itself.
Successful, driven people may share some personality traits, advantages, or habits, but the beauty of humanity is that we’re all so damn different. Millions of people set out every November to succeed in a common goal, running the spectrum from first-timers and amateur writers to multi-year noveling machines to published authors. I’m not sure what the stats are on how many win, and then how many of those have a finished manuscript in-hand on November 30. But the sure thing is that everyone goes about their month of frenzied creation in a different way. Some say plot, others say get going on November 1 and hope. Some have character sketches and plot webs; some have a vague setting and maybe some guy sitting in a corner of their imagination, and not much else. It’s impossible to say what will work, until you’ve given it a shot yourself.
Now, I’ve only won three years out of six, and only one of those three is actually a complete manuscript I’d like to even consider revising and sending off for potential representation and publication. But here are some tips and tricks I’ve worked out for myself these last six years of WriMo participation; I hope they help you out.
1. Plot — kinda.
I’ve never had a good year when I dove into an idea without at least the bare bones of a plot. An idea or a great character might get you pretty far, but a book without some kind of driving force — the wants, needs, and desires that formulate the plot — isn’t going to get anywhere meaningful.
Now, I don’t mean you need flowcharts and spreadsheets. I have scraps of paper and margins of books full of ideas, and I’ve also fully plotted specific scenes and moments of dialogue out in massive Word documents. As long as you have a vague idea of where you’re going, you’ll be able to plot out that map for your future readers, too.
2. Be flexible, figuratively and literally.
If you’re a plotter, you might come to the next moment on the checklist and realize the scene no longer works. Characters have morphed and developed, appearing from thin air as needed or disappearing entirely. That setting is stupid for the big fight scene. That plot-relevant book wasn’t written until sixty-seven years later. When you hit a seeming snag, write through it — make a decision and plow through. Be open to a character who wants to monologue or a throwaway set that suddenly becomes ridiculously important. Tweak your outline as you go, to make your story as strong as possible.
Also, don’t forget to stretch. Writing is hell on the back and wrists.
3. First drafts are shit.
It doesn’t matter if it took you one month, one year, or one decade to get your first draft down. You’ll think it’s all gold and glitter and dolla-dolla-bills falling from the open palms of adoring publishers, but writing, revising, and publishing a novel is work, every step of the way. It’s hard to come up with an idea and it’s hard to start writing and it’s hard to get even one full draft done. There will be moments of inspired genius and moments of crap, and it’ll all add up to a shitty first draft. That should be no means hold you back from finising.
4. Write whenever you can, and don’t write when you can’t.
No matter where you are throughout the month of November, your novel is sure to be lingering at the edge of your mind and in the shadows of every conversation. You can’t just shut off a task as daunting as writing 50,000 words in 30 days. If an idea comes to you just before bed, write it down. If you’re trying to work through a tricky scene on your way to work, make note of the different plot trails you’ve managed to dream up.
On the flip side, allow yourself time to relax. If you’re on a roll, pursue it, but not to the detriment of your relationships or responsibilities. It’s acceptable to work on a plot in your lunch break, but trying to engage your supervisor in an in-depth character discussion should be avoided. You’ll know when you need to write and when you need to stop, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for taking a day or two to yourself, no matter what the reason.
5. Imbibe similar media to the story you want to tell.
You’ll probably have to do some kind of research for your story, even if it’s creeping on the layout of a neighborhood a world away on Google Maps or checking on the etymology of a piece of slang. This research will surely lead you to exciting books, photos, or other forms of media that you can use to inspire yourself on the but-writing-is-hard days. Make character-based playlists; watch a TV show set in the same time period; marathon a movie series you hope to emulate; make mood boards on Pinterest; fancast your story and mock up a book cover or movie poster for it. Whatever helps get — and keep — your creative juices flowing is a positive habit in my book.
6. Talk about your story.
Let’s face it — most of us writer-types don’t want to discuss what we’re working on. EVER. “What’s your story about?” is a dreaded phrase. But if you’re writing to be published one day, you’ll have to learn to sell your work, and yourself. Agents will want to know what makes you special, and publishers will want to see that you’re committed to getting your little miracle out into the world. You can share as much or as little as you want, with IRL friends or internet friends or a stranger on a bus. You can even say, “I can’t hang out tonight, I was hoping to get some writing done.” Maybe you’ll want to delve into detail and maybe you won’t. Either way, you put those good vibes out into the universe. And a little good karma goes a long way.
7. JUST. KEEP. GOING.
As Fleetwood Mac implores us, don’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow. If you can’t get the transition from Point A to Point B just right, it doesn’t matter; drop in a fade-to-black and get going on the next scene. You want to produce something you’ll be proud of, but WriMo is all about words on the page, leaps in logic be damned. If something clicks while you’re daydreaming about another scene, you can absolutely go back and flesh things out. If that happens in November, awesome; if not, you have the eleven other months of the year to get it to work. If you’re really drawn to your idea and you’re really interested in pursuing publication, you’ll want to go back and revise anyway.