Last Minute Writing Tips

NaNoWriMo 2018 Winner BannerI think this is the first November since I started NaNoWriMo in 2013 in which I didn’t update my novel’s progress at some point between its start and validation. I was so behind on my word count for so long that I didn’t dare do any other writing project—even a short blog to update my (lack of) progress—for fear of stealing precious time from 2018’s novel.

Just to give you a literal picture of how sad this situation was, take a look at my stats graph from nanowrimo.org:

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 1.29.27 PM

I think the worst was the day when I only typed 298 words. And there were too many other days when I typed well under 1000. In case you’ve stumbled across my blog, and this is the first time you’ve ever heard of this NaNo business, to “win” at National Novel Writing Month, you need to write a 50,000-word novel that you don’t start until November 1st and that you finish on the 30th. (And by finish, I just mean write 50,000 words. I have not ever actually completed a novel in the month of November.) That means 1667 words per day, if you don’t want to drown in a sea of unwritten words.

I could point to plenty of reasons why I had a hard time keeping up. The day when I only wrote 298 words was a Monday, the day of the week when I have zero free time. After working a full day, I’m usually eating dinner while walking around the kitchen, making sure one kid does his homework and the other practices piano—and then I run out to a choir rehearsal that takes up the rest of the night, then straight to bed with my alarm set for 4:30 am. I’m the type of person who takes personal goals seriously, so unless I die, I’m not going to sign up for NaNoWriMo and then fizzle out. Fortunately, I knew that I would be off during Thanksgiving week, and guess what? That’s when my daily word count started to go up.

If you’re in the same boat, I’m sorry to say that you only have a couple days to catch up, but I do have three tips that I used this year that really helped me. (If I’d done these in previous years, maybe I would have finished sooner and with a lot less stress.)

1. Let it be messy.

Back during NaNoWriMo 2016, I was really excited about my novel because I’d had this story bouncing around my head since the previous NaNo (when I was already committed to writing the third book of a trilogy). I had scenes already planned and ready to pour from my fingers to the page. But then I got stuck on Day 1 because I didn’t know how to start the dang thing. I must have typed ten different beginnings, only to erase them (big mistake—see #3) and try again… and again… and…

Let’s get real for a minute. While publishing houses and marketing people care very much about the opening of your book—if it isn’t any good, the reader will just put it down and go for something else, right?—you’re nowhere near publication ready when you get done with NaNoWriMo. I mean, that would be like giving birth, changing a few diapers, saying, “I think he’s got this,” and shoving your newborn out into the world to fend for himself. Who does that? (Terrible people and bad writers, that’s who.)

There’s nothing wrong with a cold open. You can come back and make it Pulitzer-worthy later. (Say, after you have 50,000 words down.) Or maybe if you get stuck transitioning from one scene to another, just write a note in the manuscript (“Something amazing happens between flight school and when Jack saves Flight 132!”), and move on to the next part you do know. There’s this thing called the editing process, and I find that a lot of magic happens then. Which leads to point two…

2. Write everything, including the kitchen sink.

I’m a perfectionist. Point #1 is hard for me. And even harder is this one. I want my writing to be meaningful, certainly not fluff or garbage. But guess what, Mama ain’t got time to mess around with getting the story perfect when there are 10,000 words left to type, and the clock’s ticking!

I found myself writing absolute rubbish that I hope never sees the light of day just to keep the story moving—and to keep that word count moving up. Once I made the decision, sitting down to write became a whole lot less daunting because I knew that, come revision time, all this mess would be gone. And who knows? When you’re writing anything and everything semi-stream-of-consciousness style, something brilliant might just pop out, which might have been stifled if you’d been more careful, more discerning, with your output.

What do I mean by writing everything? Well, if your character is a baker, explain the entire process of baking a cake. Maybe tell about his favorite pans and where he bought them (on sale for 30% off). See all those extra words? They count! If you character is sick, explain every gory detail (you know, the ones your grandma tells you, and you wish you could be anywhere else). Explain the disgusting diaper, the allergic reaction, the thousand-step process to assembling the bed from IKEA. Do whatever you have to do to keep the story moving (and you might actually solve a transition scene problem while you’re at it).

3. DON’T DELETE!

Okay, if you see a typo that’s bugging you, fix it. What I’m talking about here is the big stuff, such as an entire scene that you realize, after it’s had time to marinate, is actually not at all the direction your story needs to take. So move on; start a new paragraph, and rewrite it.

That’s exactly what happened to me a few days ago. I realized that if I deleted the scene I’d been so careful to write (kitchen sink and all), I would lose about 1000 words that I desperately needed. I thought about ways I could salvage the scene. Maybe the character would start to do this but then change her mind… and when I tried that, I was able to save about a third of it. Still, that was too much writing to sacrifice. So I highlighted the paragraphs I no longer wanted, changed the font to red so that I would know this is the bad section, and I continued the scene down the new path. I never lost a single word, and now my story is going in the right direction again. I wish I’d thought of this back in 2016!

Bonus tip: don’t give up! You still have time (and the 30th is on a Friday this year, which I think will help a lot of people). Good luck, friends who are still in the trenches. I’ll see you after you’ve won your battle.

What Happened to NaNoWriMo 2017?

Keep Calm and Write On

Who cares about NaNoWriMo 2017 when NaNoWriMo 2018 is right around the corner? Well, usually I update my progress on the previous year’s NaNoWriMo at least a couple times before I even start thinking about the next one. But this year is different.

Yes, I did technically “win” in 2017, writing 50,000 words on a new novel during the month of November. It was the toughest yet, and every year is harder than the last, so that makes 2018 look kind of grim.

While, for all my previous NaNos, I continued writing my novel until the entire book was done (which took more than one month and 50,000 words), I never finished writing 2017’s novel. Part of it was because I focused on editing four other novels almost as soon as I achieved the necessary word-count. But the bigger issue was that my inspiration simply dried up. All my wonderful ideas lost their luster, and the story lost its direction. And honestly, for a couple months, I didn’t even think about it.

With the next NaNoWriMo looming, I had two problems. The first, of course, was that I’d left the last novel unfinished. Unacceptable. And the second problem was that I had absolutely no idea what to write this November.

Then, for some reason, NaNoWriMo 2017 started plaguing me. I don’t mean that I was overwhelmed with guilt for not finishing it. Rather, its characters started reminding me of their existence at a time that wasn’t exactly convenient. They developed the oh-so-annoying trait of taking on lives of their own—when I wasn’t even writing! This one guy won’t stay despicable; he’s actually gaining dimension. Backstories are coming to the front.

This, I realized, could be a two-part solution. By life “interfering” and allowing me some space, my book developed in a way it couldn’t have if I’d insisted on plugging away at it. I hadn’t given up; I’d let it simmer. And now, I know exactly what I’m going to write this year.

Yes, a lot of the novel is largely written, but I have the feeling that much of it is going to end up consigned to the editing room floor. What I do write this year is going to be original or reconstructed from memory only. If I look at last year’s manuscript at all, it will only be to story-line check—no copying and pasting, I promise. I will start November at zero words, and I’m determined to end with 50,000. And once I’ve reached that goal, I will allow myself to merge the two novels, if still applicable.

Don’t let a novel that seems to have failed get you down. Stay creative, friends.

The Little Story That Could

Never Give Up

It’s actually not a “little” story at all. In fact, according to an article I read years ago, at over 153,000 words, my novel would be considered by some to be a super novel.

I’m talking about my yet-to-be-titled NaNoWriMo 2016 novel, which I just finished minutes ago.

I’ve been waiting to make the “I finished!” announcement for a while. I thought that I would finish on my spring break, which was over two weeks ago. And I did spend two days in a row typing over 10,000 words, which got me a lot closer to finishing, but as I’ve learned with my novels, they never cooperate. They’re like children, each of them different, each with its own set of challenges. Good lord was this one unruly. It’s the longest of my NaNoWriMo books, and it’s taken the longest to write. I thought, at the outset, that it might be more of a novella, that I might not have enough story to fill out NaNoWriMo’s 50,000-word minimum. Ha!

I’ve adopted a motto from one of my favorite movies, Galaxy Quest: “Never give up, never surrender!” I know that NaNoWriMo considers WriMos winners if they successfully write 50,000 words from scratch during the month of November, but when I first undertook the challenge in 2013, I decided that I was done with leaving manuscripts incomplete. Even if the book will never see the light of day, I have to at least finish it, give it the chance to someday be edited into shape.

So that’s what I’ve done four times now. It’s a personal goal, but one in which I take pride. Years ago, when I was enrolled in a fiction workshop in college, one of our assignments was to write a piece of short fiction and have it critiqued by our classmates. The second part of this assignment, upon which our final grades were dependent, was to then take the critiques of our classmates and edit our stories. Some critiques were worthless, some priceless. But the assumption was that none of us walked in with perfectly crafted pieces; there’s always room for improvement. One day, nearing the end of the semester, I overheard one of these classmates pouring out his woes to our professor, how he “just wasn’t feeling it.” Yeah, I’ve had manuscripts like that. There’re lots of them, sitting in files that I haven’t touched in years. But when someone assigns me a task—especially for a college class!—I do my best to complete it. I couldn’t believe the nerve of this guy, saying that he couldn’t do what was required, yet he still expected a pass.

Whenever I feel like giving up on a story, I think of him and what a lousy excuse he made, and I realize that I’m not going to do something lame like that, even if I’m only myself letting down. I didn’t spend months on this to just give up. I haven’t put off editing other pieces that desperately need attention for nothing. I fought writer’s block and wrote… maybe not like a boss, but like someone who takes writing seriously. It’s not about producing something perfect. It’s not even about following an outline to fruition (conflict introduced—check! love interest refuted—check!). It’s about giving the story the chance to have its say—especially if it ends nothing like what I expected at the start.

I finished, and now I have the satisfaction of another novel under my belt. I haven’t let myself down. Breathe, edit, repeat.

 

The Book Birth Plan

 

Keep Calm and Write On

If you read my last post, it was all about birthing a book. And since NaNoWriMo loometh, it’s time to talk about book birth plans.

Oh, she means outlines, you might think.

But no, in fact, I don’t.

Outlines are key for writing non-fiction manuscripts, in which the author needs to present information in an organized format, but fiction is a whole different animal.

In my novel-writing experience, outlines kill creativity. I’ve written a couple novels that stuck right to the outlines I prepared for them. I would write a scene, then have to look and see what to write next. I didn’t write anything without consulting the outline first because I was afraid of messing up what I wanted to happen later in the plot, but the result was that they read like someone dragging the novels along against their wills. Those novels are now collecting virtual dust because I haven’t touched them in years.

There is a time to tidy up your mess of a novel, and it’s the next stage: editing. When writing, it’s good to have bullet points, things that you know need to happen over the course of the story, but I am here to say that some of the scenes I thought were the most important at the start of a book ended up on the cutting room floor.

If you’re querying and have to provide an outline, you should create it from a book you’ve already written, not the other way around. But that’s not to say that I think books—especially serial novels—should be written without any direction whatsoever. This is where the book birth plan comes in.

If you’ve ever had a baby and tried to have a birth plan, you’re probably laughing. From experience, I can tell you that birth plans are often tossed out with the bath water (just not with the baby). It’s more about comforting the soon-to-be parents by letting them think they have control than actually checking off every box on the list.

So if you’re gearing up to start your novel on November first, what would your “birth plan” look like? How will you know you’re ready to tackle this huge task?

I have a file for “notes” for every one of my NaNoWriMo novels. For my first, I didn’t even decide to participate until late October, so there was no time to plan at all. I had a few scenes in my head and just let the story flow with a vague idea of what I wanted to happen. Once I started writing, I wrote notes, like a quick reference guide, so I wouldn’t have to scroll through the entire document to remember something like a character’s birthday.

The next two years, I had notes already written before I started, so I had a general idea of where the books were going, but like having a baby, they certainly didn’t cooperate with all my expectations. The one thing I wish I’d done with the third book in particular was to decide on how to begin the thing. That little hiccup had me stuck in front of a blank document for a long time.

So write notes, by all means, like how to start your book (who’s narrating? where does it happen? etc.). You can scrap that scene or put it somewhere else later, but at least it will get you rolling.

If you’re dying to write a scene but know you can’t until November, jot down the parts you don’t want to forget: “Brenda runs into her ex at the store”; “Josh’s future plans change when he doesn’t make it onto the football team.” Your character(s) may have a complicated family tree, or you may have a timeline that jumps all over the place. Write these down if you’re afraid you’ll forget, but don’t stay married to them! Therein lies the trap. Read over your “plan” before you start typing on November first, but then set it aside, and write whatever wants to be written. You may discover that your story has some surprises that you never imagined—and that wouldn’t be realized if you stuck to a rigid plan.

This year, I know how I’m going to start the book and certain events that I want to happen, but this one is more about the characters than the plot. And there is every possibility that these characters will be difficult. Actually, I kind of hope that they are. Since I won’t actually be having a baby, it should be fun to see how far this story deviates from the “plan.”

Why Not Sign Up for Camp NaNoWriMo?

Fiction Fix Typewriter

For those who may be learning about Camp NaNoWriMo for the first time, it’s offered twice a year – the months of April and July – as a kind of warm up for the biggie, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in November.

Last year, I finished editing my previous NaNoWriMo novel at the end of June and signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo in July to work on an old, unfinished manuscript. This past April, I signed up again to work on a different novel that I’d started in December.

So why am I writing this when it’s almost halfway through July? To be honest, I almost gave up on the idea of participating this time. No, I haven’t finished the novel I worked on in April (although I did achieve the word count goal I set for myself). What happened is that I came up against a writer’s roadblock that I’ve written about numerous times: the mid-novel slump.

There is little more frustrating for a writer than knowing how your novel will end but then getting lost on the way. It reminds me of the family vacation we recently took, in which my GPS simply wouldn’t believe that our destination was on Sugarloaf Road. It was glad to take us to an empty field on Sugarloaf Mountain Road. While it’s a little misadventure we can laugh about now (and others who have been mislead by GPS can commiserate), at the time, it was aggravating because we knew where we wanted to be, just not how to get there.

Of course, with my novel, I can’t blame GPS. I was cruising along just fine and decided on the perfect twist to give my story more tension. The only problem was that I wrote myself into a hole in which I couldn’t write myself out.

Not knowing what else to do, I committed a big no-no: I went back to the beginning and started editing. Although it’s cost me a lot of time, I’m glad that I did. I’d written quite a few things that I’d forgotten, so I took notes along the way. I also trimmed a lot of extraneous words. And as I went, I realized what I would have to do when I got to that problematic scene that had effectively stopped my forward momentum: I would have to cut it.

There’s still tension, just not nearly as much. Although my scene isn’t the shocker that I originally planned, it’s no longer stalling the manuscript. It meant cutting 20 pages out that I spent days writing, but sometimes that’s what you have to do. I’m just glad that I’m moving forward again.

So now that I know what I’m doing, even though it’s 13 days in, I’m signing up for Camp NaNoWriMo. I am giving myself a low word count goal (12,000 words) because I hope that’s all it takes to finish this novel. Knowing my propensity for verboseness, it’ll likely be longer, but that’s okay. It’s often the scenic route that is most memorable.

 

Summer 2015 Writing

So far, summer 2015 has been one of the best summers in recent memory. My husband and I aren’t big summer vacation people. In fact, other than weekend trips to visit his parents, we haven’t taken a big summer vacation since our honeymoon 11 years ago.

When we decided to spend two weeks in the Pacific Northwest, I thought we were crazy. We’re not the type of people to just leave for two weeks. But aside from taking our hot Florida weather with us to Washington State, it was a great time away from home with our family.

During the first half of our trip, I was a little anti-social. (Let’s be honest, I’m anti-social anyway, but this time it was because I had a deadline to meet.) I spent most of my down time polishing my NaNoWriMo 2014 novel for submission to CreateSpace. As a NaNo winner, I was eligible to claim two free copies of my book, but I had to have it submitted and approved before midnight EDT on June 30th. On the west coast, that meant I had to be done by 9:00 P.M., and I was nervous about pushing it that late. Last year, I had my novel submitted in plenty of time, but CreateSpace’s approval process took almost 24 hours, and by then, it was too late to get two free copies.

This year, my goal was to submit my manuscript on June 28th. I didn’t achieve that goal, but that’s because I decided to submit more than just the 2014 novel. Since it was the sequel of my 2013 novel, I included both novels in the same volume. The 2013 novel has gone through significant revisions since last year, and my beta readers for the sequel will need to read the new version of the first novel in order for the story to make sense. So I finished editing and formatting both books, then submitted them on the evening of the 29th.

When CreateSpace sent me the book preview, it was with a note that they couldn’t publish it because there were three blank pages in the middle. After hours of frustration (because my copy didn’t have three blank pages), I figured out a way to eliminate the blank pages on their end. I submitted the new version after one in the morning, went to sleep, and woke up to see that it was perfect – except for the headers. Since there are two novels in one volume, I thought it would be helpful to have the titles listed in the headers, but after making the change that eliminated the three pages, apparently the second header was deleted. Oh well. I went with it rather than risk fixing the problem, only for it to go past the deadline. These are just beta copies, after all, and I finally got my two free copies.

NaNoWriMo 2013 2014

It was an immediate relief to have that project behind me. I spent a few days filling my free time with reading. But then it happened – the itch to write again. After giving my creative juices a few days to percolate, I started looking through my unfinished manuscripts for something I could sink my teeth into.

Then I found it – a book that I started writing years ago and that I come back to every once in a while. I’ve written a scene here, a scene there. It’s not even a skeleton of a book yet, but it’s something. I read through everything I had – about 60 pages in a Word document – and decided I wanted to dig in and really get something done with this story.

I was surprised with how easy it was to sit down and just write. It’s a great feeing – one that I’ve only been able to capture during National Novel Writing Month the past couple years. There’s a reason that I have so many unfinished manuscripts, and it’s that I’ll start with a lot of inspiration, and then my Muse will just abandon me. It’s wonderful to have the motivation back.

So wonderful that, after several days of writing and having no inclination to stop, I decided I might as well sign up for Camp NaNoWriMo. I have friends who sometimes participate in Camp NaNoWriMo in April or July, but I never wanted to do it before. I’m always too busy editing and revising. But this year, while I wait for my beta readers to give me their critiques, I want to be productive. There’s nothing better than writing because I want to – and having the time to do it. I might as well enjoy it because I’ll be working full-time in November and don’t know if I’ll be able to make the 50,000 word minimum.

For anyone else who’s interested, Camp NaNoWriMo allows you to set your own goal (I think the minimum is 10,000 words). My manuscript was already at 20,000 when I started, so I set my goal for 35,000 by the end of July. As of today, I only have 10,000 words to go, and I think I have enough momentum to maybe even finish this book.

Happy writing!

Done!

The setup for NaNoWriMo at home, if I need to ...

Ready to Write (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever had a goal that seems to hover just out of reach? I’m talking about those last five pounds that you can’t shed, that last $1000 of debt that hangs over your head, that last month of pregnancy when everyone assumes you should’ve had the baby, yet you feel like it’s never going to happen.

I’ve been through all of those and more, but that’s not what I’m talking about this time. Nope, I’m talking about a writing goal.

That’s right, it’s the end of NaNoWriMo for Sarah!

If you happen to know what NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is, you’re likely thinking, Aren’t you a couple months late, Sarah?

Yeah, yeah. I know that NaNoWriMo was officially over when the clock struck midnight, marking the end of November and the beginning of December. And I’d already “won,” which means that I wrote a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. (Actually, I wrote just over 61K.) But that didn’t mean I was done telling the story.

Last year, I also didn’t “finish” in November. I was certainly on a roll, writing 80,000 words in 30 days, but it took me 10 days into February to finish the first draft. I never slowed down the whole time; there was just so much story to tell.

This year’s NaNo was the sequel to last year’s. For months, I looked forward to continuing the story, but when it came to November, I struggled. I had the initial outpouring, which lasted for several thousand words, but after that, it was as if my muse had gone on vacation and at precisely the worst time.

So I “won” because I won’t sign up for something and then give up. But it was hard. I felt like the majority of what I wrote was just crap that would end up on the cutting room floor. I knew that if this were just any old novel, I would let it sit on the back burner and wait for my inspiration to return. I’m the queen of unfinished novels; I have more half-done manuscripts than I care to think about, and although I hate to admit it, I know that many of them will remain incomplete.

The difference with NaNoWriMo is that, after working so hard to get 50,000 words out, it seems like such a waste to just let the manuscript sit, unfinished. Even though it took two-plus extra months last year, I finished, and I think it’s the best novel I’ve ever written. And since this year’s novel was the sequel, I had to keep going.

Since it was such a tough book to write, I figured it would wrap up quickly and likely well under 100,000 words. Then I could sit back for a month, let it percolate a little, then return and make it worth reading after a hefty revision. To my surprise, a number of brainwaves hijacked my story when I thought I should be long done. The muse was back, although a month late. I continued writing and could see the end, but I couldn’t seem to reach it.

This past week, I had a couple 3000-word nights. My word count raced past 100,000 and didn’t look back. But still, I wasn’t done. I’d already told myself that I would absolutely finish this week. January is the month I had set aside to finish editing 2013’s novel and start querying agents, and here it is the 24th. I couldn’t let the 2014 novel hang over my head any longer. (Plus, I needed something to blog about.)

So last night, after the kids got to bed, I sat down and did some serious writing – 7000 words, to be exact. I’d joked with my husband that it would likely be a 2:00 A.M. bedtime. In reality, it was after 3:30. But I finished! I am worn out but feel so accomplished. I finally caught up to my goal, and I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it yet.

Now I get a month off from that book. And at the end of that month, I’ll go back and do a lot of cringing and cutting, and hopefully I’ll end up with a manuscript that’s at least 20,000 words shorter and worth sharing.

And in the meantime… I need a nap.