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.

It Feels Like a Good Day to Write 50,000 Words

NaNoWriMo 2017 Badge

Okay, first off, I didn’t write 50,000 words today. As of this moment, I’ve written 2650 words today, but right around word 2550, I had 50,000 in my word bank, which means that I won NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) 2017!

If you read my last post (click here), you know that I was really taking a giant leap this year, working with little more than an idea I’d gotten from a dream. (And my husband can attest that some of my dreams are really strange and don’t necessarily lend themselves to coherent narratives.)

NaNoWriMo 2017 graph

NaNoWriMo 2017 Word Count Graph

Add to that the challenge of this November’s brutal lack of free time, and I was lucky to keep up with the requisite 1667 words per day. In fact, I only kept up through day 15, as you can see in the 2017 graph. That nice diagonal line that’s going up? The bar for every day needs to reach that diagonal line in order to keep up with the word count. As you can see, I took a little dip for a few days. There was even one day when I only typed 201 words. Yikes.

And this was uncharted territory for me. Never before have I fallen behind. Usually I’m just ahead (see my 2016 graph below—and I thought that novel was hard to write), but sometimes I’m way ahead. (See 2013—doesn’t that make you sick? I don’t know how I managed that except to say that I had inspiration strike just about every day.)

NaNoWriMo 2016 graph

NaNoWriMo 2016 Word Count Graph

NaNoWriMo 2013 graph

NaNoWriMo 2013 Word Count Graph

On Thanksgiving evening, my dad asked me what my word count was, and at the time, it was only about 33,500 (which I admitted with a cringe). Already, I had a plan to write 2500 that night and the following three nights, which would put me at 43,500 before I had to go back to work and reality on Monday. That would allow me to breathe a little, and I would only have to write a little over 2000 words for the next three days, thus giving me a tiny bit of cushion, and I would validate on the 29th.

Now it’s time to admit to why I had fallen so far behind, something that’s a huge NaNoWriMo no-no. About 25,000 words in, I realized I had a major flaw in my (half-written) novel and decided that, instead of tackling it in the editing stage, I would go ahead and fix it. Yep. That’s the OCD at work. Of course, I used the opportunity, while going back, to add scenes and fluff when- and wherever I could, but a lot of it was just reading, looking for the flaw, and fixing it.

Thanksgiving night, I decided I couldn’t afford to edit anymore, fast-forwarded to the end of my story, and just started typing thousands of words of info-dump back story. Yes, much of it will be woven into the larger story, so it won’t seem as dump-y in the end (I hope), but for now, I just need the words. (I even left in an entire scene that really needs to go, but I’m being a good girl and ignoring it for now.)

By Friday, I felt like I had enough words down that I went back and finished the edit, then started moving forward again. Yesterday, the epiphanies started to hit—finally! it only took 40,000 word to get there—and I wrote over 7000 words in one day. Whew. I can’t tell you the relief I feel. Meeting today’s word count was a breeze, and now the rest of my writing won’t feel as much “have to” as “want to.”

So if you’re stuck, if you can’t see the light at the end of your tunnel, stick with it! I promise you’ll be glad you ventured into the scary, dark unknown of your novel-in-progress. It’s Rainbow-Unicornland on the other side.

It’s Almost November! (This Happens Every Year)

02-scariest-moment

I’ve come to the critical time of October when the anticipation of National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo, aka November) is putting me in an almost constant state of anxiety/excitement. Part of me wonders why I do this to myself—after all, couldn’t I pick any 30 days during the calendar year to start a novel from scratch and complete 50,000 words? Now that I’m working a full-time job for the first time in almost 10 years, the pressure is more acute than ever. It certainly would be easier to do this over the summer, when my kids have fewer events that require my attention.

But the greater part of me can’t wait for it to happen. There’s something about November that’s magical. It’s always been this way for me. There’s the possibility of cooler weather (yes, it’s only a possibility in northeast Florida) and the certainty of my favorite holidays ahead. I can bake pumpkin things without feeling weird about it, and I have my kids’ birthdays to look forward to. Even though I’m always crazy-busy and feel like I have zero spare minutes for me, adding this event that is only for me is a challenge to which I eagerly look forward.

Maybe other introverts will understand. Although NaNoWriMo is a community event, what with writers from all over the world participating, introverts are free to sign up and write behind the scenes. Yes, I update my word count online and post about my progress upon occasion, but otherwise, it’s a solitary event. The fact that I’m operating within my little bubble yet still accountable makes me push myself more than I would if I just decided to start a book tomorrow and finish 30 days later.

It presents a different set of challenges. If you’ve read my previous posts about NaNoWriMo over the years, you know that I don’t do a lot of prep. I’m not one for elaborate outlines, plotting every little twist and turn and then filling in the prose on day one. When I first participated in 2013, I had a book-size idea just days before November first and signed up on a whim. The following two years, I wrote books two and three of that trilogy—challenging, but at least I was dealing with characters with whom I was familiar. Last year, I wrote a book about which I’d been thinking for over a year, and I was bursting with ideas. Although every year after the first has been a challenge, I’ve always won.

This year’s novel… well, it’s going to be a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants composition. The premise is based on a dream I had several months ago. (Other writers, do you do this? Turn your dreams into stories?) I woke up and wrote down some elements and decided that another idea I’d had for a character quirk would work well with that scenario… and that’s it. It’s basically a scene. And a scene from the end, best I can tell. How do I start this thing? How do I build the characters and get them where they need to be and make it readable?

In the end, I don’t have to. That’s a challenge for the editing stage, which is months away. I have to hold all my thoughts together for a few more days and then let them flow from my brain to my fingertips and into Word starting on November first. If all I do is string together 50,000 words of scenes, I will win. Maybe I’ll surprise myself. Maybe golden prose will flow forth, and… who am I kidding? The manuscript is sure to be disjointed and chaotic, and this OCD girl is ready to embrace the messiness of it (with rubber gloves on, of course). Stay tuned.

 

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.

 

NaNoWriMo 2016 Wrap Up

nanowrimo-winner-2016-badge

I had a hard enough time believing it was already November—and that was over a month ago. It’s always one of the busiest months of my year, thanks in part to NaNoWriMo. Now that we’re several days into December, I have to remind myself daily that I can relax—I no longer need to achieve a certain word count every day.

Still, even though I “won” a minute before midnight on November 23rd, that’s just a step on the path to finishing my novel. When I first learned about NaNoWriMo in 2012 (the year before I started participating), I wrote a post entitled “What Happens After NaNoWriMo?” I wanted to know if people called it quits after reaching 50,000 words or if they kept with their novels until the end (assuming their novels didn’t end at exactly 50,000 words).

As for me, I keep plugging away after 50,000 words (however long it takes). Otherwise, I would have quit after day 14 my first year. Winning to me isn’t just writing 50,000 words—it’s continuing until the story is finished telling itself. Last year, which was the most challenging so far, it took until day 27 to “win,” but it took months to finish the first draft. The experience made me tackle this year’s NaNoWriMo with more purpose.

I’ve slowed down since December first, though. Part of it is the pure craziness that is December. (Perhaps this is why no one was foolish enough to put it in December—who would have the time?) The first day of the month, when I was already up an hour later than usual, I sat down and typed 100 words, just so I wouldn’t feel guilty about leaving my novel hanging for a day.

Without November looming over me anymore, it’s a lot easier to procrastinate—even though I’m one story-day away from the scene I’ve been imagining for over a year. I’m getting hung up on things like voice. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m using four first person narrators this time. It’s what this story needs, but the problem is differentiating the narrators from one another. While this is really an issue for the editing stage, I can’t help but let the worry creep in that I should be doing a better job up front.

The other day, when writing the youngest of these characters, she said something that seemed particularly her, and I thought, This is it! But now, how to make “this” happen in every section she narrates? In a book I read over the summer, Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun, there are two narrators, twins (brother and sister). These characters are unique and a little peculiar, but their individual peculiarities shine through in such a way that it’s easy to pick out who is narrating without being told whose section it is.

I love how discovery happens through reading someone else’s story. I dream of inspiring someone with one of my own stories someday—but it’s not going to happen if I don’t go ahead and write—no matter how ragged the first draft is.

A Minor Miscalculation

I can’t believe we’re past the halfway point of November, and I’m just now blogging about NaNoWriMo. Some years, I’ve blogged about it on a weekly basis. This year, however, I’ve had even more obstacles than usual. (Seems like I always say that—but it’s true!)

November is a crazy-busy month in the Full-Time Writer Mom’s house. We have all the usual Thanksgiving stuff, plus my elder son’s birthday falls in this month. My husband was out of town all last week, and up until last night, my now-nine-year-old spent up to three nights a week and most Saturday mornings at the baseball field. Add to that the community chorus of which my husband and I are members and the children’s choir that my kids joined this fall, and my “life” has become something lived in five-minute spurts. By the time the kids are in bed at night, I’m wrung out and useless. Clean my house? What’s that? Write in my journal? It’s collecting dust. Oh, there’s one thing I have done: I’ve spent the last six weeks cramming for the final test I needed to complete my professional teacher certification. I took that test today, and—hallelujah!—I passed. So now, with fall ball over and the test behind me, I can finally devote more of my very divided attention to my novel—and even take a few minutes to blog about it. (Note that my house still isn’t clean, and we’re going to have a to cram a Christmas tree in here sometime soon.)

As for this year’s novel, I’m doing something I’ve never done before—I’m writing with multiple first person points of view. I assumed that I would write third person omniscient, but I kept reverting to first person present. The only way I could still tell the story I wanted was to expand beyond my usual one-narrator perspective. This is a challenge on a couple levels, the first of which is differentiating the character’s voices. Fortunately, this is something I should be able to address (for the most part) in the editing stage. The second challenge is simply remembering who the narrator is. Although I title each section with the narrator’s name, sometimes I get a few paragraphs in and forget—thus turning my poor character into a split personality (often turning into the very character he or she is talking about).

Add to this a new obstacle that I created out of thin air this year—a totally (unintentionally) fabricated word count. Let me first explain with this graphic:

english-major-shirt

Okay, actually, I’m not bad at math. (Mind you, we’re not talking about calculus.) I’m a treasurer for a non-profit as well as a part-time bookkeeper for my family’s small business, so it’s very important that I’m competent in the basics and then some.

I’ve always prided myself in equal use of both sides of my brain: I’m creative and OCD; I can have conversations with my characters and format Excel spreadsheets; I’m a writer with a fairly good head for arithmetic. I’m generally a walking, talking contradiction, but, boy, did I live up to the assumption that writers can’t add earlier this month.

I’m going to chalk this one up to all that busyness that I wrote about at the beginning of this post. Why tack NaNoWriMo onto a schedule that already keeps me out late every weeknight? Well, because I can’t imagine not participating in NaNoWriMo. Believe me, I once thought it was crazy. (See my first NaNoWriMo post from 2012.) As I pointed out to my husband at the beginning of the month, I get a week-long break at Thanksgiving, so even if I’m abysmally behind, that’s a great time to catch up.

On the evening of November 1st, I got to around 1180 words, and I felt pretty good about myself—I’d just typed 1100 words more than I thought I would. I then told Thomas that I would need to type about 2700 words a day in order to finish by the November 30th deadline. If I’d paused to think for even half a second, I would have realized that 2700 words per day for 30 days was even more insane than the idea of starting and finishing a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. Something did strike me as kind of funny—2700 didn’t seem to be the right number—but I just figured I was rounding up from 2667, and that’s why it seemed off.

It wasn’t until day two that I remembered that if I type my word count into NaNoWriMo.org, it’ll give me all kinds of cool stats, like how far behind I am, how many words a day I need to finish, etc. So I plugged in my word count for the first two days and then looked at their cool little chart. Imagine my surprise when I saw that I was actually ahead. I was only off by…oh… a thousand when it comes to the word count. Can you imagine making a similar mistake on something actually important—like a mortgage? Sheesh. Thank goodness the mistake was in my favor.

The good news is that I now know I only have to type around 1700 words per day, and 18 days in, I’m averaging about 1800. While it’s less per day than the last three years, I’m still sticking to the hope that the week ahead will prove productive. Even with all the new challenges of NaNoWriMo 2016, I already feel like a winner.