10 Writing Tips from NaNoWriMo

Last week I reflected on my first time through the NaNoWriMo experience. One month to produce a novel. I enjoyed it. The discipline confirmed some lessons in the craft and gave me new insights on others. So here are my top 10 tips from NaNo. Useful, I think, whatever your normal pace.
1. Loosen Up
If we’re not careful with our writing we can get too tentative about it. We write too carefully at times. The old “inner editor” gets bolder and louder. Writing fast under a looming deadline forces you to free yourself. Which is a good thing. Even now, after NaNo, I feel my normal daily writing is a little freer. For this reason alone, NaNo was worth it.
2. Study the Craft
I benefitted from having novel structure wired into me. For example, whenever I’d reach a point where I wasn’t sure what to write, I’d take a moment and think about my Lead character’s objective. Then I’d start a scene where the Lead takes steps to solve the problem. I’d find the material coming to me as I needed it.
Lesson: Keep studying the craft when you’re not writing. Then when you start putting down the words, you’ll be doing some of the right things by instinct. We don’t tell somebody to just go out to the golf course and start swinging. You can kill somebody that way. We try to get them to practice and drill, and then try to have some fun when actually playing.
3. Bring in the Unexpected
When writing a scene, if things were slowing down or conflict was lagging, I’d ask the boys in the basement to send up something that was the equivalent of Raymond Chandler’s admonition to just “bring in a guy with a gun.”
Peter Dunne, author of Emotional Structure, gives similar advice. “If you think things are slowing down then throw something at your hero that forces him to run like hell.”
I did this a number of times and it worked every time.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Skip Around in Your First Draft
I would sometimes leave one scene and jump to another scene and work on that. Then I’d go back to the previous scene and find my mind had been working on it subconsciously.
I had a special folder in Scrivener called “Random Scenes.” This is where I’d start writing a scene that came to mind, but had no idea where it would go. Some of my best writing is there, and will find its way into the book.
5. Write Everywhere
I wrote mostly in my home office, but sometimes I’d strap my AlphaSmart to my back and walk or ride my bike to Starbucks and work there for awhile. I had a doctor’s appointment, and tapped out 300 words in the waiting room. I wrote on the subway going downtown, and in my car waiting in a parking lot. And on the treadmill, of course.
I snatched time, rested, snatched more time. Taking breaks was important between intense spurts. I’d lie on the floor with my feet up for ten or fifteen minutes. Then I’d put on rock music or suspense soundtracks and pump up the volume and write.
Those of you who have trouble finding time to write, cut out some non-essentials. Do you really have to watch Dancing With the Stars? And then snatch time to write.
6. Like Voting in Chicago, Write Early and Often
Get as much writing done as you can, as early as you can. I tell writers to follow the “Nifty 350” or “Furious 500” plan. That is, get 350 or 500 words done the very first thing in morning. Get them out of the way, and your quota seems less daunting.
7. Don’t Be Afraid
By its very design, NaNoWriMo forces you to let the story lead. You’re not always going to be able to stick to a plan. Even if you’re an outliner by nature, you have to be ready for organic rabbit trails to emerge in front of you, and have the courage to follow them. But if you do, you’re liable to find gold at the end. This happened for me several times. 
8. Journal Daily
Keep a running journal. Sue Grafton does this for all her books. It’s like a letter you type to yourself each day, asking where you are in the story, jotting down some ideas that have percolated in the night. Just five minutes of this is worth it. You stimulate something in your mind this way, and get ideas you don’t get by just waiting around.
9. Let Things Cool Before You Revise
That’s what I’m doing right now. I’ll print out a full outline (again, something Scrivener lets you do) then do a read through of my full draft.
10. Enjoy Being a Writer
I said last week that I felt the joy of just pure writing again. That’s one of the things I like best about NaNoWriMo. It celebrates the experience and discipline of writing. And we need all the joy we can get in this crazy racket.
My advice to you writers out there is this: start planning ahead for next November. Give NaNoWriMo a shot. Go to their website and sniff around. Read some of the “pep talks” given by well known authors.
Try it once. Even on the sly. No one will have to know but you.
But I’m betting you’ll have fun and will come out of it a better writer.

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Write On

by James Scott Bell

It takes courage to write.

Not the kind of courage that a soldier displays going into battle, or a firefighter reveals charging into a burning building. That’s elevated courage, the kind that deserves to be honored in our culture. I’m not getting anywhere near to describing that kind of guts.

I’m talking about the non-lethal world, where it takes a degree of courage to do almost anything worth doing. Because for every enterprise of note there are critics and doubters, scoffers and jeerers, ready to pour acid rain on your parade.

It takes courage to write because obstacles and doubts come in many forms and build big brick walls to try to stop your progress.

Dick Simon (of Simon & Schuster) once said, “All writers are scared to death. Some simply hide it better than others.”

And what a couple of weeks it’s been for writers here on TKZ. We’ve had talks about the e-book tsunami and book price wars. We’ve chatted about branding and tried to figure out what makes readers buy books. We’ve had veteran writers sharing openly about their mistakes and the ramifications thereof.

And we all know the publishing business is in major shakeup mode right now. Trying to predict the future of the industry is sort of like trying to judge the family prospects of guests on Jerry Springerβ€”can any relationship survive?

With all this going on, any writer – new or established – can start to wonder: Is the dream worth it? Do I have any chance of getting published? Staying published? Am I good enough? Am I a fraud? Are the odds too great?

Every true writer faces questions like this. And every true writer finds a way to dig down and write on.

Over a fifteen year writing career (twenty if you toss in the uncompensated beginnings) I’ve faced all the same doubts. Through trial and error I worked out a few ways to keep on keeping on. Maybe one of these will help next time you feel like throwing in the towel.

1. Think in terms of one more page. Don’t ponder the future or replay the past. Don’t stew about the industry or the myriad things you can’t control. Think about the work in front of you. Get that page done, then move on to the next. Establish a quota system and stick to it. The writing itself becomes the best way out of the bog of doubt.

2. Get some visual motivation. When I decided I was going to be a writer no matter what, I went out and bought a black coffee mug with Writer written in gold across it. A little corny, sure, but I didn’t care. I wanted to earn the right to be called a writer, and seeing the cup daily reminded me of the commitment I’d made.

In my office now I have pictures of three writers I admire.

The first is of Stephen King, in his home office, feet up on the desk, looking over a manuscript. He’s dressed casually. His dog is under his legs, looking at the camera.

This is my idea of the good life.

Then there’s a picture of John D. MacDonald, tapping away at his typewriter, pipe in mouth. He was prolific (his biography is entitled Red Hot Typewriter) and a master of story and style.

The photo reminds me to keep producing words.

Finally, I have a picture of Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, from the back of one of his novels, arms folded, staring out as if in challenge. He was even more prolific than MacDonald, writing both literary and genre novels.

If I’m not working hard enough, his glare reminds me to get going again.

3. Go to a bookstore and browse. Look at author photos and dust jackets. See what’s come out lately. If you can, make it an independent bookstore, and buy a book from them. They are folks who love books and are struggling mightily right now. Show a little support, then go back to your keyboard and write.

4. Re-read some favorites. I have a shelf of novels I especially love. Sometimes I’ll take one down at random and start reading. I get inspired again with the pure joy of what writing can be. Then I try to make some magic happen on my own page.

5. Remember what Satchel Paige once said: “Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.”

What about you? What are your favorite ways to keep going? Or are you a writer who has no doubts at all?

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