How to Write a Novel in a Month

Next month is the annual writing frenzy known as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. It’s not without its critics, and my blogmates and I have covered this action before.  
I extol the virtues of NaNoWriMo. The novel I wrote in November of 2010 was one I had under contract. It became, after editing of course, THE YEAR OF EATING DANGEROUSLY.
There are similar stories. Hugh Howey wrote his novella WOOL during that same NaNo year. The dang thing has sold in the hundreds of thousands as an ebook, and got optioned by Ridley Scott.
That’s a lightning strikes once or twice kind of thing, and most writers are not going to have that kind of out-of-the-gate success, but that’s almost beside the NaNo point. The point is to get you to get your story down, fast and furious (I wish that term hadn’t been purloined by political culture), and unleash the writer within. It’s to give you a sense of the value of finishing an entire novel (even though it will need massive editing).
As the great Robert B. Parker said, “A writer’s job is to produce.” NaNo is one month of pure production.
Here are ten tips to help you get the most out of it this year:
1. Take a week to plan
Use one week for creative brainstorming and organizing. I don’t mean you have to have a complete outline. In fact, it’s probably better that you don’t. NaNo works best when you let the book breathe and dance on its own.
But you also shouldn’t start out with a blank slate. A few, simple steps will get you to a much stronger story. Use my LOCK System (explained more fully in Plot & Structure).
LEAD. Spend a day brainstorming about your Lead character, backstory, goals and dreams. What is it about your Lead that will make readers want to keep reading?
OBJECTIVE.Be sure that the story objective involves some form of death: physical, professional or psychological. That is, your second act (the bulk of your novel) has to have the highest stakes possible. Take a day to brainstorm reasons your Lead will have to be involved. Think about moral or professional duty as a possible motivation.
CONFRONTATION. Now spend just as much care with your opposition character as you do with your Lead. Remember, the opponent does not have to be evil, just have an oppsoing agenda (think Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive).However, if you do want to use a villain, be fair to him. Justify his actions (at least in his own mind). Don’t create a stereotype.
KNOCK-OUT ENDING. This will no doubt be subject to change, but it’s good to have a destination in mind. How do you want the reader to feel at the end? Will your Lead be victorious? Sacrificial? Spend a day messing around with actual scene possibilities for the climax. Choose one as your “go to” scene, knowing you can toss it out as the novel progresses.
Then spend a day planning your TIME. Look at your schedule and block out every free chunk you can. Determine to cut as many distractions as possible during November. DVR favorite shows. Put an auto-responder on your email. Explain to friends that you’re taking time off. Go on a “social media” diet. 
2. Choose mood music
Get your iTunes list together, with soundtracks and songs that create the right mood for your story. Make a playlist for different moods. I have an “Energy to Write” list that is full of upbeat rock and movie music. I blast that sometimes to get my blood racing to write.
3. Watch a “movie in your mind” the night before NaNoWriMo begins
On October 31, plan to get a good night’s sleep. Before you do, get to a quiet spot, a comfortable chair. Put your mood music on softly and close your eyes. Now let a “movie” happen in your mind. Watch your story unfold. Don’t force anything. Let scenes happen, nudge your characters but never push them.
When you go to bed, tell “the boys in the basement” to work hard while you snooze.
4. Kill that first day
Make the very first day the most productive day of your writing life. NaNo works out to an average of just over 1600 words a day. Try to blast past it on Day 1. It will give your confidence a boost.
5. Make it your goal to begin each day with a “furious 500.”
Try getting 500 words down the very first thing in the morning (or second, after you start the coffee brewing). If you have to get up half an hour earlier, so be it.
6. Jot down notes just before you go to sleep
Take five minutes (that’s about all you’ll need) before you go to sleep to put down a few notes about what you might write the next day. Think one or two scenes ahead. If you’re feeling stuck, ask this key question: “How can I make things harder on my characters?”
7. Stick to the knitting
By that I mean the main plot. Make this your focus of attention. At 50,000 words, a NaNo novel is short, and cannot support multiple plotlines.
If you find yourself coming up with a subplot idea, jot a few notes and set it aside for a day or two while you’re on your main plot. If another idea occurs to you, jot that one down, too. After a few days, assess the subplots and choose one, only one. The best one. The one with the most possibilities for conflict. Integrate a scene or two. Then press on.
If you use Scrivener, you can color code the subplot scenes to keep track of them. One subplot only!
8. Write a 200 word nightcap
That is, find some time in the evening to write at least 200 more words. That’s not many. This is in addition to the words you write during the day. If you do a furious 500 first thing in the morning, and a 200 word nightcap, you’ve done almost half the words you need for your daily quota.
9. Break off in the middle of sentence
That’s an old Hemingway trick. And he won the Nobel Prize. Stop your writing stint right in the middle of a sentence. When you sit down to it the next day, you’ll be in flow.
10. If you get stuck
You will probably come to a few points where you don’t know what to write next. Fear will grip you like the cold hands of clumsy proctologist. You don’t want to waste too much time fretting over this, so: open a dictionary at random. Find the first noun you see on the left hand page. Start writing something, anything, based on what the noun brings to your mind.
If you’re still stuck, re-watch Misery and imagine that your number one fan insists that you finish by the end of the month.
And through it all, enjoy the vibe. NaNoWriMo is about community as much as it is about seclusion. It’s about ritual as much as product. It’s a month-long vibe and celebration of being a fiction writer. So enjoy it like you’re in some Hindu festival of colors, or at an Oakland Raiders football game. You don’t have to paint your body (though I’m not saying it’s illegal), but it’s fine to put up a NaNo poster or get a tee-shirt, and to interact online with your fellow NaNos. Check out the community website here.
And now, get ready to rock. November is almost upon us. 

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“I” is for Integrity: Sue Grafton and the Self-Publishing Blowback

One of those instant, internet explosions broke out this past week after the great Sue Grafton gave an interviewer some opinions on self-publishing. She said that self-publishing was a “lazy” way out. The interviewer pressed her on that, in light of indie successes like John Locke. Grafton responded:
Obviously, I’m not talking about the rare few writers who manage to break out. The indie success stories aren’t the rule. They’re the exception. The self-published books I’ve read are often amateurish. I’ve got one sitting on my desk right now and I’ve received hundreds of them over the years. Sorry about that, but it’s the truth. The hard work is taking the rejection, learning the lessons, and mastering the craft over a period of time. I see way too many writers who complete one novel and start looking for the fame and fortune they’re sure they’re entitled to. To me, it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research. Learning to construct a narrative and create character, learning to balance pace, description, exposition, and dialogue takes a long time. This is not an quick do-it-yourself home project. Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall. Don’t get me started. Oops..you already did.
Then the indie blowback began. A good example comes from Hugh Howey, author of the hugely successful Wool:
Sue Grafton thinks I’m lazy. Yeah. Hard to swallow when I look at how many hours I pour into my writing career each week (and weekend).
. . . .
Why in the world is this interviewer asking a buggy whip expert about picking out a new car? What does Sue Grafton know about publishing in today’s market and with today’s tools? Judging by this response, she knows absolutely nothing. Less than nothing, in fact. What she thinks she knows is harmful to aspiring writers.
Ms. Grafton saw the coverage, and asked the blog that originally ran her interview for a chance to respond:
The responses to that quote ranged from irate to savage to the downright nasty  Indie writers felt I was discounting their efforts and that I was tarring too many with the same brush. I wasn’t my intention to tar anyone, if the truth be known. Several writers took the time to educate me on the state of e-publishing and the nature of self-publishing as it now stands. I am uninitiated when it comes to this new format. I had no idea how wide-spread it was, nor did I see it as developing as a response to the current state of traditional publishing, which is sales driven and therefore limited in its scope. I understand that e-publishing has stepped into the gap, allowing a greater number of authors to enter the marketplace. This, I applaud.  I don’t mean to sound defensive here…though of course I do.
. . . .
My remark about self-publishing was meant as a caution, which I think some of you finally understood when we exchanged notes on the subject.
Ms. Grafton went on to say she takes “responsibility for my gaffe and I hope you will understand the spirit in which it was meant.” She added, “I am still learning and I hope to keep on learning for as long as I write.”
Good on her for this gracious response. Sue Grafton has always been on the writers’ side, and her initial comments grew out of this advocacy. Indeed, she stated at the very beginning that she wasn’t talking about the “exceptions” who break out.
Which makes her remarks largely valid. Many (not all!) who self-publish do so too soon. For many (not all!) it IS the “lazy” way, as compared to the hard work of learning the craft, getting better, being honest with yourself about your weaknesses and doing everything you can to correct them.
In that respect her view is not harmful. Indeed, it may be the very thing that saves a writer from embarrassing himself, or striking out expecting indie gold only to find canyons of wet dirt . . . and a reason to sit around Starbucks for the rest of his life grousing over his damned bad luck.
No matter how you publish, you have to earn success, and it ain’t easy. When it comes to encouraging self-published writers, I’m not going to offer pie-in-the-writing-sky. I’m going to offer clear and hard-headed advice that has proved itself over time. Advice that gives you a reasonable chance to make a buck, and maybe a living, by writing.
But a big part of that is not to short change yourself by publishing the first thing you finish. Amazon is not the place to throw up your NaNoWriMo project on December 1 every year.
And that is what Sue Grafton was getting at. She is old school, yes. But it was a school with some classic courses, and there is wisdom there to be heeded.
H/T to The Passive Voice for coverage of this controversy. 
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NaNoWriMo Writing Tips

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

So it’s that time of year again – National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) – and I’ve been looking over some of the tips and advice metered out to those willing to give it a go. I thought today I would highlight five of the more useful ones I’ve seen and get feedback on what advice other people have found helpful – because most of this is just as applicable to writers surging ahead with NaNoWriMo as to those of us plodding along at our own pace:)

1. Remove all distractions that clutter both your mind and your desk.

I think one of the hardest things for most aspiring writers to do is to make time to write – and once you have committed to doing this you really have to remove all the things that provide the temptation to procrastinate, get distracted or avoid writing. During NaNoWriMo I notice lots of tips that focus on preparation and inspiration but I think it’s also important not to get caught up in mind maps, name generators, role playing or brainstorming to the point where you aren’t actually writing!

2. Learn from your mistakes (and you’ll make them)

Everyone writes crappy first drafts, includes a few cliches and loses the plot at some time or other. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and turn off that ‘inner editor’ until the first draft is done. I like one of last year’s tips by author Elif Batuman who said ‘everyone has a certain amount of bad writing to get out of their system’ – so get it out!

3. Raise questions early, resolve later on

One of the dullest things you can do is inundate your readers with too much information/answers too early on. You need to entice and intrigue and the best way to do this is by raising questions early on in the book so readers have to keep reading to find out the answers. Of course, this has to be balanced with a well grounded narrative structure, voice, characters and sense of place otherwise readers will merely wonder what the hell is going on:)

3. Constantly raise the stakes

I’ve heard Donald Maas talk about this at writing conferences in terms of making a ‘bigger’ book in which the stakes are the highest they can possibly be for the characters you have developed. A good writer constantly raises the stakes -in each scene and each chapter – to really create a scenario that truly grips the reader. It also helps provide great opportunities for character development – there’s nothing like seeing a character react to a life and death situation to reveal what really makes them tick!

4. Keep the momentum going

Everyone gets stuck at some point in the writing process – whether it be finding inspiration, nutting out a tricky plot question or just trying to find words that don’t totally suck! NaNoWriMo strikes me as the perfect laboratory for exploring all the techniques you need to overcome writer’s inertia. For me inspiration usually comes from rereading the last few chapters so I can get back into the flow or, failing that, take the dog for a walk and free up my imagination. The key is not to spend so much time reinvigorating yourself that you don’t actually sit back down again and write!

5. Don’t Finish

I saw this on GalleyCat’s list from last year and thought this was great advice – “Don’t finish, make it the start of something.”

NaNoWriMo is a great jumping off point for people to make great headway on their novel but then the real hard work of editing and polishing begins. I like to think that for many aspiring writers NaNoWriMo is the start of a beautiful long term relationship with writing rather than just a mere fling:)

So are you doing NaNoWriMo this month? If so, how is it going? What piece of advice has worked best for you?


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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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I Wrote a Novel Last Month


In November, for the first time, I took the NaNoWriMo challenge. In case you still don’t know, that’s National Novel Writing Month, and it has been the subject of some controversy. See here for another rant.
Moderation, IOW, seems in short supply when NaNo comes up in conversation.
So why’d I do it?
For one thing, the timing was right. In October I turned in the first book in a new series. I was due to start outlining the second book anyway. So I thought, what the hey? Let’s try it the NaNoWriMo way. My goal was simple: see what it is like to write this way, and expect that at worst I’d know my story better by the end.
Or, maybe I’d come up with something pretty close to the actual novel I wanted.
Also, some novelist friends of mine got in on the action. The small group included both “pantsers” and “outliners,” all multi-published. I  thought it would be interesting to see how we all came out.
In the days before it began, I actually started to get jazzed, excited about just pure writing for awhile. I think the happiest days of my writing life were when I was unpublished. I was writing for the joy of it. Oh yeah, of course I wanted to be published. But there was something so free and easy about those early efforts. Maybe it was all just a delusion, but if so it was a happy one.
Over the years, writing with contracts and under deadlines, I lost a little of that joy. I never stopped loving writing. Still do. But I’m talking about the feeling I get when body surfing here in So Cal, caught up in a wave and letting it swoosh me all the way to shore.
I thought it would be cool to write with reckless abandon again, to just throw myself out there and take a risk. Usually I do a month or more of planning and outlining, and ease my way into that first draft. I finish a draft in four or five months.
NaNoWriMo was going to get one out of me in thirty days. I wanted to see what it would look like.
I made a few preparations. I looked at my daily schedule and decided to cut down on a bunch of time wasters: Net surfing, blog reading, movie watching, e-mail lingering, news shows. It’s amazing how much time creep there is in these things.
Next, I gave myself a tentative schedule. I’d write my “nifty 350” words first thing in the morning. Just get up and let my subconscious provide the material. I would leave off the previous day’s writing mid-sentence, a la Hemingway, so I could dive right in.
NaNoWriMo shoots for a 50,000 word novel.  My goal was to get to 60,000 words.
I would keep track of my novel by drafting in the stupendous program Scrivener. This would show me –– through color coding and synopses and an “outline view” –– where I was at every stage of the process. It would update me on my word count, and let me jot scene ideas wherever I wanted. And a lot of other things I won’t go into. (Except one very cool feature is you can put your page on any background photo you have. I rigged it so I was writing with the interior of my favorite diner in L.A., Langer’s, in the background. I could almost smell the hot pastrami.)
And so, on Monday, November 1, I began.
On Tuesday, November 30, I finished, with 61,587 words.
So how are those words? I don’t know yet. I’m letting the thing cool, as I advocate in my revision book, and I will actually follow the process I lay down there (yes, he practices what he preaches). But I will tell you that the central plot element, the McGuffin as Hitchcock used to say, popped up spontaneously during one scene and said, “Here I am, pal!” It was awesome. It made the book.
I think there will be many scenes that will stay pretty much as is. I’ll have some fleshing out to do, of course, but the skeleton feels solid.
Next week, I’ll tell you some of the things I learned that may be helpful to writers. But let me say to those who took issue with NaNoWriMo, what’s the beef? So long as people know they’re not first drafting a publishable novel, why would anybody be against writers doing what they’re supposed to do, write? It ain’t that easy to do a fairly coherent 50,000 word story in a month. And my proverbial hat is off especially to those who hit 50k while also holding down a day job or family responsibilities or anything like that. I do this full time. It’s quite another thing to complete the challenge with a packed schedule of other duties. To those of you who made it I say, well done!
I loved doing a novel in a month. I feel a sense of accomplishment, like I finished a 5k or endured the unedited version of Heaven’s Gate.
So I’d love to hear from anyone who gave NaNoWriMo a shot this year. How was it for you?
And those of you who had a problem with it . . . You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?

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In the writing kitchen, what kind of cook are you?

Clare’s post yesterday about NaNoWriMo reminded me of something I wrote awhile back when I was blogging over at Killer Hobbies (KH is a great blog about mysteries that incorporate crafts, by the way). Back then I’d never heard of NaNoWriMo (maybe the contest hadn’t even been invented yet), but I’ve always known I could never survive a rapid writing marathon. Here’s a recap:

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Top Chef on TV this week, but my two obsessions in life—writing and food—have started to converge.

Because I’m on a killer deadline right now, I’ve been doing some stressed-out musing about my personal writing practices. And I’ve decided that as a writing “chef,” I am a slow cooker. You could even call me a crock-pot.

My forward progress through the first draft of a novel is chunky and irregular, like an ice cutter breaking its way across a packed-solid river. There’s the occasional hang-up on the ice as I stall for a few days, working and reworking difficult sections. My average forward progress rarely exceeds a page a day. Barely tugboat speed, in other words.

On the plus side, I write every day. Every day, at the same time of day: before dawn. Over the past year, I’ve missed only two days of writing—once when I was stuck in an airplane (when I fly, I can’t concentrate on anything more challenging than a Danielle Steel novel). And once when I was retching my guts into the toilet from a bout of stomach flu.

As a writer who produces at this relatively stately pace, I reel in shock and awe when I read that some writers can tap out thousands of words a day. In the great writing kitchen of life, these people must be the flash fryers .

My best friend from college is a flash fryer. As a student she redefined the time-honored, collegiate art of procrastination. She’d wait until well past midnight to start a paper that was due at eight a.m. the next morning. Finally, in a Selectric burst of typing and crumpled pages, she’d bang out her essay. And receive an A. One time she procrastinated so long on a paper about Chaka, King of the Zulus, that it endangered her graduation status. We still call it “Chaka time” when one of us is desperately behind on a deadline. (These days, my friend is an uber-successful sitcom writer. And still procrastinating, but man her shows are funny!)

I admire the flash fryers, but I am resigned to chugging along at my crock-pot writing pace. I have to go back (and back, and back) over sections, layering in changes, rethinking descriptors, building connections, to make the prose sing. Or at least, warble.

I figure that no matter what our cooking style, all writers are heading toward the same goal: to serve up sizzling prose to the reader’s table.

What about you? Are you a slow cooker, fast fryer, or something in-between?

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NaNoWriMo Smackdown

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Well, maybe not quite…though there was certainly an online brouhaha when Laura Miller, a columnist at Salon.com, voiced her opinion that the November ‘write a novel in a month’ project was a ‘waste of time and energy ‘ (click here to view her article).
Miller’s view on the whole NaNoWriMo phenomenon was that it just gave a lot of people an excuse to write a load of crap that would morph into ‘slapdash’ novels adding to slush piles everywhere.
Unsurprisingly Miller became the target of online vitriol/bile/horror for daring to to diss NaNoWriMo but many of her points remain, nonetheless, totally valid. Now before I become the object of a flamewar, let me preface this by saying I think NaNoWriMo is a great way for people to motivate themselves to get a first draft finished. I’ve even contemplated doing it myself but I have to confess the fear of letting volume alone dictate my writing was too worrisome (and the mere thought of it, exhausting!). However, if we boil Miller’s objections down they actually seem pretty uncontroversial:
First, she worries that if the focus of NaNoWriMo is merely on tapping out a bad first draft (and, lets face it, all first drafts are terrible!) then would-be writers may be mistaken in believing that the endless grind of revising and editing is not required – hence her concern over all the hastily put together manuscripts subsequently invading agents desks in December.

Second she argues that the ‘selfless art of reading is being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing’ and worries that, while there is no shortage of people eager to write, there is, however, an acute shortage of people eager to read. Can’t say I can argue with that, as almost everyone I meet these days tells me they want to write a book but few, if any, can find the time to actually read.

In Laura Miller’s view, true writers would be pounding their keyboards whether or not NaNoWriMo existed and that we should be focusing our support on getting people motivated to become avid readers rather than would-be writers. Given the amount of money spent on the whole ‘how-to’ write industry it is depressing to realize just how much of Laura’s article rings true.

So what is your opinion of NaNoWriMo – just an excuse to pound out 50,000 words of crap or a valuable tool to nurture the next great American novel? Is our culture so focused on self-expression that we have forgotten the one thing all books need – readers?!

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Cool Papa Writing

by James Scott Bell

I find it wonderfully ironic that I share the name of the man who many say was the fastest to ever play baseball.

Ironic, because speed afoot was never my gift, as it was for James “Cool Papa” Bell.

Another legend from the old Negro Leagues, Satchel Paige, was once asked just how fast Cool Papa was. Satch replied, “He can turn the light out and be in bed before the room gets dark.”

Paige also asserted that Bell once hit a line drive off him, and the ball whistled past Paige’s head and hit Bell in the buttocks as he slid into second base.

Now that’s fast.

Bell was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.

So what does raw speed have to do with writing? Just this. When you write your first drafts, write as fast as you comfortably can. Even force yourself past the comfort zone on occasion. Whether you’re an outliner, a seat-of-the-pantser, or anything in between, when you’re getting those first pages down, burn rubber.

Why? Because there is so much good stuff in your writer’s brain that needs to climb out of the basement and sniff the fresh air. You have to put your head down and butt the inner editor who stands at the basement door, telling you to be careful, slow down, don’t make a fool of yourself.

It’s also a way to just plain old get started when the “mountain” of the full novel looms ahead.

Write fast.

Since next month is NaNoWriMo, writing fast is on the agenda. And lest someone sniff about how that only produces junk, consider:

— William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, writing from midnight to 4 a.m., then sending it off to the publisher without changing a word.

— Ernest Hemingway wrote what some consider his best novel, The Sun Also Rises, also in six weeks, part of it in Madrid, and the last of it in Paris, in 1925.

— John D. MacDonald is now hailed as one of the best writers of the 1950’s. Within one stunning stretch (1953-1954) he brought out seven novels, at least two of them – The Neon Jungle and Cancel All Our Vows –masterpieces. The others were merely splendid. Over the course of the decade he wrote many more superb novels, including the classic The End of the Night, which some mention in the same breath as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

So prolific was MacDonald that he was needled by a fellow writer who, over martinis, sniffed that John should slow down, ignore “paperback drivel,” and get to “a real novel.” John sniffed back that in 30 days he could write a novel that would be published in hardback, serialized in the magazines, selected by a book club and turned into a movie. The other writer laughed and bet him $50 that he couldn’t.

John went home and, in a month, wrote The Executioners. It was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, and turned into the movie Cape Fear. Twice.

–Ray Bradbury famously wrote his classic Fahrenheit 451 in nine days, on a rented typewriter. “I had a newborn child at home,” he recalls, “and the house was loud with her cries of exaltation at being alive. I had no money for an office, and while wandering around UCLA I heard typing from the basement of Powell Library. I went to investigate and found a room with 12 typewriters that could be rented for 10 cents a half hour. So, exhilarated, I got a bag of dimes and settled into the room, and in nine days I spent $9.80 and wrote my story; in other words, it was a dime novel.”

–Jack London was anything but promising as a young writer. He could hardly string sentences together in a rudimentary fashion. About all he had was desire. A burning desire. So he shut himself up in a room and wrote. Daily. Sometimes 18 hours a day. He sent stories off that got returned. He filled up a trunk with rejections. But all the time he was learning, learning. When he died at the age of 40 he was one of the most prolific and successful writers of all time.

It is in re-writing and editing that you slow down, cool off and shape what you’ve written. First drafts invariably need a lot of work. In re-write you deepen the prose and establish your style, sharpen your scenes and flesh out your characters. You can take your time here (with deadlines in mind, of course).

My own approach is to do my day’s quota fast then spend time the next morning editing the pages before moving on. And once I do those edits, that’s it till the end of the draft. As Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back, something may be gaining on you.”

So when you first commit words to page, write fast. It helps you discover hidden “story stuff.” This is especially important for newer writers. You learn most about writing a full length novel by actually writing a full length novel, and the sooner the better.

Write your first drafts like James “Cool Papa” Bell stealing second, then edit them like Satchel Paige, who took things slow and easy.

So how do you approach your first drafts? Do you like to type fast? Or do you agonize over sentences and paragraphs before moving on? Is Cool Papa writing something you’d like to try?

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