Lessons Learned in NaNoWriMo 2014

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


And so ends another November and the keyboard-clacking madness that is NaNoWriMo. It seems like each time I get a little something different out of it.

This time I worked on the third book in a series (the books will be published close together next year). I did some pre-planning along the lines I’ve suggested before. I killed that first day, hitting 3k words. And I was off to the races.

Only this race had some hurdles.

I did make the 50k mark on the last day, but barely. I lost at least four full writing days due to Bouchercon and a family matter that had me driving a car for about 16 hours over two days. But that’s part of the NaNo experience and a good lesson for writers who want to do this professionally—life often intrudes, but you find a way to write through it. 

The book is not finished, BTW. Since I’m aiming for 70-80k it’s still in production. I’m trying to keep the NaNo MoJo working, though. Which leads me to the following lessons I pass along to you.

1. Deadlines work

Remember what Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, once said? “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Every writer who has written under contract knows what he means. 

The “pressure” of NaNo is good for a writer. If you fall too far behind you’re cooked. So you do whatever it takes to keep to a daily word count. You adjust your goals to make up for lost time. 

Out of NaNo, I’m sticking to a SID — self-imposed deadline. Writing down the date you want to finish and putting it where you can see it daily helps.

2. Scrivener rocks

Scrivener was a big help this year. I made heavy use of the Outline View. Scrivener lets you color-code your scenes and then view them in an outline format. You can customize this view. I show my scene titles, the scene synopsis (which you can generate AFTER you’ve written the scene. Scrivener will even auto-generate a scene synopsis with one click), and my own added timeline, which is of tremendous importance. Thus, I can see at a glance what I’ve done and on what day and time the scenes take place. 

I found this to be valuable as I began the writing day. I did my Grafton journal notes (see my post on that), then looked over the outline which showed what I’d already written, as well as  future scene ideas. In this outline view you can instantly add a scene you think needs to go in between other scenes.

3. Trust but verify

In NaNo there are times when you have to be willing to try something risky, or follow an idea that pops into your head. Pure pantsers love that. No problemo, they say.

But there is a problemo. Unlike what some may advocate, not every spark of inspiration or tangent is good just because it’s new. Indeed, one of these could take you to a bog where your story drowns, and a good deal of NaNo is wasted.

The answer, I found, is to take ten minutes of breathing time when something totally unexpected pops up. Journal about it. Write some notes. (Here again Scrivener comes in handy. Each scene in your story has its own “Document Notes” section. You can record your ideas and thinking there, work things out).

4. Nothing beats full immersion in a story

All writers know the feeling of getting away from a WIP for awhile, then coming back to it and finding it hard to get into the story again. NaNo keeps you immersed in your story. This is good for you and for your novel. Not necessarily good for your spouse. When Mrs. B asked me in October if I was going to do NaNo again, I nodded. And she did not look pleased. So I tried to stick to the final lesson:

5. Don’t forget the important people in your life

I was intentional about trying to carve out evening time with my wife. But she knows me well after 34 years together. I get that faraway look as she’s talking…I have to ask her to repeat things…I nod my head at the wrong time….I excuse myself to go write something….I forget to pick up the milk at the store.

Once I got out of the shower thinking about my story. I went to the sink as usual, thinking, thinking, and put some gel in my hair, brushed it, then got ready to shave. And realized I had put shaving gel on my head and was about to lather my face with hair gel. 

Most writers are like this. We’re strange creatures, rare birds, a little funny in the head. Our loved ones have to put up with this. So be kind! Take them out to dinner and try to forget, for a couple of hours, that you’re a writer.

Unless, of course, you see a particularly interesting character over at the bar…

So anybody got a major lesson or two they’ve learned this year on the writing of fiction? 


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Using the Novel Journal for Writing Breakthroughs

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I was at Bouchercon a week ago and did a panel with some other legal thriller authors. Before it began we were interacting with some people in the audience, and a woman in the front row made a funny comment about something I said, and I replied into the mike, “I’ll do the jokes, madam.”
We all had a chuckle. The moderator, who was sitting next to me, leaned over and whispered, “Do you know who that is?”
I shook my head.
“Sue Grafton,” he said.
Indeed, it was the amazing author of the alphabet series featuring gumshoe Kinsey Millhone. 
Which, when you think about it, is virtually unprecedented. Twenty-six mysteries around a single series character in a wide variety of mystery plots.
How, one might ask, does she make the magic happen book after book?
One answer is the novel journal. I read about this in Ms. Grafton’s chapter from the book Writing the Private Eye Novel (Writer’s Digest Books, 1997). She calls this her “most valuable tool.”
What this tool does is provide a “testing ground” for ideas, a place for both left and right brain hemispheres mix it up a little. As she puts it:
Right Brain is creative, spatial, playful, disorganized, dazzling, nonlinear, the source of the Aha! or imaginative leap. Without Right Brain, there would be no material for Left Brain to refine. Without Left Brain, the jumbled brilliance of Right Brain would never coalesce into a satisfactory whole.
The novel journal is a free form document that is added to each morning before getting to work on the novel. This is what Sue puts in there:
The day’s date and a bit of diary stuff, how she’s feeling and so on. This is to track outside influences on her writing.
Next is notes about any ideas that emerged overnight. I especially like this part, because the writer’s mind has been working while I sleep and I want to pour out everything I can. The trick here is not to think too much about what you write. Just let it flow.
Third, she writes about where she is in the book. She “talks” to herself about the scene she’s working on, or problems that have arisen. In the “safety of the journal” she can play the What If game. She can debate things with herself. Right Brain and Left Brain can duke it out. She’s playful. “I don’t have to look good. I can be as dumb or goofy as I want.”
What happens then is that she finds she “slides” naturally into her writing day. There is no hesitancy as there might be if she just got to work on the WIP.  
Writing about this now excites me. I have to admit I’ve been lax about using this during this NaNoWriMo month. As I write this particular post (it’s Tuesday) I’m a little over halfway through my NaNo novel and feel the need to mine deeper into my writer mind. So I’ll be journaling away for the rest of the month. 
Yes, it was nice having Sue Grafton show up at my panel and crack wise.
Here are a few more tips on making the novel journal work for you:
Trust. Keep your fingers typing. Lose control. Don’t worry if it’s correct, polite, appropriate. Just let it rip. Stay with the first flash. If something scary comes up, go for it. That’s where the energy is. Figure out what you want to say in the act of writing.
“We write and then catch up with ourselves.” (Natalie Goldberg)
If you don’t know what to write in the journal, open a dictionary at random. Pick the first noun you see. Now start writing whatever that word suggests to you.
Work out problems in your novel by asking questions and letting your Right Brain suggest answers. Then let your Left Brain assess them.
Be specific. When something unique pops up, follow that lead. Don’t hesitate to write for five or ten minutes on one thing if that’s where you’re being led.
Be willing to be disturbed.
If you’re pantser, the journal will help you decide what to write next. If you’re a plotter, the journal will help you bring to life the scenes you’ve mapped out. And if plot or character takes a weird turn, you can hash it out in the journal until you decide how to use it. 

Give it a try sometime. I think you’ll be pleased with the results. 

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