Wednesday, 9 October 2013

7 NaNoWriMo Tips - Write a Novel in 30 Days

NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month - is coming up in November. Thousands and thousands of people are going to try to write 50,000 words in 30 days, primarily for the sheer hell of it.

If you haven't done it before, I recommend it. And I say that with the voice of experience. You see, I've done nanowrimo before, and I started a novel, and I completed it.

Four years later.

Yeah, I sucked at NaNoWriMo the first time I tried it. But the last couple of years, while I've been working on another book, I've used NaNoWriMo as a kick up the arse to get some serious word count done. There are Nano events all around London, and they're honestly a good way to get going. So I semi-did the whole NaNoWriMo thing.

But earlier this year, I took part in NaNoWriWee- National Novel Writing Weekend, set up by The Kernel. It was a 30 hour novel writing challenge. Slightly more realistically, it was aimed at around 20,000 words or so, and HarperCollins offered to judge the entries and publish the winner under their Authonomy brand as an ebook. My entry, POV, won and you can buy it here for just 99p.

So, I'm not a nanowrimo expert, but I do get a lot of what it's about, and I do have some success in speed-writing. And I think Nanowrimo is a fantastic idea. I'll be using it this year to try to write 50,000 words of a new novel, and I encourage anyone I know who wants to write to think about taking part.

So, if that's you, if you're someone that's wanted to write for ages, but just hasn't, or has started and stopped too many times,  here are my tips on how to write a novel in 30 days. Seven short tips to getting through NaNoWriMo. Because lots of people with no real experience write books about how to write books, and a lot of them waste your time (my two notable exceptions - On Writing by Stephen King and Story by Robert McKee. There are others, but they're my favourites) and promise you'll have a bestseller afterwards.

And you don't have much time. You only have a month. So I'm not going to waste your time with a book about how to write. Besides, you might think my advice sucks.

So, instead, here are seven bite-sized tips to writing 50,000 words in 30 days.

Tip 1 - Plan.

Don't worry - this isn't anything too complicated. All you need is a very rough outline of what you want your story to be. It can have gaps and it can be incomplete. But if you have a vague idea what you want to write about, then write it down. If you have them already in mind, write down a brief list of story points that you want to hit over the month.

You don't want to end up like Rimmer in Red Dwarf, who spent the majority of his revision time for an exam creating his revision timetable and then revising his revision timetable. The plan is, at this point, just a rough outline. It may help you when you're writing to know what you're vaguely aiming for, rather than just filling in space.

When I wrote POV, my outline was actually just nine short points that I jotted down when I sat to start writing.

1 - Setup world

2 - Discover body

3 - Suspect

4 - Arrest / Escape

5 - Confrontation / Revelation

7 - New POV

8 - (something that would spoil the novel if I actually put it in here)

9 - Resolution

Now, yours can obviously be a bit more in-depth, but this should hopefully give you an idea just how vague they can be. What it meant was that I knew what I was aiming at with any section. And it's a lot easier to write a scene when you have an idea what the point behind it is.

Oh, and I didn't stick to all of it either. Some of it changed as I was writing. That's fine too. Again, don't panic.

Tip 2 - Names

I don't know about you, but I hate coming up with character names. It's a horrible chore that never feels quite right, because trying to come up with one in the first place, with all that choice... it can be rather paralysing. You could choose any combination of names you can think of. And I don't know about you, but when I'm faced with all the first and last names in existence, it feels like an impossible task. After all, the odds I'll get it wrong are astronomical.

So, if you can come up with a list of names right at the start, then you can start picking from that. A list of first names and last names, so you can mix and match quickly. You can always change the names later, but you'll be surprised how often you stick with them straight off the bat.

I used comic book creators, but you can use anything. Get a cast list of a film and jot down names, and stop when you have five times too many, then start putting together first and last names. Then just start casting which ones sound most like the characters you have in mind. The main thing it does is to start limiting your choices, and allow you to get moving.

(I wrote about this point recently for Alasdair Stuart's blog in a bit more depth - What's in a Name?)

Tip 3 - Move onto chapter two.

And then onto chapter three, and then chapter four and so on. I know so many writers who spent ages stalled on their first novel because, when they finished their first chapter, they went back to rewrite it. And then back to rewrite it. And then back to rewrite it. I did it myself the first time I tried to write a novel. Just kept rewriting that first chapter.

It's difficult to let something go if it isn't right, but it's easy to trade that off with not actually making any real headway. But you get the illusion that you're doing well, because you're still putting a lot of work into the book. You're spending the same amount of time that you could be spending actually working on the novel, but not getting anywhere. It's the writing equivalent of jogging on the spot instead of actually running a marathon. Except you won't lose any weight. You'll probably gain it, actually, because you're spending more time sat down at a computer. So if you're going to do that, you may as well get a novel out of it.

That novel I wrote where I kept reworking the first chapter for ages? By the time it got looked at by an agent, guess what their first recommendation was?

Bin the first chapter. She was right, too. It was crap. Full of stuff that I wrote while I tried to figure out where the story was going. It didn't get going until the second chapter. So that became my first chapter.

Tip 4 - Get unstuck

If you're getting stuck and you're not sure how to proceed the scene you're on, don't panic. We've all been there. There are a few tips you can try here. Your mileage will absolutely vary on these.

One is to jump ahead in the plot. You may not know how to get from A to B, but you may well have a rough idea what happens at B. So start writing that instead. You can always come back to what you're stuck on. Or you can even complete it in the edit. The edit comes later. When it comes to writing a lot in a short time, the edit always comes later.

One is to try writing something completely out of character. Try writing the scene in a way that completely contradicts everything you've come up with about the characters. Have them go on a killing spree or turn out to be aliens or win the lottery or steal a car or become a vampire or strip naked and run through the streets. Or all of them. Anything. Just get writing again. You'll probably find one of two things. Firstly, that it doesn't work, but in clarifying to yourself why it doesn't work, you lodge a couple of those little levers unstuck and you figure out where you need to go. Or, and I admit this is more unlikely, you decide that the novel works a lot better with streaking vampire alien thieves going on kiling spree.

In fact, damn it. I'm going to write about that instead of what I was going to write. That sounds awesome.

Personally, I favour jumping ahead. If you find that you're stuck because, right now, you don't care about this scene, then write a scene you do care about. Once you've got the gaps, those gaps will start becoming pretty appealing.

Tip 5 - Give Earlier-You the benefit of the doubt

At some point, you may lose confidence in your story. This happens to lots of people. It happened to me with POV.

Halfway through, there's this big plot twist. It's also one that was part of why I wanted to write the story in the first place. It embodied the entire theme of the novel. And I couldn't wait to write it. And then I got to it.

And I realised it didn't work.

In fact, it was stupid.

How could I have convinced myself that it was a good idea? It was ridiculous, it came too out-of-nowhere, and it fooled people into reading a different book than they may have thought they were reading. Obviously, I had to come up with something else. And since I was trying to do this in thirty hours, I had to come up with something fast.

I have never missed smoking more than I missed smoking at that point in time. I went out for some fresh air, but it felt incomplete.

And I remembered the me from the day before who came up with the plot idea and was energised and enthused by it. He had the same level of experience in reading the genre as I had. He knew it was a good idea and that it worked. What changed?

I got scared. That's all that changed. I started second guessing myself.

I had to trust that the me from the day before wasn't a complete idiot. He was convinced it could work. So let's give him a chance.

A couple of pages into it, I was back enthused about it again. And it's my favourite moment in the book, and based on feedback, it's also a few other people's favourite moment.

Of course, it's entirely possible that the you from the day before was actually an idiot. But give that idiot the benefit of the doubt enough to start a little down the path they suggested.

Tip 6 - The edit always comes later.

You don't have to show anybody the first draft. You can share it with people if you want. But at the moment, your fragile little word-baby isn't ready to walk by itself yet. And it's all yours. Take a little break, wrap your word-baby up carefully, and put it to bed for a little while. It'll wait for you.

Here's the thing about editing - it's a little magic trick involving time travel. All those mistakes you made? All the scenes that don't match up? All those things you tried that didn't quite work? That time you were writing at 5am and you apparently forgot how language works because you were writing what the Incan Monkey-God was telling you to write in his mysterious but beautiful language? You get to fix it all so that it never happened.

And at first, you'll be convinced that other people will look at it, and will know. They'll know you just changed something, you massive cheater. But they don't. Because it's not cheating. It's a perfect magic trick, because when they read it, that shit didn't happen.

But wait for it. Come back to it later. Right now, you just need to write. This is the construction phase.

Tip 7 - If you can eat a sandwich, you can write.

"But I can't write. I don't have the time. I have a job, and I travel and..."

No. You do have time. You don't need much each day, and if you can grab five minutes, you can write a couple of paragraphs. If you have a lunchbreak, go somewhere quiet, take a notebook or a netbook or a slate and a sharp piece of stone and put some words on paper. Or slate.

Personally, I write quite often during lunch. I go to a cafe, and I have a coffee and a soup and I write. But when it's really been going, if I've been able to get a seat on public transport, I've written there, too.

You don't need optimal conditions to write. You are not a precious little writing-flower who has to be nurtured and cared for.

You're a word machine. A merciless, time-travelling, word-baby generating machine.

You're sitting down to have a sandwich? Put it to the side, open your notebook and start writing, and when you finish a sentence or a paragraph, take a couple of bites. You can multitask. You can give up a TV programme or a videogame or you can stop reading a book for a while, and write one instead.

So, yeah. There's nothing stopping you. There's no magic entitlement to writing a novel.

There's just you. And a story that you want to tell.

Good luck and see you in December.

Want to ask me something? I'm on twitter and I'll happily chat to you about your Nano.

Want to see if I know what I'm talking about? Buy POV - it's just 99p for a fast-moving SF thriller involving nasty things happening to eyeballs. But it's not that icky, I promise. And there are some bonus short stories, and one of them is even sweet.

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