How To Prepare For Nanowrimo

For those of you ready to plunge into Nanowrimo this year, I’ve provided some links to articles that will help you write your novel. Since churning out 50,000 words in a month is not for the faint of heart, it’s great to have some tips to add to your tool kit.

First, how to start? Starting a novel is one of the most daunting prospects of writing a novel itself. Not only does the page look especially blank at this stage, you can’t build from the last sentences from your last chapter. Instead, you have to create something from absolutely nothing and convince the reader that your story is one worth sticking around for. This is no small task.

However, don’t panic. You’re just writing a first draft. There’s no need to overthink things too much. You will come back and edit the beginning, perhaps more than any other part of your novel. Try writing something. It can always change later.

Here are some great articles on how to start your novel, in case you’re stuck on how to begin:

1) Writer’s Digest’s How to Start a Novel Right: 5 Great Tips

2) The Write Practice’s Three Ways to Start A Novel

3) Kim Graff’s Struggling Start: Problems and Solutions for Your First Chapter

3) Chuck Wendig’s 25 Things To Know About Writing The First Chapter

All of these posts provide suggestions on how to make a strong start to your novel. Some provide common problems with beginnings and suggest solutions.

“But wait a minute!” You might think. “First chapters! I don’t even know my story yet! This isn’t helpful at all!”

Well, this depends on your writing style. When you write are you a pantser or a plotter? That is do you write anything you want without planning by the seat of your pants, or do you plan everything out to the last letter? I prefer to pants my novel, since often through writing I get my best ideas. However, I’ve had to learn to plan out my plot somewhat otherwise I end up writing myself up the ying-yang and let me tell you it doesn’t end pretty. Now I do a pantsing-plotting hybrid that serves me well.

How you plan (or don’t plan) a novel is very much a personal choice. However, brainstorming and planning can help you learn about your novel better so that you are prepared once November begins to make your word count goals.

Here are some articles to help plan a novel:

1) Chuck Wendig’s highly comprehensive 25 Ways To Plot, Plan, and Prep Your Story

2) Dan Well’s 7-Point Plot Structure

3) Although I’ve never used this method personally, I’ve heard from others that they enjoy using the snowflake method.

4) Stuck for ideas? Check out my post on how to come up with an idea for a novel.

And last but not least, an article after my own pantsing heart that argues against planning:

1) NY Book Editors say Planning to Outline Your Novel? Don’t!

In the end, don’t get stuck in technicalities. Nanowrimo is for a quick first draft, editing comes later. Write frequently, write about what you care about, and write because you love writing and you’ll have written an awesome first draft. I guarantee it.

How to Come Up With An Idea For A Novel

Coming up with an idea for a novel seems a binary notion: either you have an idea of what to write about or you don’t. Once at a party, someone repeatedly asked me how my ideas for my novel popped into my head. Describing how an idea came to me felt like describing how to catch a falling star, abstract and impossible.

However, at some point if we want to write a novel, we need to have an idea to work with and we want to make sure it is a good one. So how do we capture these pesky ideas to begin with?

1) Think about what you like. You are going to have to work on your novel for a long time to finish it, so you want to make sure that your topic is something that you are passionate about. Otherwise, it’s going to be even harder to maintain stamina to cross that finish line.

Try writing a list in a notebook of topics that you like the most. What you like can include your hobbies, your interests, your areas of expertise, and any issues that you feel passionate about. Do you skate? Do you play soccer? Are you crazy about dogs? Do you enjoy obscure indie bands? Do you feel strongly about the environment, or small businesses, or rights of minorities, or workplace opportunities, or gay marriage, or accountability in the justice system, or reducing the stigma about mental illness? Some stuff may be deep, some not so much.

Certain interests can belong to your characters, others to the theme of your novel. For instance, if you really like break dancing, you could write a novel where a break dancing competition plays a key role. On the other hand, if you don’t want to write an entire novel about break dancing, a character could break dance as one of their activities.

Of course, your characters and your novel won’t be a complete clone of your life. For those interests that you don’t know much about, you will have to do research. The point is to write about something that you are passionate about, so that you also are inclined to do this research as well.

2) Think about what you like to read the most. Since I like to read YA novels, I’m writing a YA novel. Don’t settle to write a crime novel if you love reading romances. If you really like both genres, then make a decision between the two.

When you are reading (because you are reading, right?), you should pay attention to things that really work in books and things that really don’t. Do you like fast-paced action sequences? Swoon-worthy romances? Mysteries? Humour? What about your last favourite read made you like it the way you did? What aspects from that book can you use to inspire your own writing?

3) Look to other art forms that aren’t just books. Many writers find music deeply inspiring. It doesn’t have to be super highbrow either. Since I write about teenagers, I find that boy bands suit me perfectly well. Gets me in the zone. Some writers make playlists to match their entire novel and although I’m not that into it, I can see how that could help.

Also, visual arts can be very inspiring as well. Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments Series takes direct inspiration from paintings and compares the setting to different artists’ styles. This works with her main character whose mother was an artist. So try engaging with other art to create more art.

4) Think about what you want your novel to say. No matter what genre you work with, there is some underlying message to a novel. What do you want your reader to think about once it is over? How do you want the reader to feel when reading your novel? Even within escapism, there is a general feeling about a book. Should the reader be sitting on the edge of their chair the entire time? Should the reader feel more empathy towards a certain issue or event? Should the reader feel a certain connection with the work, and if so, what?

Of course, your reader may respond differently than how you anticipate, because that’s art. But the point is to envision how you want people to be affected and from there find the tale you want to tell.

5) Keep a notebook. Often inspiration comes when you are distracted. Sometimes you will be out in the world, going for a walk, on the bus, at work, whatever and it will hit you. You will have a great idea. Write it down before you forget so you can use it later.

Often, the best ideas come to me minutes before I fall asleep right before dreaming. I have to wrench myself awake, switch on a light and jot them down in a notebook by my bedside. When I start my writing routine in the morning, I’m very glad I did this indeed.

6) Don’t romanticise ideas. All good ideas have been repeated in art many times over. The originality in your novel may not come from the idea itself, but from how you use the idea.

Think of all the novels about love. Either the couple ends up together or never can be together. Only two options exist really, yet so much different art is out there about this topic. Or the basic but satisfying plot of hero beats villain. It’s not just that the hero beats the villain, but who the hero and villain are, as well as how the hero manages to save the day. The details colour the worn-out plot into something new.

You will put your own unique spin on your idea, so sit in a chair and think until it comes to you. Don’t worry. Eventually it will.

On The Importance of Breaks During The Creative Process

I grew up learning the value that if you weren’t working, you were doing something wrong. This value isn’t all bad, it’s given me an excellent work ethic and a tendency to treat procrastination as the source of all evils. However, what do you do when you’re stuck on a difficult problem with your project?

This problem could be a tough calculus assignment where you just can’t solve question six. Or you could not know how to go forward in your scientific research – what technique should you use next or why is the technique you are using not working the way you planned? Or you could hit a plateau with your musical instrument where no matter what newfangled warmup or exercises you try, you aren’t getting better at the rate that you desire.

Writing problems aren’t any different. Despite sitting down at your desk every day at the same time and following your routine to the letter, some days you won’t see any progress. Maybe you can’t figure out a particular plot problem. Maybe your craft is suffering and every sentence sounds like it was written by someone in grade two. Maybe you just hate everything you’ve written and feel like you’d accomplish more if you spent your writing time writing CRAP CRAPPED A CRAP-CRAP-CRAP over and over again.

It happens.

So what are your options?

1) Stick to the writing routine and hope it gets better.

2) Take a break.

Now, I see the first option championed everywhere across the internet all the time. If you stick to a writing routine you will see progress. You need to work through the bad days to gain bulk to your manuscript. Blah blah blah.

It’s very true. I didn’t see my book get bigger until I committed to working on it regularly. A writing routine does ensure that you will improve through consistent practice and build stamina towards completing your projects.

However, I’m not talking about those days where you’re like “Hmmm, I have some spare time should I write/play video games/watch TV and eat chips/read/clean the house/cook dinner/pick those socks up off the floor behind the table who put their socks there anyway/call my friend/watch youtube until my brain only outputs youtube videos instead of normal speech/tweet about writing instead of writing… huh I choose all the options that aren’t writing.”

Those days happen to me often enough, and yes, those are good times to fight and adhere to a writing routine. If you frequently give in to distraction, you won’t see progress.

I’m also not talking about when you are using the first draft technique where you just write ANYTHING no matter what and see where it takes you. That’s fine. Charge full ahead with the writing routine.

I’m talking about when you’ve been stuck on your manuscript for so long that it’s been weeks. I’m talking about when you think about your novel and you feel exhausted. I’m talking about when you’ve been editing and last month you wrote six chapters, but this month you can’t even finish chapter 13. I’m talking about when you really need to find a way to kill the villain but you don’t know where to begin and haven’t for months.

In this case, you’ve been applying the writing routine and it’s simply not working. Why not?

Because your brain is tired.

If you go to the gym and lift heavy weights one day, you can’t expect to lift a ton of heavy weights the next day. The rest and recovery is just as important to lifting heavy as the actual lifting itself. In fact, if you do, you’ll probably injure yourself. If you keep doing heavy lifting with your brain when you’re tired, you risk burn out.

Think about baking bread. You have to let that sucker ferment and rise for a couple of hours otherwise the final product is going to be flat and hard as a frisbee.

Writing is the same way.

If you adhere to your routine when you are stuck, and nothing has improved after several days, you are wasting your time. It’s equivalent to banging your head against the wall.

Take a break. Maybe a couple of days. Maybe a whole week.
Rest.
Let your ideas ferment.

Afterwards you will have the added benefit of approaching the manuscript with fresh eyes. Your brain will have the opportunity to approach the problem at full power. You might find that your productivity increases after a break. In fact, you might find that the break doesn’t destroy your writing routine, but restores it instead.

 

10 Ways to Make Your Writing Routine Actually Stick

  1. Schedule your time. You’ve probably heard it before, but it helps to make a schedule of everything you do everyday for a week. After the week, you can see where you have space to write and what you can move around to make space to write. When doing this, consider when you prefer to write. Are you a morning or evening person? I find I am much more productive in the morning! This being said, you can learn to write at any time of the day. So, make a schedule and stick to it.
  2. Have a convenient and comfortable location to work. Some people work better at home. Some people work better out of the house. I’m one of those people who works well in my room at my desk. Frankly, I don’t have the budget for cafés and my local library is a fair trek. Make sure that you have a place to write that is your own where you won’t be interrupted.
  3. Inform the people who you live with about your writing time. It is important to do this so that your time is respected and they are aware that you are working and aren’t available. My husband and I have a rule with each other. When one of us closes our door, it means we are working  and are not to be bothered. Since we both work from home, this is necessary! Otherwise we wouldn’t get anything done!
  4. Protect your time. If you’ve decided that your writing time is in the afternoons and friends keep calling you to hang out during the afternoon and you keep cancelling on your writing time… Well! either you should reschedule your friends or your writing. Treat your writing time with respect, otherwise no one else will.
  5. Avoid distractions. Disconnect the WiFi. Unplug. Don’t be checking Facebook, email or twitter every five seconds, otherwise bam! You’ve just scheduled yourself a time to tweet everyday. Have a separate time to surf the net.
  6. Record your progress. Make Nanowrimo everyday! You can record your word count at the end of each session in a spread sheet to keep you motivated. However, this might not work well during editing. Then the delete key sometimes feels like the only key, so your word count might grow slowly. When editing it’s helpful to keep a time log of your sessions instead.
  7. Tell people about your project. Broadcast it among your friends. This serves as a huge motivator for me, since I know the next time I speak to my friends they will ask me how my writing is going. If I’m not keeping my writing routine, then I can’t give a positive answer.
  8. Set goals for yourself. Weekly goals, monthly goals, big deadlines, small deadlines. Make lots of goals, see if you meet them, and reevaluate. This way you can monitor your progress.
  9. Reward yourself after you meet these goals. Get yourself something you really want and is a little frivolous. I’ve heard of one writer who got herself a pair of fancy shoes. I tend to buy music albums. That way I can listen to them as I write some more!
  10. Have a ritual. Some writers like to make a cup of tea, or listen to a certain song to create the right head space, or light a candle. I have a very bare bones ritual, where I start my laptop, look out the window, and prepare my mind to write. Do whatever works for you.

5 Things I Learned about Writing from Reading Maggie Stiefvater’s “Raven Cycle Series”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before I read “The Raven Boys” I’d been in a terrible writing slump, where I was working away at my draft in a dull monotony. I’d forgotten why I liked reading. I’d forgotten why I liked writing. And then, when I read the first page of the novel I was hooked on the entire series. Stiefvater is a master of her craft and you can learn so much about what makes a novel work by reading it.

1) The opening lines are brilliant. Stiefvater chooses to start each book with a prologue, and although there is plenty of conflicting information out there of whether to prologue or not, this choice works so well for her novels. The prologues set the mood for the novels and serve as seductive promises of the intrigue to follow.

Take the first sentence of “The Raven Boys.”
Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.

BAM. The reader needs to know more. How can someone tell Blue with certainty that she will kill her true love? And why so frequently? And will this even happen? If so, how? And more importantly, who IS her true love anyway? Does she have a true love yet?

The rest of the prologue expands this theme and by the end, the reader is committed to reading the rest of the book. The entire series answers the questions raised by the very first sentence of the book.

The first sentence of the second book in the series, “Dream Thieves” is equally as brilliant.
A secret is a strange thing.

Simple, but effective. In this prologue, Stiefvater breaks into an essay of the different kinds of secrets and how they apply to one of her characters. It. Is. Amazing. The theme of secrets immediately brings intrigue to the novel and promises that the reader will understand her characters like no one else will.

Which leads me to the next point.

2) The books are incredibly character driven. Forget about flat sucky characters that drift around aimlessly and only jump to the plot because the author tells them to. Stiefvater’s characters have so much depth they seem like real people. Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Blue have their own hopes and fears, secrets, families, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Although Noah isn’t as well developed, that’s for other reasons.

In each of the books, the personal motives of each of these four characters are made perfectly clear. Each of them is different. Each of them drives the plot in their own way. And the way they interact together is magical. So much yes.

By the end of the series, I felt a physical ache inside that I would be leaving the characters behind forever. It felt like losing old friends. Fortunately, Stiefvater’s writing a new book about Ronan so I won’t have to say goodbye just yet!

3) The brand of magic is distinct, unusual and kind of quirky. The magic doesn’t fall into typical YA fantasy clichés and is refreshing. Obscurely Old Welsh Kings in the Virginia Hills and Lee Lines are awesome. The novel revolves around Glendower’s burial, a king whose refreshingly not Arthur of the famous legend. There’s an arcane historical element, which I loved and the Latin never gets old.

However, the medieval historical magic doesn’t make this a dry read. In fact, Stiefvater balances this unusual topic with aspects the YA readership loves. Namely one girl hanging out with four hot private school boys in cool cars exploring the countryside. What high school girl doesn’t want to do that? If there’s some weird magic going on, why that’s just a bonus.

Basically, the reader doesn’t have to like history to like this book. The history just sort of slips in.

4) Stiefvater has a clear, concise way of writing. Nothing rambles. Every sentence has a purpose and leads to the next one. The descriptions usually highlight character or the setting and use the perfect words to do so.

I learned so much just by checking out how she starts each of her chapters. There are three main ways she does this:

a) A opening sentence telling you the character and the setting where the action will take place for the scene.
e.g.: Gansey woke in the night to find the moon full on his face and his phone ringing (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 9).
Clearly, the character is Gansey.
The setting is at night and the reader probably can assume that he’s in his room at Monmouth since he just woke up.

b) A topic sentence that reveals an aspect about the character or setting we’re going to follow for the chapter, almost like the start of an essay.
e.g.: Mornings at 300 Fox Way were fearful, jumbled things (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 3).
This is a topic sentence about setting.
Or
e.g.: Blue wouldn’t really describe herself as a waitress (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 6).
This is a topic sentence about character.

c) Or she starts the chapter with Dialogue, often asking a question.
e.g: “Mom, why is Neeve here?” Blue asked (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 13).

The first two ways demonstrate how to start a scene without ambiguity. It’s helpful to be precise and tell us who, what, where, and why as quickly as possible. Ways b and c also promote intrigue for the reader. These three ways to start a chapter work well.

5) Authentic dialogue. Each character has a way of speaking that’s uniquely their own and showcases their personality. I’ve read before that for good dialogue, the tags aren’t entirely necessary. You should be able to tell without tags that there are different people conversing. Stiefvater’s dialogue definitely meets this goal.

Also, the dialogue is humourous. This in turn, makes the characters more likeable even if they are difficult people.

 

How to Manage Carpal Tunnel as a Writer

Just a quick disclaimer before we start this post: I’m not a doctor and my tips should not replace medical advice. Anything that I say is purely anecdotal. That said, I’m writing this post in case anything that I’ve discovered over the years helps someone with a similar condition.

One of the most annoying things that can happen to a writer when they’re in the middle of a manuscript and making good progress is bam! They’ve been writing for six hours straight and then they’re stuck with a repetitive stress injury that lasts for years. Yep. I’m talking about carpal tunnel. It hits, it sticks and then your wrists may never feel the same.

To say the least: it sucks.

Of course, the first step when you feel this kind of pain is to seek medical attention. The doctor or physiotherapist can tell you what kind of activities you can do with your hands (spoiler alert: they’ll probably tell you to rest) and get you back on track.

However, what can you do after you’ve followed their advice and rested? What should you do when you’re allowed to write again? How can you avoid a relapse?

1) Start to write gradually. Set a timer for a few minutes. Type. Then stop and rest some more. If you write for many hours, the pain may come back. If you feel okay after a long rest, start the timer for another couple of minutes. Type again. Slowly build up your typing time over many weeks.

Even now when my wrists are doing very well, I break after an hour of writing. If I want to write more than one hour, I hold one writing session in the morning, take a break for lunch, and then have another writing session in the afternoon.

2) Mix it up. Consider doing a mixture of typing and hand writing. Again, take lots of breaks.

3) Heat your room during your writing sessions. My apartment has poor insulation and is quite cold. I find if I use a space heater, my wrists don’t seize up during my writing sessions. Also, dipping your hands in hot water can help loosen them.

About ice. I know some people respond well to ice, so if that’s you go ahead. However, I find that ice makes my hands tighter and then my pain gets worse. I tend to prefer heat over ice. But that’s me. You do you.

4) Buy an ergonomic keyboard. I bought the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard and Mouse. Although sometimes I still get pain, it’s a lot less. I find the keyboard position is better for my hands and has more natural spacing between keys. The mouse is pretty nice too.

I would recommend this product for people with with wrist pain, because it’s definitely worth a try. It also works with Macs. I can’t comment on other ergonomic keyboards on the market, because they aren’t sold at Officeworks in Australia. I tried shipping some stuff over from amazon, but it was wildly unsuccessful.

(By the way, this isn’t an add. This is my own opinion. I’d love to have gotten a discount on my keyboard, but this really didn’t happen. Still, the price was definitely worth the reduction in pain.)

5) Remember to stay active. If you are a writer, you probably like to sit at your desk for long periods of time. It’s important to work out the rest of your body, because if you suffer from carpel tunnel you may have a greater likelihood of acquiring other repetitive stress injuries. Keeping your body strong may help reduce your chances of injuring yourself as well as improve your general health.

 

How to Tell People You are a Writer

Simple. You tell them that you are a writer.

I say that it’s simple, but I’m writing this post to help writers who struggle when faced with the dreaded question. And by the dreaded question, I mean you’ve just met someone and they ask all chipper, “So what do you do?”

When I started writing I hated being asked that. “Uh, actually, I’m a –” I used to whisper, full of apologies because I hadn’t *you know* published anything yet.

I’d blush and stumble and stammer and avoid eye contact. After all, how could my profession be real when I hadn’t landed a deal yet? Even though writers often don’t find an agent until their manuscript is polished and that takes time. Even though getting an agent doesn’t guarantee a publishing contract.

So how long do you have to wait until you can call yourself a writer?

The answer is easy. If you write, then you’re a writer.

Haven’t published yet? Haven’t found an agent? Haven’t sold your book’s movie rights?

It doesn’t matter.

Do you write? Yes? BAM you’re a writer.

So, can you call yourself a writer? Of course! That’s what you are silly!

Let’s have a practice run. You’ve just met some person and they ask the dreaded question.

“What do you do?”

“I’m a writer,” you say with confidence. No apologies. No explanations. No excuses.

Chances are the rest of the interaction will go well. Usually they’ll ask you what genre you write, what your book is about, and whether you’ve published yet.

I’ve found that if you say you are a writer with confidence and pride people take the rest of what you say seriously. You’ve shown that you believe that what you do is valid. After all, being a writer is valid! The rest is all in your head.

How to Deal with Writer’s Block When Writing a Novel

Some people claim there is no such thing as writer’s block. They use convincing arguments like there is no such thing as writer’s block because if your a car mechanic you don’t get car mechanic’s block. Or if you work in an office, you don’t show up to work and say “Yo, I don’t have the urge to work today.”

To an extent they’re right.

You shouldn’t wait for a romantic excuse to write. If you only believe you can write in an isolated shack on a beach and you will only write in the evening during a coastal storm while the waves crash across the rocks and winds howl through holes in the shack – well. The conditions will never be right for you to start or continue your project. And you won’t.

Or if you believe you will write the most perfectest words ever at all times, and if any day feels off, you won’t write – your project will lose momentum. Sometimes all you can write is crap and that’s okay.

Find some sustainable writing conditions, like in your room at your desk or at a library, and you’re set. Write when you can, as often as you can. Sure, it’s not super artistic sounding, but you bring the art to the table. Not your surroundings. And you can always fix the words that you write.

However, I believe that writer’s block does exist.
While claiming it doesn’t exist might boost morale, during any creative project, you will encounter times when you get stuck. Sometimes even brutally stuck.

Comparing a creative profession to a noncreative one does not work. For instance, in the case of the car mechanic not having car mechanic’s block, I have to say. The car mechanic doesn’t experience the same issues with motivation for a project.

That’s because the outcome of their project is clear: they want a working car. The steps to get from broken car to working car are probably well defined for them on how to reach that outcome. There is a manual and they might have to order a few spare parts, put stuff together etc.

When you are writing a book: it is not well-defined. You designed the manual. The manual might even be broken too. You have to set the outcome: what is the purpose of your book? And to some extent, you even design the process. There are very few guidelines. You have to invent everything.

Plus, the novel itself is an art. It is abstract. Sometimes how you get from point A to point B is not obvious and a struggle. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth.

So when you have a block what can you do?

Is your block due to a lack of knowledge about the story or a lack of motivation?

Often times it’s both.

Here are some options you can try to work through a block:

1) Try to keep writing anyway. Write a new section of the book that occurs later (or earlier) than you are working. It just might help you figure out the middle section of the book and what it’s missing.

2) Go back to planning. If you are stuck it might be because you don’t know what happens next, what your character’s need, where you are going in the end.

3) Talk it out with someone. Discuss your story’s structure with a friend. They can help you work it through, or the conversation might reveal something you missed.

4) Revisit your ultimate vision for your book. Why are you writing this book in the first place? What do you want to achieve? At its heart, what is your book about? Does what you are writing meet these goals?

5) Ask someone who will champion your work to read it and give you feedback. They probably will tell you something they like which will increase your confidence.

6) Journal about it. Write about your block and how you feel. Is something in your personal life causing it? How can you work it through? Why are you blocked on a psychological level?

7) Put it down. Take a break and do something else for a week or a few weeks. Start a completely disparate project to clear your mind and come back to the project refreshed and excited. Or maybe you are pushing yourself too hard and need some chill time. This is a great time to read.

8) If you have suffered too many blocks in two short a period of time, perhaps consider pushing through your routine anyway.

9) Evaluate where you went wrong. Did you make a false turn? Is the story boring? Would it be so much better if something drastic changed even though it would screw up everything that you just wrote? If you have an idea pushing at the back of your brain for awhile and you are reluctant to implement it, ask yourself why. Is it because the idea doesn’t work? Or does it work and you are too lazy to rework things?

10) Work through the hard truths. Breathe.

In the end, the block will pass. It’s not worth abandoning all your hard work just because you feel like it’s too hard to continue. You will work through the plot issues. You will figure out how to stay true to the characters. And in the end, the book will be finished.

Because you can do it. You’re the only one who can finish your manuscript.