10 Things I learned from #nanowrimo

Today marks the end of #nanowrimo, and I’m proud to say that I made it (just barely). There were some important lessons that came out of this experience for the next time I think I can sit down and just write a novel.

1. Plotting is more than a synopsis. A synopsis is just that, a quick one or two line summary of your story, and is not something that you can sit down with and produce a complete work from. It’s like suggesting that based on the synopsis that a crazy guy plots a murder of a pawnbroker to solve his financial problems, but only finds peace with the young woman he loves once he’s in prison for his crime, that you could then turn around produce a complete novel like Crime and Punishment.

One of my biggest problems with this exercise has been that I didn’t have a distinct outline or guide to what was going to happen in the story. I knew the synopsis, and some gut instincts on what I wanted to have happen, but no clear picture of where it was going. Which takes me to the next point,

2. A novel isn’t a big short story. Writing a short story, for me, is fairly easy to do. I think I’ve said this before (but I’m too lazy to check right now), but with a short story you don’t need to divulge a lot, you don’t need to fill in a lot of gaps. In fact, by the time you might be near saying something that needs a deeper background, the story is over and you can mark it over. But a novel is bigger than that, and the solution is to remember that

3. A novel is not a collection of short stories. Asimov got away with this in Foundation, but he got away with it because he had published each of the sections separately over time. The novelization of that story was to take the disparate but connected stories and to write a little filler to make them in a near cohesive whole. Its not impossible, but its hard to pull off successfully.

And what makes a story? First, you need to

4. Know your characters. Treat them like private RPG sheets if you have to, but know your characters. I didn’t. My characters shifted from one mood to the next without reason. I certainly didn’t know why. Sure, there was some natural maturation and development, but there was also so strange spin off character traits that made no sense in the context of the story.

At the same time,

5. Leave room to learn about your characters. Flesh them out, but don’t make them obese, in other words. Leave room to discover something about the character that still fits within the confines of what you have created. Establishing those confines in the first place helps you do this.

6. Respect those crappy novels that inspired you to write something better. You know why? Because no matter how much you think that work sucked, no matter how horrible and cliche, they did something you haven’t yet. They finished. Then, even more audacious, they got it published. But this isn’t so much about the second point as the first – they finished. Remember that when you knock their work.

7. Plan for the time you have, plan for the time you don’t have. Pretend, in the case of #nanowrimo, that you only have 3 weeks, not 4, to get the whole thing written. Set words per day (WPD’s) that let you meet the goal in 3 weeks time. Because things will happen. Holidays. Kids productions of plays. Late nights at work. Life. By planning on getting everything done in 3 weeks, you have room for that day you just can’t bring yourself to write a word, or the day you spend driving for 13 hours to get from your house to y our parents place for a holiday meal.

8. Write daily. Its said a lot, but write something, anything, every day. Your WPD’s may grow and shrink over time, matching the days you have the flood with the days you don’t care any more, but every little bit really does help. I had mostly days with only 2 or 3 thousand word outputs. I only made it because I had a lot of time off this month where I could force out a few extra thousand words to make up for the days I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) write anything.

9. Remember your real life and commitments. I got lucky – my wife was extremely supportive of my attempt this year. She didn’t bat an eyelash at the laptop that followed me everywhere, or the pen and paper I kept in my breast pocket wherever I went [sidebar: a habit when buying shirts has always been to buy shirts with a pocket to attach my badge to for work – doubled this year to also hold a little composition notebook and pen at all times]. I can honestly say if it hadn’t been for my wife, I wouldn’t have made it. For example, last night, final night to write before due day, she ordered pizza and brought food and drink to my desk so I could work through dinner. In our family, we like to enforce that no matter what, we all eat together at the table. Sure, at least one of the kids will refuse to actually eat during dinner, but at least we’re all together for the meal. Even this little gesture meant an awful lot to me, so if she reads this post, thank you love 🙂

10. Identify your tools and needs in advance. Don’t spend part of your month trying to find the right spot to write, the right editor, etc. This is what many like to call procrastination, and I am just as guilty as anyone. In the end, I found two tools that worked awesome for me, despite their being windows tools. Both are by Simon Haynes, an Australian science fiction humor author, and both made a huge difference in getting something done. The first was yWriter4, a tool that lets you flesh out characters, items, locations, notes, chapters, scenes, the whole novel experience from the comfort of one tool. It even helps you set up and keep track of WPD, assuming you remember to keep it updated with everything you write (if you don’t write from within the tool itself). The other tool on this site that is bar none the best thing ever(TM), is yedit2. It’s not fancy. It creates RTF’s, and in this version you can’t adjust for italics, bold, etc., although if you open a document using them they will display just fine. What makes this better than notepad? Two things: backups (nice to have), and the fact that you can set a word count target and it will keep track in the status bar of your progress so far, your goal, and how much you have left to write (or not). The two together make for a good, clean writing experience shy on distractions. yWriter5 is currently in beta and combines the two tools, which can only be a force of good in the universe.

But whatever tools you choose to use, I can’t recommend enough that you identify and situate yourself with them before you start writing. Know their drawbacks (like, no interactive spell checker, etc), know their advantages, and come to grips with the two ahead of time. Because when you sit down to start writing, you need to be focussed on one thing: what are the parts of a nautical ship, and how do you spell them in Attican Greek?

(end note)
Now the story I produced, it will be saved and set aside. It is, I am sorry to say, horrific at best. Despite my efforts, it still managed to be a string of cliches and McGuffins strung together with paper thin characters. Its dismal, and the only thing that kept me moving forward with it was the sure knowledge I couldn’t afford to start over. I plan on taking a week or so off, and then I will start plotting again. Because I do want to write a novel. Just because it isn’t this one doesn’t mean I won’t reuse a lot of it, because there were some interesting gems buried in there.

The blog might suffer for the short hiatus, but I figure, if you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’re used to a week or so between posts. Talk to you all again soon,


P.S. This blog entry ended at over 1400 words. Why can’t I write that much that fast when working on a novel???

final hours of nanowrimo

Its the final hours of #nanowrimo here in mcummings land, and I have to entertain serious doubts that I will make it. We decided to go ahead and drive home from Alabama last night so we could avoid most of the post-Thanksgiving traffic, which worked out great. The only bad part is that by the time we got home around 11 this morning, we were so exhausted that continuing on to do anything else (like hacking out the seven thousand words I need to finish the contest) seems impossible.

Over on squidoo, EelKat has posted a nice article on “How To Become a Better Writer” – the irony to me being that timing is everything. There are some good points in this article that would have been of more benefit at the start of this nanowrimo excercise.

But I’m procrastinating, aren’t I? I should be over in an editor tapping these words out, not here where the word count contributes to nada.


Sad things for a six year to tell you

Last Christmas, to help my young reader, I bought a picture dictionary. Now when I was a boy, I remembered having this decent sized dictionary that had illustrations for most of the object words, but that was a semi-decent dictionary in its own right. So when Christmas approached, I went through reviews and found one that came recommended on Amazon.

What a mistake.

The dictionary has maybe, maybe, a few hundred words in it, tops. And the sad thing my six year tells me tonight? Maybe when she gets her next dictionary, it can be without pictures, so there’s room for more words in it.


And why, you may ask, is my six year old concerned about a dictionary? Simply put, she’s tired of observing me struggle to make word counts for nanowrimo (you didn’t think a post would go by in November without a mention, did you?) and is trying to write her own story about peacocks. A word that is missing from her dictionary. Along with “once”. And “all”.

(Dear nanowrimo judges: would you notice if my novel digresses into a story about peacocks?)