Time for NaNoWriMo

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We want YOU to join us this year!

NaNoWriMo Is…

National Novel Writing Month is an event that takes place every year during the month of November. The basic idea behind it is that participants attempt to write a 50,000-word novel (first draft) during that month. The website provides a place to record progress, inspiration throughout the month, and social interaction with other participants.

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I LOVE watching that bar fill up!

I love NaNoWriMo. It’s a huge part of my life. I wrote 80% my very first finished novel draft during NaNo in 2013, and all of my second novel’s first draft during last year’s event. The focus on quantity over quality, the support and accountability, and the overall excitement of the month really spur me on.

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And never underestimate the value of competition.

I believe that NaNo can be for anyone–not just those hoping to publish a novel, or make a career of writing. Not even just people who like to write as a hobby. Anyone who has ever dreamed of writing a novel (or long story, or any lengthy work…heck, even just several short stories) can benefit from NaNoWriMo.

NaNo, however, isn’t necessarily for everyone. By that, I mean that I realize that there are people who don’t work well under the pressure that NaNo can bring. Or who do write (as a hobby or otherwise) already on a regular basis and wouldn’t benefit from the intensity of the event.

Fear of Failure

I first participated in NaNoWriMo in 2007. It wasn’t as wide-spread as it is now, and I didn’t have a local region close enough to even attempt to join in local events. I loved participating, and I loved the results of my month of frenzy. Then I skipped the next year because I didn’t have any idea for something to write. After that, I proceeded to skip 2 other years–2010 and 2011. I made the excuse that having a new baby at home made it impossible to try. However, looking back, I think it was just as much that I hadn’t been randomly inspired by a story idea.

Not participating those years boils down to one reason: fear of failure. If I think I don’t have a reasonable chance of completing NaNoWriMo, I would rather not participate. However, since I spent every one of those Novembers agonizing over the fact that I wasn’t writing, and thinking, “If I start now, I may still be able to win,” I do sometimes feel like I actually participated those years, and simply lost. I lost by not trying.

Last year, as November approached, more than one family member told me they had considered or were considering participating in NaNoWriMo. Apparently my enthusiasm had finally spread! However, one of them said he didn’t know if he would, because he might not have an idea in time. Another said she was pretty sure she simply wouldn’t have time.

If someone considers participating in NaNo, but chooses not to, what is the reason for their decision? It’s most often fear of failure, as near as I can tell. Without that looming deadline, that possibility of “losing,” there wouldn’t be as much reason not to jump in and try. However, that looming deadline is exactly what makes the event so fun, exciting, and helpful to many of us.

So, as a NaNo veteran (my qualifications include 5 years of actual participation), I want to do what I can to help those who are considering NaNoWriMo this year, but don’t think they have what it takes.

Finding or Making Time

NaNoWriMo is almost two months away, which is plenty of time to develop a plot and create some characters. It also gives time for a hopeful Wrimo to work out how they will find the time for NaNoWriMo. While it is one of the first things many people who are considering NaNo wonder about, it doesn’t have to be a reason not to participate.

One of the reasons NaNo works so well is that it only lasts a month. One month. 30 days out of 365, during which we tell ourselves, our families, or our friends that we’re going to disappear, slack off in our duties, or ask for extra help. It’s not always; it’s only for one month.

I’m a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom with two kids. My prime writing time is from around 9 pm until maybe 2 am. The house is quiet, and I’m a night owl anyway. Sometimes I’m able to slip away for twenty minutes here and there during the afternoon. On weekends with no plans for the family, I really go nuts, because my husband is home to take care of the kids.

The key, though, is to make NaNoWriMo a priority. Don’t schedule unnecessary events during November, give up some TV or computer time in the evening, and give NaNo the time and attention it needs.  How much time it needs will vary on the person, but I tend to believe that the more planning is done on a story, the less time the writer will take to get the words out.

2013 NaNo Participant FB Profile

One running joke among Wrimos is that our novels are built on inspiration, hard work, and caffeine.

My plan is to make more posts between now and November that could help someone plan out a NaNoNovel from scratch. I’m not a professional writer, a creative writing teacher, or even very experienced at this sort of intensive planning. I’m simply someone who wants to share the joy and creativity of NaNoWriMo with everyone.

Start Here

If you’re ready to start planning your story, don’t let me hold you back. You can probably search the internet for ways to generate ideas for a novel and find help from people much more qualified than I. But if you come back next week, I’ll post some of my own suggestions for sparking ideas. As daunting as the end goal may seem, it all starts with a tiny seed.

In the meantime, start using the next two months to prepare your schedule. Figure out ways you can make more time in your day, or decide what you can cut out for a month. And use this time to practice. It doesn’t have to be as intensive as November will be, but take some free time here or there, time that might normally be spent reading, watching TV, or whatever, and work on your pre-writing during that time. Get the feel of what time of day is best for you to do writing work. And always be thinking toward November.

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You’re on your own with this one…

Plan Every Day: Those With Whom We Spend Most of Our Time

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Character creation is an important part of developing a story. It’s one of the key elements of fiction, right up there with plot and setting. A unique character can make a stale plot seem new again. Alternatively, an overused character type can drag down a brilliant plot. So what do we do? We plan. We carefully craft our characters before we start to write. Sometimes, before we even start to outline.

(Obviously not all characters are planned in advance–you’re not always able to plan for everything that may come up as you’re writing. And maybe pantsers don’t have any characters figured out before they start. Is that a thing? I don’t even know. If so, though, at some point, I would think they’d have to slow down and flesh out the characters that came as they wrote.)

For me, character creation can sometimes go hand-in-hand with the outlining. As I’m weaving the plot, the characters are being defined by what the story needs. Sometimes, an idea for a character is sharp in my head before I’ve even figure out what may ever happen to that character.

In my early writing, I wasn’t great at making various characters have their own distinctness. That doesn’t mean there were 5 of the same person, but with different names and genders, wandering around interacting and moving the plot forward. Rather, I seemed to have a general nice, friendly type of character and a general crabby, anti-social type of character. I noticed that a lot of my side characters almost mirrored the main character.

In the time since then, I’ve been more careful to give each character their own sense of being. It has been an important part of my current revision of “Pithea” to flesh out side characters who are actual people in my head, but don’t get a lot of “screen time,” so to speak. Just because they have small parts doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be as much themselves as I can make them in those parts.

There can be a question, though, of how to really craft your character into a real person. Character sheets are an obvious answer, and you can find different forms of those all over the place. I’ve tried that before, but I’ve realized I don’t care for them. For a while, I thought that if I couldn’t answer a question like, “What is your character’s philosophy on death?” it was because my characters weren’t deep enough. Obviously I needed to answer that to have a really good character. But the truth is, no matter how I answered, it felt silly. It felt forced. It just didn’t work for me. (Character sheets or profiles can be a great tool if it works for you. I’d never discourage anyone from doing it. I may even try it again someday. Maybe I just need the right template.)

To get to know my characters, give them their own voice, or discover why they are who they are, my favorite method is just writing. Write a scene unrelated to the plot, centered around the character in question, maybe even from the point-of-view of that character, even if the main story isn’t. Writing prompts can come in handy for something like this, if an idea doesn’t readily present itself. But the general idea is to write out a scene and let that character shine in their uniqueness, and it gives you a better feel for that character.

As I’ve been working on “Pithea” with my sisters, one of them defended a character that was meant to be disliked by other characters and readers alike. My sister said, “He’s tactless, but everything he says makes sense. Why does everyone else always jump on him? They’re all really mean to him.” I was shocked and confused. He was a bully! Rude! Horrible! But as I read through his parts in the story, I realized that she was right. He wasn’t the nicest guy, but the other characters reacted to the man I saw in my head, not the one on the page.

So I spent some time getting to know him. I started with the personality I wanted him to have and asked what in his life could have led him to be that way. Then I wrote out important points about his early life. Over the course of a couple days, I did some writing practice from his perspective. None of this would ever make it into the story, but it was important to me. I shared it with my editing-partner sisters so that they could understand how I saw him. Then I changed some of his parts in the story, based on the deeper understanding I have of him now.

One more thing–while I don’t fill out a pre-made character sheet, I do make sure to write down traits or other important notes about my characters that I realize along the way.

Plan for yourself: Think about any characters you may have that you feel are not very well developed. Or that you feel have confusing motivations. Consider why they are in the story in the first place, and what specific personality or outlook on life their role would require of them. Then go backwards from there and think through why that personality might develop in them. Does he look down on women because he had three older sisters who treated him harshly? Did she become a nurse because when she was younger, she remembered how her sick grandfather’s nurse had brightened his stay in the hospital?

Spend some time getting to know them. Fill out a character sheet if you like and haven’t already, but go further than that. Write more with them than you might plan to for your story. Write as them. How would they describe themselves? How do they see the world? What do they think of the main character? Put them into a conversation with someone else, about something important or just what to have for dinner. How do they talk, react, or move during the conversation?

Make sure to write down anything you learn about your character during this time, somewhere that you can easily refer back to it.

How do you get to know your characters? Do you have a character sheet template that you use for every one? Do you ever struggle to avoid copy+paste characters, or do you excel at creating unique individuals? How many times do the words “character” or “characters” appear in this post?

Plan Every Day: Our Frenemy, the Outline

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Something else I learned in my high school creative writing class is that planning (or pre-writing) can be your friend. Thinking solely about research projects and essays, as much as I disliked doing them, writing an outline first always made the actual writing easier.

Cut to now, when I have no classroom to work in, no teacher to force me to do every tedious step of pre-writing, and no grade for my effort, or lack thereof. And you know what? I still do pre-writing, at least to some degree.

The debate of whether it’s better to be a plotter or a “pantser” rages on out there in cyber space. I’ve seen more than one comment of, “I’m not much of a planner. I write out broad plot points, but I have to give room for my story to go where it wants to go.” I have a response to that, but I’ve already ranted (jump to point 3) a little on that topic.

Planning might just help more than you expect. Don’t ever think that pre-writing locks you into anything. Very rarely do I even outline an entire story. Often, I outline to somewhere in the middle, then start writing. Sometimes when I get to the end of the outline, I’m on track. But more often than not, I derail before that point. Then I either just keep going or stop, regroup, and outline from there. Various sites call that a downside to being a planner, but is it really that big of a deal? Most likely, if your story has gone off-track from your plans for it, then there’s a reason, and you’ll likely be happier following the new path. Yes, you might have to write a new outline, or you might just pants the rest of the story (it’s okay to be a hybrid planner/pantser).

Have you ever had a story or scene rolling around in your head, maybe even playing itself out? There have been times that I feel like I’ve written half of the story before I ever put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). But when I do sit down to write it out, one of the following things happens: I’ve forgotten many of the important parts; what was playing through quickly in my mind takes a lot longer to write out and I can’t get it all done in one, two, or even several sessions, leaving me again in danger of forgetting what I don’t get to for a while; or I simply can’t figure out how to start.

So instead of going directly to writing, I make an outline. Then I can get a lot of story out before I forget it. Even aside from potential forgetfulness, outlining a lot of the story at once can let you see how it will go from a distance, which sometimes lets you catch mistakes or fill in plot holes before they happen.

One last note I want to be clear about–don’t think that in order to make an outline, you have to use the formal format.

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You know the kind, with the Roman numerals and all the indentation.

That’s great if it works for you. I tried it once, but I didn’t care for it. Normally I just write broad plot points one line after another, sticking in details when I think of them and want to remember. Here is an example:

outline

Plan for yourself: It’s not easy to practice or try out planning or writing outlines, but I do have a few ideas. And keep in mind, I’m not trying to convince you that planning is better than pantsing. If you already know you work better without an outline or much forethought, then you should feel free to skip this whole thing. However, if you’ve never really given it a try, now’s your chance. If you’re like me, you have at least one story idea rattling around in your brain, waiting to be given form. Take some time now, even if you weren’t planning to write that story now or even soon, to start planning that story. Write out the key plot points, make a sketchy outline, and get it out on paper before it disappears into the void.

Another option, if you’ve written a story (or part of one), have characters you’ve created, and don’t have other ideas just now, is to take those characters and the world they live in and just think up a new situation for them. Something unrelated to the story they’re already in (or it can be related too), even something crazy that you know wouldn’t happen. Outline a scenario, long or short, and see how it feels. The idea is just to see how outlining can feel, with just a random scenario that doesn’t have to have any further purpose. Though who knows, maybe this will spark a more solid idea simply because you’re pushing yourself for a new idea. But even if not, get a feel for the outlining and see what you think. You may like it, you may not.

Of course, if you do write an outline for a story that interests you, the next step would be writing from that outline. You can’t fully evaluate whether you’re a planner, pantser, or hybrid, without going past the outline. But the actual writing is a subject for another post.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the great debate, or anything you produce from the above ideas that you’d like to share.