Monthly Archives: October 2010

Last Minute NaNoWrMo Tips

It’s easy to blast NaNoWrMo.  I’ve done it myself.  Not because I think I’m above it.  Rather, because it invites the wrong goal. 

The point of it all is too easily missed.

It implies that the craft of writing a novel is quantitative rather than qualitative.  That simply finishing 50,000 words will take you closer to something.

Question is, closer to what?

The point is that it might allow you to discover something. 

That’s what’s up for grabs, here.  It is the point too easily missed.

The vast majority of NaNoWrMo participants are either new to writing or they’ve been around long enough to get that they need a goal with a fixed deadline.  If they’re new, and they don’t match the 50,000 word quantitative effort with an equal focus on the qualitative criteria, then the effort is wasted.

And that’s a shame.  Today’s post is intended as a last ditch effort to avoid such an outcome.

I’ve been assured that the exercise is a worthwhile one, and I’m now on board: anything that gets you writing is a good thing.

Then again, maybe not. 

Imagine National Learn to Fly month.   You’d have airplanes raining down on us beginning on day one.

Imagine National Take Out Someone’s Appendix Month. 

I know, lives don’t depend on your ability to successfully bang out 50,000 words.  But it begs the question: what does depend on it?

Think long and hard about that one in the few days that remain before you begin writing your NaNoWrMo story.  Your answer to that question will define your potential return on the investment of your November. 

If you can’t answer it, then chances are it’s already wasted time. 

That’s like going to boot camp without ever understanding that it’s all about going to war.  Because simply finishing 50,000 words without learning anything is nothing to brag about. 

The real question is, what have you really accomplished in terms of furthering your craft as a storyteller?

Tip #1: Set a Goal That Isn’t Quantitatively Driven

I used to play baseball in the minor leagues.  Did that for five years.  In all that time I saw only one guy who actually quit the game.  For everyone else, the game quit us.  And yet, in the many years since, 9 out of 10 ex-pro baseball players I run into or hear about claim they left the game to pursue something else.  That it was their choice.

That’s pure bullshit.

NaNoWrMo is like that.  Everybody secretly hopes to write something with a future.  And yet, 9 out of 10 of the folks I talk to about NaNoWrMo claim they do this for other reason.  To simple see if they can finish.

Also pure bullshit.

Make your NaNoWrMo story this year the birth of something bigger than the contest itself.  Make it a learning exercise, a birthing, a project you care enough about to nurture and develop far beyond the month of November.

That’s the Bit Tip here.  Care enough about the story you are writing to approach this properly.  To do it justice.  To prepare it for a life after NaNoWrMo.

There is much you need to know – about the craft of storytelling, and about your story – before you begin writing it.  The extent to which you grasp these fundamentals defines your ability to write something of worth.

You can’t just make up your story as you go. 

By the seat of your pants.  Without an intuitive sensibility about the fundamentals of structure and character and dramatic theory.

That’s lesson one.  If it takes NaNoWrMo to drill that one truth into your head, then the exercise will be worthwhile.  If you think you can reinvent the craft from a zero-base of knowledge, or from your vast experience as a reader/consumer of stories… welcome to hell, where everybody, especially you, is believing their own lies.

You can’t learn storytelling from reading novels any more than you can learn to fly by sitting in First Class.  It’s way harder than it looks.

The most basic fundamental of all: your story needs a hero… a hero with a problem or a challenge… with obstacles… with effort and failure and growth along the way… and with an outcome.

No travelogues, no linear memoirs, no stories without conflict.

And don’t overwrite.  Trying to impress someone with your pretty sentences is like wearing too much perfume on the first date.

Tip #2: Cast Yourself as the Hero in Your Story

Oldest advice in the writing world: write what you know.  Another take on this: write what you feel.

Write a story about something important, versus something you think it clever.

Bring your learning curve and your emotional reflection to the journey upon which you are launching your hero.  Make us feel what you felt when you took a similar path.

Tip #3: Write Short Chapters

A successful story is all about dramatic tension.  Something that builds, layer upon layer, and increases in pace and stakes as you go.

Make each chapter a bullet.  Aim it at a specific narrative/expositional target.  One revelation per chapter.  Each chapter is a single stair, taking the reader higher.  And be sure to toss in at least three landings on this literary staircase.  A place where the stairs head in a new and unexpected direction.

This is called mission-driven storytelling.  Know the mission of each scene you write before you begin it.  Writing a scene that seems to be searching for its own purpose is what will keep your story from working.

Tip #4: Read Everything on This Site About Story Structure

You need a hook in the first 20 pages.  You need to set-up a major revelation (Plot Point One) at about the 20th percentile of your story, a moment that reveals both the antagonist in the story and the stakes for the hero.

The hook and the First Plot Point are very different things.

The key is making the reader feel the weight of what the hero has at stake.  You have about 10,000 words to do it.  Don’t cut it short, and certainly don’t go beyond that point to lower the boom.

The First Plot Point is when your story really begins. 

From there it gets more complicated.  Four distinct parts of the story, each with a different contextual mission.  A mid-point that throws back the curtain of point of view.  Character arc.  Thematic resonance.  A Second Plot Point that is the beginning of the end.  Pinch points.  And a whole bunch of character nuance.

All of which by the way, you absolutely need to know like the back of your writing hand.  At least before your story will work. 

See Tip #9 for more on this one.

Tip #5: At Any Given Moment in the Story, ask Yourself Certain Questions

What is the hero after here?  What is the reader feeling?  What remains to be revealed?  What is at stake?  What is the mission of any given scene?  What is the sub-text of the story (theme)?  What is the sub-plot of the story?  How am I demonstrating character arc?  Am I on pace for optimal structuring?

It’s all right here.  Stay up tonight and dig into these archives.  They can empower your November far beyond your highest expectations.

Especially if you don’t even know what you don’t know.  Again, see Tip #9.  That’s the point: allow NaNoWrMo to take you to a higher level as a storytelling.

Tip #6: Give Your Hero A Life Before You Crack It Wide Open

During those first 10,000 words you have a job to do: make us understand and empathize with the hero.  To know what the hero needs and wants, which becomes the very thing that you will put in jeopardy at Plot Point One.

We don’t have to like your hero – indeed, the beginning of character arc is often composed of that which needs work – but we do need to empathize with her or him.  To feel the journey as if it were our own.

Show us a hero of depth and purpose.  Or not.  But make us feel it either way.

Why?  So when you put your hero in the way of opposition, we root for them.  That’s the key to everything.  You need to make us feel – relate to – the hero’s journey.

Tip #7: Write the Story In Context To How It All Ends

In a successful story there’s a little thing called foreshadowing in play.  And it can’t happen until the author knows precisely what’s down the road. 

Especially at the end of the road.

An early draft – especially a first draft – is often a search for the story.  But it doesn’t have to be.  You can actually plan the story ahead of time – that isn’t against the NaNoWrMo rules, by the way – and write a draft that is an execution of a story rather than a rambling, random search for it.

This alone can make the difference in your outcome.  The more you know about your story before you write it, the better your draft will be. 

Tip #8: Pay Attention to How This Process Makes You Feel

Writer’s block is one of two things: the writer has fallen out of love with the story (they can’t figure out how to make it compelling), or they have written themselves into a corner and don’t have the requisite fundamental awareness of dramatic theory and structure to get out alive. 

The latter is the result of using the draft to search for the story.  Which is precisely what happens if the goal is to simply finish 50,000 words.

If you feel lost or confused, it’s because you aren’t allowing the paradigm of story structure to lead you to what needs to happen next, in context to what you’ve already put into play.

The solution is sticking to the basics: four parts to the story, four different contexts, all separated by specific story milestones with a narrative purpose.

Just like a pilot or a surgeon.  There are certain things you need to do at certain times.  And you can learn them before you write a word.

You may not understand how a wing makes flight possible, but there isn’t a pilot on the planet who doesn’t understand that you need that wing to get off the ground.

So it is with the basic principles of storytelling.

Tip #9:  Identify What You Don’t Know

NaNoWiMo is a time of learning.  Of discovery.  Certainly, there are more participants who will discover the basic tenets of craft – through omission if nothing else, and possibly upon autopsy of the story come December 1st — than there are those who will create a publishable story.

That said, both are possible. 

Pay attention to the pain.  It is asking you to do this right.  To learn.  To discover what will make your story sizzle.

Tip #10:  Don’t Finish.  Make This the Start of Something.

Beginning NaNoWrMo without the ambition to create something of value, to simply experience the act of writing 50,000 unstructured words, is like getting married without the intention of making the relationship work.

Certainly we begin our primary relationships without knowing everything.  The discovery of the unknown can be part of the bliss, because you can apply that learning toward making the future even richer.

And yet, there are always certain principles in play that make the relationship viable and help it grow stronger.  Violate them and you end up in divorce court.  Or simply miserable.  The learning curve of a relationship isn’t as much about discovering your partner as it is about discovering the basic physics of living and loving together.

About learning how to love.  And love has expectations and rules.

You get to choose the outcome, by virtue of how you honor those physics.

So it is with writing a successful story.

You are giving birth to something here.  Allow yourself to fall in love with it.  To imbue it with a solid foundation based on what has been proven to work. 

Not something you make up or fake as you proceed.

I wish you a successful NoNoWrMo journey.  Storyfix is here for you when you get stuck. 

Or, if you want to discover the love.

Allow me to suggest my ebook on story architecture: Story Structure – Demystifed.  It will completely change your NaNoWrMo experience, and just possibly transform your story into something with a future.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

A Little Help for NaNoWrMo Writers

Not that you need help.  Actually, if you’re signing up for this exercise and you don’t think you need help… then the overwhelming odds are that you do.  Need help, that is.

Because it’s next to impossible to write a publishable novel in 30 days. 

That said… miracles do happen.

And I’m going to tell you how that miracle can happen to you.

Of course — and I’ve learned this from an onslaught of in-your-face feedback on this issue — a huge percentage of NaNoWrMo writers aren’t kidding themselves about the outcome — nor are they hoping for a miracle — they’re in it for the experience.

To learn.  To immerse.  To have fun.  To suffer for their art.  All worthy rationale to devote November to your project.

And a few are just kidding themselves.

NaNoWrMo writers come in two flavors: those who understand the underlying structure and theory of writing book-length fiction, and those who don’t.  Ironically, it is the first group that isn’t kidding themselves about turning out something that will end up in a bookstore. 

Just as true: the vast majority of NaNoWrMo participants aren’t in that group. 

The goal is to hammer out 50,000 words. 

That’s it.  That’s the only stated goal.  Anything else, goal-wise, is in the mind of the beholder.

Thing is, that’s not long enough to be a publishable novel, just as November isn’t long enough to write one.  Not really.  A few YA novels come in at that length, but genre and adult contemporary novels are usually longer. 

But time isn’t the real challenge of NaNoWrMo.  Discovering the true nature of a novel is.

So the first step in the process — the first healthy step — is to set your goal. 

What are you out to accomplish during this month of literary madness?  How serious are you about doing this thing right, versusjust going through the motions and discovering what you have yet to learn?

The latter is a noble outcome.  Thing is, you can learn that stuff before you bleed to death from your forehead before November 30th. 

 You have a week to increase your chances by orders of magnitude.  Keep reading, I’ll show you how.

It isn’t rocket science.  It’s literary science.

Which is harder than rocket science, by the way, because it depends on someone else’s imprecise opinion.  The only thing that is precise about writing a novel are the fundamentals of dramatic theory and structure.

Do you know what they are?  If you don’t, you can’t make them up.  Not in November, and not in any other month.  Not if you want your manuscript to have a future.

If your goal is to bang out a first draft of something that will one day be publishable after subsequent drafts, then I have some valuable tools to offer you here.

If your goal is to write a publishable draft – period – during November, then this information is your only prayer of getting there.  Unless you’ve already mastered the aforementioned theories and structural paradigm, in which case you probably have your reasons for your NaNoWrMo commitment. 

This is about fiction, after all.

I actually think it can be done.

It’s a little-known fact that the rules of NaNoWrMo permit story planning and outlining before the month commences.  Which means you have time create a springboard toward a signficantly higher level of success.

You can begin your NaNoWrMo novel with each scene planned out ahead of time.  Outlined, tested and ready for your glorious words.

In fact, in spite of my own skepticism, I believe that it is possible to write a submittable first draft doing just that, and that you actually can do it in 30 days.  But only if you know what you’re doing, if you understanding what your story needs to be before it will work.   You have to know the game intimately, and you have to be able to bang out from 2000 to to 5000 words per day, depending on the extent of your story planning going in.

You can’t simply plan it, either.  You have to plan it right.  Which is why you need to keep reading, because I show you how to find that information.

If you begin planning your story on Day 1 — again, you don’t need to wait, it isn’t cheating to begin plotting your story now — then you probably won’t get to the actual writing until about Day 10 (if you do it right; fair warning — getting this right is the hardest part of writing a publishable novel), which means you have 20 days to write 60,00o to 80,000 words.  Do the math. 

Remember, you can start your story planning right now and get a week or more ahead of the game, leaving you more time — and a lower daily word count — once the clock starts ticking.

You wouldn’t show up on a vacant lot with a load of lumber and a snapshot in your head and expect to build a house that anyone would want.  No, you’d have a blueprint, based on solid architectural principles.  That’s the idea here, too.  Show up on November 1 with a plan.

The question is this: do you know what you need to plan?

I’m going to tell you.  Right now.

First, you need to accept and understand this: you can’t make up your own structural paradigm or linear flow.  Any more than a first time surgeon can feel their way through their first operation without the benefit of medical school.  Certain things need to happen at certain places in the story, and in certain ways.  In novels and in surgery.

All published novels end up ascribing to a fairly specific structural model.  I’m speaking generically — your story can be about anything you want.  Anything at all.  But it needs to unfold in a certain order, and in a certain way.

I’ve written about it on this site many times. 

Read my story structure series, which unfolded in about 12 posts last fall.  There are many other posts on story architecture here, too, including one you need to read even if you skip the rest.  Read it HERE.

And I’ve written an ebook about it.  In case you want the whole contextual picture in one place, and them some.

If you aren’t familiar with the principles of story structure, dig in.  It’s your only shot.  The odds of you blindly dumping your killer story onto the page in the right order, with the right timing, dramatic tension and escalation, are almost non-existent. Don’t write your NaNoWrMo manuscript with blinders on.

But you aren’t done.  Once you know the nature of the requisite architecture, you need to wrap your head around a long list of more aesthetic facets of character, theme, conceptual power, scene execution and writing voice.

That’s why I said the odds are almost non-existent if you enter these 30 days without this base of knowledge.

That said — because I know you believe you are the one writer that can beat those odds — I can help you there, too.  Click HERE to read what I named my #1 post of 2009, one that has been reprinted all over the internet because it holds the key to your best shot at having a successful NaNoWrMo, at least if you’re thinking long term.

I’m moving this weekend, so I’ll leave this post here a little longer than normal.  Tell your NaNoWrMo peers, kick it around, and write your novel from an informed perspective. 

A month of your life is a long time.  Make it count for something beyond the experience.  Make it the start of something.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)