Last Minute NaNoWrMo Tips

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by Larry Brooks on October 28, 2010

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.

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