So You Plan to Try NaNoWriMo

Because so many people participate or are now aware of it, I probably don’t have to explain that November is National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo. But the first year I participated, back when Stegosaurus still roamed the plains, I had the same conversation a lot.

ME: I’m going to try to write a novel in a month.
OTHER PERSON: Why would you do that?

There’s really only one requirement. You write 50,000 words of a novel in a month. It’s a word count goal that is challenging but definitely doable if you apply yourself. And I still enjoy doing it every year, because it’s a time to focus on one project and engage with a bunch of other writers, and it’s a tremendous amount of fun.

I’ve participated in every NaNoWriMo since 2002. Not all of those novels were good, or even complete. (In the early years, I had no idea what I was doing). But my published books that started out as NaNoWriMo novels include The Windup, Show and Tell, Such a Dance, and Ten Days in August. From 2003 until 2013, I also acted as municipal liaison for New York City, meaning that on top of writing, I also planned events for the region and wrote weekly pep talks.

Basically, I have some experience with all this. And although there’s still a rational part of my brain that’s like, “A novel in a month? Why would you do that?” I’ve figured out how to do it. So I thought I’d offer some tips.

1. Plan WHAT you will write. “But I’m a pantser!” Yes. I get that. I’m not saying you need a detailed outline. But consider jotting down a few words about who your characters are. Write a paragraph describing the basics of the plot. Think about why you are writing this story—what’s at the center of what you want to say. Because I’ll tell you a secret: When I sit down to write knowing what I’m going to write and where the story is going, the writing goes much faster. I don’t stare at the blinky cursor or try to reason out what’s going to happen. I just sit down and write.

I’ll tell you another secret: a lot of advanced planning makes my first drafts really solid. One of the prevailing ideas about NaNoWriMo is that, if you’re writing that fast, it all must be complete crap. But I’m here to tell you, I had the whole Rainbow League series plotted out in detail before I sat down to write The Windup one November. And while I did have to make some changes and revisions, the final version of The Windup is not substantially different from the first draft I wrote during NaNoWriMo.

(Planning tips: Jami Gold’s Beat Sheets are great. I made my own beat sheet for my writing based on Save the Cat, which ties in nicely with both Jami Gold’s sheets and with Gwen Hayes’s Romance the Beat, which is a book on plotting a romance. Also check out the handout (PDF) from my Plotting for Pantsers workshop.)

(If you’re REALLY allergic to planning, consider sitting down each morning to plan out that day’s writing. Or, if you hit a block, sometimes it helps to plan the next scene—just write out what happens in a paragraph or two.)

2. Plan WHEN you will write Think ahead about when you can make time for writing, because you’ll need a lot of it to write 50,000 words in a month. Think about when you are at your best and most focused. I, for example, am better in the morning. So if I push writing to the end of the day, it kind of feels like pulling teeth. But if I write first thing in the morning, it flows. Figure out when your ideal writing time is, and stick to the plan to write at that time.

3. Try Word Sprints and Pomodoros. The basic idea of the Pomodoro Method is that you work in 25 minute bursts. I do this all the time with my freelance work. I’ve got an app on my phone that tracks the timed bursts of productivity. So a day goes like this: 25 minutes of work with no distractions, then a five minute break where I can check my email or Twitter or whatever, then repeat a few times, then a twenty-minute break, then repeat some more. It sounds silly, but I swear it works. If I just do pomodoros (the 25-minutes of work + 5-minute break unit) all day, I can get a ton done.

Word sprints work similarly. Set a timer (10 or 15 minutes is ideal; anything more than about 20 minutes starts to feel like a slog). Then cut out all distractions and just try to write as much as you can. I do word sprints when I have writer’s block, because forcing myself to write usually gets me through the block. Similarly, you can try a 1k1hr (trying to write 1,000 words in an hour). You can bang out the words for the day in a series of sprints, is my point, and I bet you could do it in less time than you think.

4. Participate in the Community… But Don’t Let It Distract You! There’s a fine line, maybe. I know anecdotally from all my years as a municipal liaison that people who come to write-ins are more likely to make it to 50K than people who don’t. I think we all need that support, or need people to prod us on. Most regions have write-ins (which is what it sounds like; basically everyone shows up at a location, usually a cafe or library, and types away in the company of others), as well as an online forum, a chat room, public social events, etc. This also means it’s possible to be chatty and not write anything, so keep an eye on how you’re using your community time.

5. Try Something New. NaNoWriMo is only a month, so you could view it as a time to experiment. Try a genre you’ve never written before, play around with new tropes, try a different approach. (Try planning, for example, if your usual instinct is to be a pantser.) If it doesn’t work, it’s only a month. But if it DOES work, you could learn something useful about how to write a book.

6. Don’t Look Back! NaNoWriMo doesn’t work for every writer because it requires an approach in which the writer plows forward without revising. I personally have adopted this approach for my writing year-round; I like to churn out a first draft quickly and then take my time revising and polishing it. But I also learned during my very first NaNoWriMo that if I stop to edit, I will definitely not finish.

Some writers need to revise what they just wrote before they can move on, and that’s a valid approach. NaNoWriMo is not for everyone. But if you’ve never tried it, I recommend trying the straight-on-til-morning approach at least once. (And, again, it’s a month. If it fails, go back to your usual approach in December.) Basically, write, and don’t look at what you wrote until December. For some writers, this means changing the font to white so they physically can’t read what’s already written. (For me, it just means no scrolling backward. If I think of something I want to change, I make a note of it in my project notebook—oh, yeah, I have a project notebook—and fix it later.)

For me, it’s better to have the raw material I can revise and shape rather than nothing. I can slay the internal editor and focus on story.

7. A First Draft Is Not a Final Draft. One would think this goes without saying, but I’ve heard from a lot of editors and agents over the years who dread December because they are inundated with half-baked NaNoWriMo novels.

Here’s the deal: 50,000 words is a very short novel. (It’s The Great Gatsby or a Harlequin Presents.) Most novels these days run in the 75–100K range (with some variation, depending on genre). So that 50K you wrote in November is really a jumping off point. Not to mention, if you haven’t read any of what you’ve written, how do you know if it’s good?

Revision is part of the process. In my Other Life, I work on writing and reading books for school-aged kids, and one of the things we always teach are the 5 stages of the writing process: pre-writing, drafting, revision, editing, and publishing. Maybe you want to send your first draft to a beta reader or critique partner, but if you want a book deal, polish that thing before you submit it to the pros!

My advice would be to let it sit in December. After all that noveling time, take a break, reconnect with your family, celebrate your winter holidays. Then read the whole thing after the New Year. The time spent away from it will give you a new perspective. Because NaNo is for first drafts, not final drafts. The purpose is for you to stop saying, “I want to write a novel” and to write it. But November isn’t the end of the story.

I would say also, after all the years of both NaNoWriMo and professional authoring, my approach during NaNoWriMo is not radically different from my approach the rest of the year, but NaNoWriMo gives me an excuse to prioritize writing over some other things in my life—gotta make that daily word count. And if you’re a NaNo veteran, consider changing the challenge: up your monthly word count goal (instead of 50K, aim for 60K or 75K).

Good luck!

November!

It’s been a really strange couple of months for me, primarily because, at the end of September, I started working from home full time instead of going to an office every day. On the whole, it’s been fantastic, and I’m really happy with my current working situation—not the least because it gives me a lot more time for writing—but all changes have some unexpected challenges. So things have been a little zany around here.

But it’s November, so I decided to do NaNoWriMo. I further decided that, since my workload is lighter in November than it has been in months, that I’d do something really insane and try to write 100,000 words in 30 days.

Here’s the thing with NaNoWriMo. It works for some people, but not everyone, and that’s fine. The thing with writing is that there are as many ways to do it as there are writers, so if you try something that doesn’t work, that’s okay, go try something else. I do think NaNo is good for aspiring writers because it forces you to prioritize writing over other things in order to make the goal, and it makes writing a habit for the month. It also forces you to say, “I’m writing a novel” instead of “I want to write a novel,” and for a month, you’re working toward that goal, getting words down on the page.

NoraRobertsOne thing I learned about myself through the NaNoWriMo process is that the general idea behind it—get those words down on the page—is super important for me. Since my career training is as an editor, and I’m kind of a control freak anyway, I can get obsessive about word choice and phrasing and I used to get stuck in scenes for days or weeks because they weren’t quite right yet, and then I never finished anything. I also actually really enjoy revising. So writing a rough draft, even if it’s not so great, is still a better strategy for me, because if I have the words down, I can work with that and make the story better in the revision process. (And I tend to do 3–4 passes through something before I think it’s ready for anyone else to see it, but see above about control-freak obsessiveness).

I love hearing about how other writers do it. I’ve heard writers say they write in the afternoon because they spend their mornings revising what they wrote the day before. I’ve heard writers say they put painstaking effort into their first draft so that they don’t have to revise much. Some writers write slower or faster than others. Some have full-time jobs and families and just write when they can squeeze it in. None of these approaches are better or worse than others, it all depends on what works for the writer.

I’m a fast first-draft writer, but I take my time with revising. I know I can write 40–50,000 words in a month without breaking a sweat because I’ve done it many times before. Last November, I wrote the bulk of Ten Days in August, or about 75,000 words of it anyway, and I was working an absurd number of hours on top of it. So I figured, hey, I’m logging less hours at the day job—and I have a better commute—so I’ll have time to do more.

But that’s November. The only real difference between it and the rest of the year is that I set a more concrete goal and I tend to write more because… peer pressure, habit, I don’t know. I like going to the local events (I ran them for years, actually) and I get a lot of writing done at those, too. So I write more and my first drafts are consequently a little rougher (not bad, but more typos and dumb mistakes). I’ve become a crazy plotter, so I had an outline for the before November started, which means all I really have to do is sit down and write it.

So, 100,000 words in a month. I’m not entirely sure I can do it—the most words I’ve ever written in a month is about 90,000—but I’m on pace so far. And if I don’t, well, I’ll still have a really solid first draft to revise in December.

Four Corners in French and the Rainbow Awards Cover Contest

FourCornersFRFSA couple of quick news items:

Four Corners has been translated into French and is available for preorder! (Release date is November 25, 2014.) Now you can read about Adam and Jake en français!

• Aaron Anderson’s cover for The Silence of the Stars has advanced to the next round of the Rainbow Awards Cover Contest. You can vote for it and many other great covers here.

Also, I’m doing NaNoWriMo, so I stuck a little widget in the website sidebar so you can track my progress if you feel so inclined. I’m behind on my research for this book, but apparently that is not deterring me from writing it!

stay with it!

(I know I promised you posts on craft. Consider this a warm-up.)

I can’t remember who coined the phrase, me or one of my critique partners, but we complain about Project ADD. I have this problem where I get super enthusiastic about a new story and can write like a furious beast for two or three weeks—sometimes that’s enough time to churn out a workable first draft, usually it isn’t—and then my interest wanes and something new and shiny comes along. My hard drive is littered with the corpses of abandoned projects, stories that I probably thought had potential at the time but which I have no desire to finish now.

Enter NaNoWriMo. I considered not even participating this year because I’ve got so much else on my plate, but I worked out in October that I could take time out to start this new series I’ve been planning for a while and still meet my other deadlines.

I’ve been splitting November between finishing the as-yet untitled sequel to The Stars that Tremble and starting this new series. And there’s a third book calling to me.

In the sequel’s case, I’m just about done now; I only need to finish formatting the manuscript and come up with a title before I can fling it out of my inbox. It wasn’t a book that was hard to write, but it did take me a long time to work out the ending. That seems like a silly thing to say about a romance novel—they end up together, duh!—but tying up all the loose threads took some time. I’m happy with the results, though. And I’m actually sad to be leaving these characters, especially Sandy, behind, but it’s time.

In the series’s case, I had two weeks of gleeful typing, but now that I’m well into week 3, I kind of want to work on other projects. I’ve got a manuscript that I wrote over the summer but put aside to finish higher priority projects, and now it’s calling to me all, “fiiinish meeee.”

But, no, I want to at least get Book 1 of this series written. I like to let first drafts steep for a little while because the revision process goes better if I go back to them with fresh eyes. So the idea would be to finish this book, then go back to the other manuscript.

But, wow, this one has been hard. Tertiary characters from the series are talking to me. I’ve got the first three books in the series outlined, and the heroes of the other books are telling me stories. It’s been pretty hard to focus on this first book.

But a series is nothing without its first book, and the first book has to be a good one to hook the reader on the series, so I really need to stick with it and not let myself get distracted.

The thing about NaNoWriMo is that it sort of forces you to stick with it. Like, dude, I write year round, I know I can write 50,000 words in a month. That’s cake. (That’s probably actually only slightly more than my average monthly output.) What’s hard is forcing myself to stick with a story.

Like, last NaNo, I actually stopped in the middle of the month and put aside my project—a novel about a young guy who falls for his agoraphobic neighbor—to write Save the Date. I have no regrets, but that novel about the agoraphobic guy never got finished. Someday, right? It’s in the revision queue with, like, six other half-finished projects.

So I keep saying to myself that I have to write AT LEAST 50,000 words of book one of this series. It’s a contemporary series based around an LGBT amateur sports league. The guys in the first book—who have really complementary personalities, in that one is strong where the other is weak—meet when one of them joins a baseball team in this league. Me telling people I’m writing about a bunch of guys in a gay baseball league makes their faces light up, so clearly I’m on to something, even if I’m not totally confident in this first book. Yet. I will edit it later. But in order to get it done, I can’t let myself get distracted by other projects.

So that’s what I’m using NaNo for, to force myself into sticking with a project when I’m getting distracted by other projects. And hopefully, I will have a completely (very) rough draft by the end of the month, and you will see book one of the Rainbow League series on shelves some time in 2015.

five things: whoops, it’s saturday

I was all set to have a wrap-up post up yesterday, but then when I was writing it, the post turned into this screed about how much I dislike how sex is handled in this het erotica novel I’m reading, and probably that one is best left in my brain and not on my website. So besides that weirdness, what else happened this week?

1. Earlier this week I was elected vice president of the Rainbow Romance Writers chapter of Romance Writers of America. I’m excited! I’m nervous! I do think, though, that we’re at a really crucial moment for LGBT romance, just as it’s starting to hit the mainstream. There’s still some work to be done to help LGBT romance writers be taken seriously. This is a really great board that I’ll be working with: President Damon Suede, Secretary Zahra Owens, and Treasurer Lara Brukz.

2. This is not the book I was talking about above, but my book club is reading Fifty Shades of Grey, which I had managed to escape reading to this point. I know, but here’s the thing: The actual content of the book is kind of irrelevant now. The fact that the book took off and that the perception of it is that it’s this hot, spicy book that is capturing imaginations means that a lot more attention has been brought to romance that is, let’s say, not the traditional boy-meets-girl-they-get-married-and-have-babies narrative. This includes more attention paid to erotic romance, BDSM romance, and, yes, LGBT romance. (There’s a subscribers-only article in last week’s Publishers Weekly on this very topic.) So I think, in the grand scheme of things, even if the book itself is terrible (I’m finding it boring) its publication has changed the landscape for romance novels in a mostly positive direction. (Not all of the press has been positive, obviously, but at the same time, how many books by your favorite authors have ended up on “If you liked 50 Shades, you’ll love…” lists? A couple of mine have.)

3. NaNoWriMo is always a two-pronged event for me. I both write a novel and do a lot of the social events. A week ago, I gave that above spiel about how, even if 50 Shades is terrible, it has generally affected positive change in the industry (mostly) to people at a NaNo party and they did not look at me like I was crazy! And last night, I was talking about JR Ward with a woman, and after we had the obligatory “Butch and Vishous should really just fuck already” conversation, she said, “I’ve never seen any other gay romance outside of slash fanfic,” and I said, “Oh, hey, let me give you my card.” I am apparently shameless!

It is kind of nice to answer the, “Oh, you’re published? What do you write?” question with “gay romance” and have people say, “that’s so cool!” instead of “Why would you do that?” See, changing times!

4. Word-count-wise, I’ve written roughly 54,000 words so far this November on two different stories. One is the book I’m not sure works (misanthrope meets colorful, outgoing guy) the other is a romantic comedy about a big gay wedding that is sort of an homage to every romantic comedy movie involving a wedding that you’ve ever seen. I hope to finish a draft of the latter this weekend. Would you like a tiny excerpt? Of course you would:

I knew I was being dramatic.

Okay, I was weeping copiously, my tears spilling on the bar.

“So what I hear you saying,” said Kevin from his perch behind the bar, “is that you want me to pour you a drink.”

“You don’t think he’s had enough?” asked Darren.

“He hasn’t had any.”

“Oh.” Darren shifted on the stool next to me. “That bad, huh? What happened, Tris?”

I was too blubbery to speak, so I pulled the invitation from my coat pocket and handed it to Darren.

He read it aloud. “…request your presence at the wedding of Stuart Harker and Roger Stone…” There was a pause, although I couldn’t see was Darren was doing through my fingers given that they were pressed firmly against my eyes. “Wait, Stuart Harker? As in your ex-boyfriend Stuart?”

“Yes,” I said, the word sounding watery. “His parents request my presence to witness the wedded bliss between their son and the asshole he met less than a year ago.”

“That’s cold, man,” said Darren.

“Ten years of my life! I was with Stuart for ten years! Then we break up and he marries the first stupid twink who comes along.”

When I looked up, Kevin and Darren were exchanging glances.

“Maybe Tristan shouldn’t drink,” Darren said.

5. On the other hand, I just got edits for Show and Tell so that is the next thing on my priority list.

Christmas Story + NaNoWriMo

My Advent Calendar story, “A Walk in the Dark,” is now available for individual download over at Dreamspinner. It’s a very short story. You can read an excerpt here.

NaNoWriMo concluded yesterday, and I now have a mostly-finished first draft weighing in at 83K+ words. Lots of crazy things are happening in my life right now, so I’m gonna have to postpone revisions for a couple of days, but I’m really excited about this manuscript. There are ancient gods and reincarnation and an antique shop and a snarky reality TV host. It’s pretty fun.

And my fridge is still full of leftovers, so I’m gonna go snag a piece of pie.

modern sensibilities

I have a guest post up at the RWANYC blog on having modern sensibilities but wanting to write history, which is sort of how Across the East River Bridge came about.

And right now, I’m twiddling my thumbs until midnight so I can get started on my NaNoWriMo novel, which I have been bravely sitting on for six weeks. (I seem to be writing… fantasy? That can’t be right. But it’s NaNo, so anything goes, I guess. I LOVE this idea, it’s all about New York through the ages and finding lost objects and… it’ll be good, I just know it. I want to start it!)

c’est moi

Why, yes, I am apparently just narcissistic enough to post a photo of myself from GRL! I took hardly any photos, which I’m kind of regretting now, so I’ve been going through all the ones people are posting to the Yahoo group and Facebook and their blogs and all that. (For example, check out Heidi Cullinan and Marie Sexton’s travel blog.) This photo here I took from the Yahoo group (thanks, Susan!). So here I am, signing autographs on the Creole Queen at the big singing event. It’s almost like I’m a real author or something.

I seem to have brought back the same case of the sniffles that everyone else at the retreat got as a souvenir, but it was totally worth it. My brain is STILL buzzing.

Anyway! Things of interest: I made a post last week to the Loose Id author blog that is basically about how I’m a nerd (in this case, my relative nerdery about history was the inspiration for Across the East River Bridge, so, see, relevant!). I have a few other guest posts and things lined up for the coming weeks, so I’ll let you know about those.

By the way, Across the East River Bridge is now available from Amazon, a little early even.

I went to the first NYC NaNoWriMo event of the year on Tuesday and I, uh, handed out a bunch of the surplus bookmarks from New Orleans (so if you got here from a bookmark, hi!). I have what I think is a cool idea for a novel to write this November. M/M contemporary, but with some fantasy elements tossed in. (Someone at the NaNo meetup said, when I described my plot, “So magical realism.” And, yeah, that seems about right. Sort of a departure for me, but I think it will be fun to write.)

So that’s all the news that’s fit to print right now.

(I look so serious in this photo! Being an author is srs bsns, apparently.)

review, broadway, november

First, thanks to Night Owl Reviews for the great review of Blind Items!

Second, among other things, I went to see the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying on Broadway this weekend. I have to say, Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe was pretty great! It’s a fun show.

Third, I’m thinking about National Novel Writing Month already, and have this completely crazy idea. I spent some time today writing out several pages of notes. So I hope that works out!

50,000 words under the sea

I passed the 50,000-word mark on this months’ NaNoWriMo novel a few days ago. Due to circumstance and other projects, I haven’t written anything more since that happened. I did learn a few important things this NaNo, however.

Choosing to write historical fiction was both a really good and a really terrible idea. For me, writing something historical is always fraught with terror and frustration. I want to get all of the little details correct. (When I come across things I know to be factually inaccurate in historical novels I’ve read, the mistakes tend to pull me out of the story, for one thing. Also, I’m a tiny bit obsessive.) It means I get bogged down in the research, and writing the story itself is nearly impossible. But giving myself a deadline meant I pounded out that story. I’ll have to go back and edit a lot and fact check and obsess some more, but the skeleton of the novel is in place, which is probably more than I would have been able to say if I had written this novel on my own time. But writing was frustrating in a lot of ways because I found myself getting hung up on the details—”Would a man in 1927 really say that?” “Yes, but what is she wearing?”—and the story didn’t always progress how I intended it. (Which is maybe a weird thing for a writer to say; I have control, after all. Except maybe I don’t because I wanted the novel to be darker, more detailed. I’ll have to go back to fix that.)

Still, it’s hard not to feel good about having a first draft well underway. (I’d guess I still have about 25K words to write to finish the whole draft.)