Monday, October 21, 2013

Thinking About Writing a Book in 30 Days? (Here's a bit of advice to get you started...)

Last week I did a presentation at two local libraries for writers interested in taking the NaNoWriMo challenge this year. NaNo, in case you are wondering, is a cool writing site where participants pledge to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. It costs nothing to join and you get to be part of a cool community of writers all chugging along on the same crazy journey. At the end of the month, if you meet your goal, you win a virtual badge (WOO HOO!) and the satisfaction of knowing you've got a finished first draft to play around with later.

Tracie, the awesome librarian at the Upper Arlington Ohio library who'd asked me to give the presentation, introduced me as a writer with lots of wisdom to share.

I had a hardy laugh about that. Yes, I may have won the virtual NaNo badges (For the record, I wrote four novels during previous NaNos and one of those novels turned into--after multiple revisions--my first published novel.) but in many ways I am still a beginner. Each day's writing is just as hard (if not harder) than the day before, and if I have learned anything over the years, it is that I always have more to learn.

Anyhoo, a few writers emailed to say that they could not make either of the presentations but would love it if I could share my notes. I'm not sure how useful these will be, but in the spirit of sharing "wisdom," here goes:

1. The nitty gritty. Get out a calendar page of the month of November. Look at the days you will realistically be able to write. Count them up. Divide 50,000 words by that number. The answer equals the number of words you will have to write per day if you want to win. To put this in perspective: if you plan to write all 30 days, you will need to write 1667 words per day. I NEVER could do that. There's Thanksgiving to think about. As well as life in general. My daily word count goal was always something nutty like 2800 words.

2. Every book begins with an idea (or two).

  • There's a saying that it takes two sticks to light a fire and two ideas to create a story. Sometimes these ideas are unrelated on the surface. For example, my book Thin Space began with the idea of a girl moving into a creepy old house AND the Celtic belief in thin places, where the wall between our world and the world of the dead is thinner. 
  • I read once that there are only two basic plots--the hero takes a journey or a stranger comes to town. That's it. Every story, movie, book you've ever heard boils down to either of those two plots. The hero takes a journey, for example, would be like Luke in Star Wars or Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. An example of a stranger comes to town is Jaws. That story, of course, has both plots. The stranger (Jaws) comes to town, and the hero (Chief Brody) goes on a journey to kill him. 
  • Another way to look at your story is to ask a question. Will Luke defeat Darth Vader and restore balance to the universe? Will Dorothy find her way back to Kansas? Will Chief Brody overcome his fear of the water (and what a goofball that guy is living on an island!) and kill Jaws?
  • You can also ask yourself: Whose story is it? What's happening? What is at stake? 

3. Once you've got your ideas/basic plot/questions, the next step is

To outline


Not to outline

It's perfectly okay during this pre-NaNo time to outline your story. I'm not talking the formal outlines you did in seventh grade with Roman numerals. Simply write out a list of your characters, a few of your ideas, the conflict and questions. Chart out scenes, etc. Some writers I know write very detailed outlines that go one for 50 pages.

I am not one of these writers.

The beauty of NaNo is that you can start writing your book with very little plotted out in advance. Take your two ideas or your question or your basic plot idea and just see how it all plays out as you write.


Once upon a time I went to a writing conference where the brilliant author Jane Yolen told the audience of 1000 people that she was about to share her secret to writing a book. She paused, and you could hear all 1000 people holding their breaths and leaning forward eagerly.

The answer, Jane Yolen said, is BIC.

Another pause.

And then she smiled and said, "Put your Butt In the Chair and write."

Yeah. The truth is there are no short cuts and no magic answers. But know this about NaNo, and about writing a book in general (and this probably applies to anything in life--such as running a marathon or losing 20 pounds): if you chip away at your goal by writing those 1667 words per day, in the end you will make it to the finish line.

5. To get yourself warmed up each of those days

Read books on writing. (See the list below for helpful books on craft, inspiration, writer's block, etc.)

Before I begin a writing session, I read a chapter from one of these books.

Or journal the junk out. Every morning write for ten minutes--all the gibberish-y stuff clogging up your brain and keeping you from thoughtfully beginning your work for the day. Anxieties, snippets of dreams, arguments you're having with the comment section of a Yahoo news article, bills you've got to pay, etc. Get it on the page and out of your head.

Do whatever you need to do to get your daily word count done. Set an alarm. Flip an hour glass (my little trick). Leave the house and write in a coffee shop. Stay in the house and lock yourself in a closet. Or mix it up and try a different motivational strategy each day.

Don't forget to reward yourself at the end of a session. Writing 1667 words in a day may not seem like that big of a deal, but do it today, and the next day, and the day after that... and you deserve a piece of chocolate. Or a bag of Doritos.

6. Biggest nugget of wisdom I know: Resist the urge to revise as you go. NaNo is about quantity NOT quality. Get the words down (crappy as they may be) and worry about fixing things later. If it helps, keep a notebook on the side of all the things you want to delete/change/fix later. DON'T WORRY ABOUT THAT STUFF NOW.

And finally, remember E.L. Doctorow's true words of wisdom:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Good luck. And meet me back here in mid November for a middle of the month pep talk.

Some helpful books on writing

Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, and Thunder and Lightning by Natalie Goldberg
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See
One Continuous Mistake by Gail Sher
Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
On Writing by Stephen King
The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron
Elements of Style by Strunk and White

PS. Here's a post I wrote last year on why you should NEVER EVER send your "finished" first draft out to a publishing company or an agent on Dec. 1.


  1. This post almost--almost!--makes me want to do it again this year, but it can't happen. And I just this morning sent my agent my last year's Nano book, so I completely agree with your P.S. I agree with it all, actually, but especially the P.S.

    1. Writing this post almost--almost!--made ME want to do it again. But, alas, I have three Nano drafts in various stages of revision to work on.

  2. Read this and thought about my own jump starter "Embace the Glorious Awful of Shitty First Drafts." Which, as it turns out because I just looked it up, I stole from Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird.

    1. Hey Web, if you've read Bird by Bird, you are well on your way. She's freaking awesome.