How I churned out 50K words that became my first published novel
Writers everywhere are in the thick of it now, rounding the corner into two weeks of National Novel Writer’s Month. Judging by the social media posts, the pressure is on. The first blush of excitement is wearing a bit thin as daily word counts begin to fall short. Promises of catching up tomorrow, or over the weekend abound.
I’m in my third go ’round with the month long word sprint. I met the mark in both 2014 and 2015. The 2015 draft of my novel, Sins of the Fathers was published last year by Tellectual Press, a small, independent publishing house in Valley WA.
After skipping the 2016 challenge, I’m back again to push through a new tale, this time, a dystopian caution set in the not too distant future. I plan to use the same strategies I did with Sins of the Fathers, keep writing, don’t waste time editing and when all else fails, fake it ’til you make it.
Follow my 8 simple strategies and you’ll be well on your way to writing your own “The End.”
#1 Step Away
You know you’ve said it. We’ve all said it. “I get my best ideas when I’m away from the keyboard or don’t have a pen and paper.” There’s a reason for that and if you’re really curious, you can google something like, why physical movement unblocks the brain. But, you understand that Googling is just another way to procrastinate, right? We’ll talk about that later.
Whether you’re setting your alarm to squeeze in writing time before work, burning the midnight oil, or have all day long to write your way to the 50k (lucky you), the best thing you can do to prevent writer’s block is scheduling regular breaks away from the keyboard. Even when the writing is flowing it’s a good idea to get out of your head and into your body—getting your butt out of the chair helps pump fresh blood into your gray matter. You owe it to your story.
Scheduling your breaks depends on how much time you have to write. Only an hour? Take two quick breaks at about twenty and forty minutes in. Stand up, stretch, lift your knees, pump your arms or turn at the waist side to side, bend over and touch your toes. Then get back to writing.
If you have larger blocks of time, take the short breaks described above about every thirty to forty-five minutes. If you’re writing the day away, make your mid-morning and mid-afternoon break longer than the others. Take a fifteen minute walk or hop on your bicycle for a spin around the neighborhood. Roll out your yoga mat, or bust your move to your favorite dance-party play list. Exert yourself for 15 minutes, drink a glass of water and then get back to work.
#2 Stop procrastinating.
Yes, life goes on regardless of NaNoWriMo. There are jobs, family, chores and eating that can’t be ignored, but ask yourself how much of it is essential? How much of it can be delegated? How much of it can just wait a month?
When you find yourself doing chores you normally hate and there is no pressing reason to do them now, you’re avoiding writing your novel. Organizing closets, cleaning all the overhead light fixtures, sorting out your tool box, cleaning file drawers or computer files . . . say it withe me, “Procrastinating.”
And don’t use your novel itself to go hopping down the rabbit hole of avoidance in the name of research. Is it really necessary to understand the mechanics of firing pins, various calibers of hand guns, and the biomechanics of shooting because somebody in your story is going to shoot somebody else? The answer is no, it’s not. No, not even if those facts are going to play a pivotal role in your plot. Quick fact checks are okay. Time consuming research is not.
Ideally, you came into NaNoWriMo with some preparation, previous research, a plot and an outline, or at least knowing the beginning, middle and end of the story. If not, this is what brackets and ALL CAPS are for; [RESEARCH GUN FACTS – PUT HERE] followed by continuing to write the story. Also, [SOMETHING REALLY EXCITING/SCARY/SAD HAPPENS HERE] is acceptable. Making a note and moving on is what keeps you going through to the end. Trust me, you can look up the details, work out plot lines and add description later.
#3 Use Word Sprints
The NaNoWriMo site has a timer for this. Or you can use one of your own. Pick your time (twenty minutes is good,) set the timer and write without stopping, editing or rewriting for the duration. If you have writing buddies, up the ante with word sprint competitions to see who can write the most words in the chosen time. If you’re on your own, aim to beat your best sprint.
For added inspiration the site has a Dare Me option that gives writing prompts. Use them to insert unexpected elements into your novel (you can always take them out later). This simple practice of brainstorming works to get your own ideas flowing.
And speaking of brainstorming . . .
Brainstorming can be the most fun you’ve ever had writing. The rules are . . . oh wait, there are no rules. Whatever comes into your head, write it down – plot twists, unlikely situations, crazy characters, improbable solutions, completely outlandish occurrences.
When I worked as an events coordinator for a non-profit management board overseeing three historical sites, a colleague and I would spend our lunch hours brainstorming ideas for new fundraising events. No idea was off limits. If it popped into our heads and out of our mouths, it went on our list. We generated over 100 possible events. At least 95 of them were complete crap, logistically impossible or not appropriate (like pole dancing lessons in the historic fire hall).
But at least five of those ideas eventually became some of our most successful annual events. And for the record, I still think the pole dancing for fitness would have been a big money maker. The point is, not everything you brainstorm is going to be golden, but some of it will.
#5 Tell Your Internal Editor to Shut Up
It might sound harsh, but it’s the only way to shut down that know-it-all, judgmental voice in your head. Whether it’s telling you the whole book is crap, or nagging you to edit the word sprint you just completed because it could be so much better, just tell it to shut up and keep on writing.
Okay, if you want to be kinder, you can tell your inside editor you don’t need the help right now thank you, but you’ll be counting on it later. The quickest way to fail at amassing 50k words is getting caught in the editing loop. Write now, edit later.
#6 Tell Yourself to Stop Talking
I offer this strategy with a caveat. At times, when something wasn’t working and my writing was stalling out, I’d share thoughts for a solution with a writing buddy. Talking through it often helped me decide on a direction and get back to writing. But, if you find yourself talking about what you’re going to write more than you are actually writing it – at least record the conversations so you can transcribe them into actual words toward your 50k.
#7 Write What You Know
That old saw? Not exactly. There are probably sections of your book where you know exactly what is going to happen, but you’re struggling with the chapters that come before and after. It’s okay to write out of sequence. Go ahead and write the parts that come more easily.
I’m all about writing dialogue. Often times a chapter’s plot line comes to me as the dialogue for that chapter. I might have trouble with he lead in, the setting and action, but I know exactly what my characters are going to say once I can set the scene, so I skip right to the good stuff, and worry about the rest of it later.
#8 Don’t Buckle Under Pressure
This is NaNoWriMo, not the entrance exam to an Ivy League university. I know we all talk about winning NaNo, but let’s remember, there’s no panel of judges reading what you’ve written. To be perfectly honest, you could write, blah, blah, blah, blabber, blabber, blabber, blah blah, until you hit 50-thousand on your software’s word count.
The winning of it is in disciplining yourself to regularly sit down and write something, just about anything, that resembles a novel or a good start to one. If you didn’t do the aforementioned prep work, you can do it now and include it in the word count. Nobody is monitoring this.
More importantly, whatever you write, it’s not going to be your final draft. Even after NaNo, when you think you’ve written your final draft, if you’re fortunate enough to find an agent or publisher, they will waste no time letting let you know that it’s not your final draft—not by a long shot. You’re going to write and rewrite chapters, sections, paragraphs and sentences, repeatedly in that descending order, until every single word is right.
So lighten up on yourself, it’s just NanoWriMo. Write something every day. Write with the conviction that you will finish and when you make the 50k, congratulate yourself; you’ve proven you have what it takes to be a writer. When NaNoWriMo comes to a close, then you can go forth and prove you have what it takes to be a published author.