When I started NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) on November 1st, 2013, I had no earthly idea what I was doing. Burnt out from finishing my PhD and working the adjunct labor circuit, I thought the month of November would give me a nice respite, a “break,” from the grind of academic output. Write a novel, they said…it will be fun, they said. And it was fun. It IS fun. NaNo was truly one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. But when the dust settled and I finished my first novel, there were so many things I wish I had known about writing, the writing community, and the conditions for writing. So I’ve collected here ten things I wish I knew before NaNoWriMo. Bear in mind, this advice might not pertain to you or to anyone else’s writing process or experience. I’m not the one writing that Donald Trump/Jabba the Hutt erotica thriller (and maybe you shouldn’t be either). But I do hope my experience helps in some way.
- Your Character Needs a Goal. When I first started my novel, I had nothing but a character and an image in my head. After several revisions, I came to understand my protagonist’s goals and through that understanding, my plot sparked to life. It wasn’t enough for my character to wander through this clever world I had created. That was boring. She needed to want something. She needed something to fight for. Now, whenever I start a new book, I think very carefully about what my character needs on a macro and micro level, and I consider her material needs (maybe it’s to get her family’s land back or find her mother’s killer) and also her emotional needs (to liberate herself from her overbearing father or to be at peace with who she is). While sometimes the character’s goals change or deepen over the course of a draft, I would never start a new project without this essential component.
- Your Character Needs a Conflict. Ok, so your character wants something, but if you make it easy for your character to obtain that goal, it’s, well, boring. If everything comes simply for your protagonist, there’s no point in telling that story. Who or what is standing in your hero’s way? What is keeping her from getting what she wants? You need a baddie. Even if that baddie is the demons of your character’s past or her drug addiction, it has to keep her from what she wants.
- Your Character Needs Something at Stake. When I taught comp and students would ask me how to conclude their essays, I would always say, “Try to answer the ‘so what?’ question.” Why should we end the death penalty or legalize marijuana? So what? What’s at stake? This is a question I try to answer for every new project. So what if my character never finds her mother’s killer? What’s at stake for her? What’s going to happen to my main character if she doesn’t achieve her goal? And most importantly, why should my readers care? There was a time, not too long ago, when buying a book, a $12 book, was a major financial sacrifice for me. There was nothing worse than throwing down that cash and then finding myself in the middle of a book and just…not caring. Readers crave emotional connection. It’s why people like me with vulnerability issues read in the first place! We want to feel something in those 300 pages.
- Get Rid of “To Be” Verbs and Passive Voice. Excuse me while I get technical for a minute, but I’m going to save you a lot of time later. Now, we’ve all heard the importance of active voice, how it’s vital to write the boy hit the ball (active voice) and not the ball was hit by the boy (passive). But man, was I surprised when a much more seasoned beta reader looked at my first chapter and highlighted what felt like a hundred “to be” verbs (am, are, is, be, been, being, were, was). These words are the devil! They are empty and useless. One or two on a page isn’t the worst, but do yourself a favor. Write a few pages of your NaNo project today. I won’t tell anyone you cheated. Just write like no one’s watching. Write what you feel. Let the words pour out of you. Then go back and highlight your to be verbs. Practice changing your sentences around to get those little demons out of there. It will take a while to get the hang of it, but you will save yourself and your future betas a lot of grief down the road.
- Cut out the Filtering. What is filtering? Filtering happens when we create a barrier between the reader and what the character is feeling, tasting, seeing, hearing, etc.
Examples of Filtering: I saw the boy ran down the stairs, and I heard his footsteps pounding on the pavement.
You’re thinking to yourself, what a horrible sentence! Why would anyone write that? I have no idea. I’m currently editing a draft of a book I wrote in early 2014, and I ask myself that question about filtering all the time. Generally, filtering requires an easy fix.
No Filtering: The boy ran down the stairs, his footsteps pounding on the pavement.But sometimes filtering can sneak in there when you’ve had a few extra glasses of wine and your prose starts to get purple-y.
I felt his velvet skin across mine. (I write romance, okay?)
But you can also say,
His velvet skin moved across mine.
(New blog post idea, “Why You Should Never Write ‘Velvet Skin Ever.’ Like, Just Don’t Do It.”).
- Learn How to Use Dialogue Tags. So this is very embarrassing for me to admit. I have a PhD in Literature, which means I’ve read A SHIT TON of books (that’s an actual academic benchmark, BTW). I’ve read ALL the books, from Chaucer to Toni Morrison, but OMFG I never noticed how writers do dialogue tags. I had a very polite beta reader point out to me how I didn’t have to use “said” after every freaking line of dialogue. So embarrassing, guys! But if you haven’t started NaNo yet, this is definitely something to practice.
So instead of…
“You’re such a moron,” Jenna said. “How could you not know how to use dialogue tags effectively?”
“You’re such a moron.” Jenna sighed and walked over to Colleen’s bookshelf, her hands dancing over the spines of 500 years of great literature. “How could you not know how to use dialogue tags effectively?”
(Just kidding, Jenna, my beta reader, who also designed this fabulous website, would never call me a moron. She’s super nice).If you’re new to this approach, definitely check out The Emotion Thesaurus. It will help keep your characters moving around and behaving like real people as they’re talking to each other. And also, there’s nothing wrong with throwing in one or two “saids” now and again. But definitely don’t overdo it like I did.
- Find Your Writing Tribe. Are you on twitter? Facebook? Have you joined the NaNo forums? Have you gone to a local NaNo meetup? No? Are you crazy? In our culture we love to romanticize the myth of the lone artist, but that is such bullshit. Yes, writing is a solo art, but as much as I love my “me time” with my words and imaginary friends, I have found that I need my writing community. I need them for support, for understanding, for ideas and advice. I need them to help talk me off a ledge when I’m ready to hit Ctrl+A and delete everything, and I need them to celebrate my word count goals and accomplishments.
Me: Hey, honey! I wrote 1K words today!
Husband: That’s great, what’s for dinner?
Me: Hey, writing community, I wrote 1K words today!
Writing Community: OMFG THAT’S GREAT! YOU’RE AMAZING! YOU’RE THE NEXT JK ROWLING! YOU’RE FUCKING KILLING IT! WOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!
Don’t get me wrong, my husband is the most supportive partner I could ever ask for in life. He’s my biggest fan and champion, but he’s not a writer. He can’t understand what it takes sometimes to write those 1K words. You will need people around you who are going through something similar and can offer you encouragement even in your darkest hours.
- Write in Sprints! What are sprints? Sprints are short increments of time where you find a writing partner and you race to write as many words as you can. Whoever has the most words at the end, wins. But everyone wins because you’re writing! Get it? My writing partners and I tend to write in 20 minute sprints. Sprints are great for people who suffer from a slight social media addiction (me) or have very tight schedules (also me). I’m not exaggerating at all when I say I wrote my last two novels in 20 minute sprints. When I first started sprinting, I could write about 200 words in 20 minutes. Now, after two years, I average about 400-700 depending on the scene. No matter how much you write, all those words will definitely add up.
- Set Up a Writing Schedule and Stick to It. When I first started NaNo, I generally wrote during my lunch break and after my kids went to bed. After a week of frustrations, I realized how much I allowed the world eat away at my very meager personal time. I had to make sure I closed my door to my office during lunch lest a chatty colleague wandered by, and I had to be very strict with my husband about making sure he stuck to the bedtime routine. I still am very militant about writing time, but that’s what it takes. And this brings me to my final piece of advice…
- Communicate to Your Family and Friends about What You’re Doing and Why You’re Doing It. Starting a novel was by far the bravest thing I’ve ever done, primarily because I felt a deep sense of shame and embarrassment about it. I already had a career, and writing romance felt silly. Childish. I didn’t tell a lot of people at first, or if I did, I made a lot of self-deprecating comments about it. In other words, I didn’t take myself seriously. I, Colleen Halverson, am giving you permission to take yourself and your writing seriously. If you have a story inside you, that is special. That is meaningful. It is worth honoring. Tell your friends and family what you’re undertaking. Explain to them what kinds of sacrifices it might mean for you and for them. Explain your needs in very specific terms. For me, it meant my husband taking on a few extra chores and minding the kids on weekends so I could write (see, I told you he’s supportive!). Most importantly, tell them what it means to you to try at NaNo, to give your story everything you have in order to put it out into the world. Explain to them how accomplished you’ll feel even if you only make part way to your goal. When I started NaNo, I could never have imagined that one day Entangled would pick up my story for publication. It still seems impossible, but the NaNo tagline resonated with something deep inside me: “Because the World Needs Your Novel.” The world needs your novel, too. This is your chance. Take it.