If you’ve ever doubted you can write a novel in 30 days, rest assured. You can.
I have. And so have many others.
Granted, a few of the novels I’ve written during NaNoWriMo didn’t turn out quite the way I’d hoped. But each one is salvageable, and last year’s novel turned into something quite different. But it’s finished, and I’m in the middle of querying agents right now. Woo!
Here are a few novel writing tips I’ve learned along the way.
1. Don’t sweat it.
You’re writing a first draft, remember. This is the exploratory phase, a time to see if you actually have a story in your idea or concept and the characters or themes you’re working with. And nothing will be lost no matter what. (At the very least, it’s a learning experience!)
A few ways to beat stress:
- Don’t compare yourself to other writers.
- Don’t expect your family and friends to cheer you on. If they aren’t writers, they might not get it. Let that be okay, and don’t try to make them understand because everyone has their own thing, after all. If they do get it? Yay!
- Do set aside time for yourself and guard it. Insist that it be respected, if necessary.
- Make sure you have a space of your own in which to write, even if that means going out to a coffee shop with your laptop or tablet (or pen and paper).
- Don’t let frustration cause you to quit. Take a break if you need one.
- If you get stuck, see #5
- Cook food in batches for the week ahead. Freeze some if you can.
- Enlist the support of your spouse or partner and the kids, if you have them. Assign tasks, especially for older kids or adults. Ask them to take care of their own laundry or breakfast or whatever they can do that you typically do for them. If you’re single and can afford it, schedule a cleaning service mid-month, if needed.
- Consider taking a few vacation days from work, if you can. Use them to catch up on writing or other tasks that might be in the dust come mid-month.
- Limit time suckers like writing forums or groups and social media. It’s fun, sure, but if you’re short on time, they can drain you.
- Get some exercise and eat or drink sensibly. Every year, I see loads of NaNoWriMo advice that tells you to stock up on chocolate or cookies and coffee. Not a good idea to have your blood sugar going up and down all day, and too much sugar, alcohol, or caffeine can mean poor sleep and increased stress. Stock up on carrots and fruit like apples or pears instead, and juice them or eat them as snacks. Make smoothies.
- Stretch! Do yoga. Meditate. Breathe. It’s just a novel. (Yeah, right. Heh.)
2. Make sure your main character has a goal and conflicts that either push him toward the goal or might prevent him or her from reaching it.
A good story needs much more than an interesting idea and characters. It needs more than “this, this, and that happened.” And even if you have a beautiful writer’s voice and a talent for descriptions, dialogue, and characterization, your novel needs more.
Suppose a young man and a woman fall in love in high school or college, but their careers or other interests separate them. They meet up again ten years later and the spark is still there. That’s nice, but without a goal and some conflict, it won’t make a great story.
But what if they promise to contact each other in ten years if they still feel the same way? And both of them long for the other even while distracted by other lovers and life in general? They finally meet, get married, and live happily ever after.
Sounds better, but it’s still a yawn.
Nothing really happens without conflict. But what if they both have serious problems in other relationships because they can’t let go? Maybe the man writes long letters or emails to her, which he never sends, and his new girlfriend or wife finds them. And maybe the woman calls out his name while dreaming or during a passionate moment with someone else. The memories and longing cause constant conflict for each.
And finally, the man has a life-threatening illness or car accident and can’t contact her when ten years is up. But on instinct, she tracks him down and finds him against all odds and they’re reunited. And he dies two days before she gets there. Or two days later. Or they live happily ever after.
Now you have a story.
3. Don’t worry about editing.
This is great advice (you can read it anywhere). But it’s not an absolute, and I don’t follow it 100%.
That said, whatever editing I do isn’t detailed. For me, editing while writing is like a warm-up. I’ll go over what I’ve already written and do some tweaking, rewrite a few awful sentences, or delete something. Or I might change or add to what I wrote earlier so the next scene makes sense. I might even fix some typos or grammar issues.
A little re-reading and light editing can ease me back into the story and help me focus. It’s thinking time, really. Pondering what has taken place so far as my mind conjures up what will happen next.
But I do that quickly and move on. It’s not the kind of editing I’ll do later, when I might work on a short paragraph for an hour to get it exactly right. And I don’t fuss over typos; I only fix the big ones that get on my nerves. There’s just no point editing carefully so early in the game because you might not use that section in the end anyway.
The point of NaNoWriMo is to get your story ideas out of your head and into some semblance of a novel. If I’m running behind my goal, or if a scene is rolling out of my head like storm clouds on a hot summer day, I barely breathe while I type as fast as I can.
4. Let your story flow from your deepest depths.
Some call it being in “the zone.” Others call it “flow.” I call it “dream writing” when I’m talking about fiction.
Have you ever noticed, just as you’re falling asleep, that your thoughts start breaking up into dreams? Bits and pieces, fragments, and images float around but you’re still partly awake. A brilliant idea or scene for your novel might come to you during that time—and you’d better wake yourself up and jot it down or record it so you don’t forget.
Dream writing is something like that, but I think it comes from a deeper place—and while you’re fully awake.
It’s sort of like writing from that place “where dreams are woven.” I go there. It’s like watching a film. Or it’s like stepping into the bodies of my characters as they go about their business. I feel like a voyeur sometimes, and one of my characters actually got pissed off at me and wouldn’t budge at one point—he just stopped in front of my female protagonist and wouldn’t say or do anything. And I spent two days figuring out what his problem was before I could write anything else. (I’m not kidding.)
How to get there?
Alone time helps, not just while writing but other times too. Get familiar with how busy your brain can actually be. Make a conscious effort to let go—let go of control—and go to your story, get into that world. Let your characters talk and do what they want to do. No interruptions.
It’s different for everyone. I don’t always have to be alone, for example, when I’m really with my characters, but I know when I am and when I’m not. But do what you have to do. Let it go and let it flow.
5. If you’re stuck, work on your outline or create one.
If you’re already working from an outline, but things just aren’t jiving, you might need to take a break for a day or two. You might even need to revise your outline. But give yourself plenty of “writing time” nevertheless. Alone time or quiet relaxation time counts as writing time. Time for your brain to work in the background. Get ideas. Go for walks. Hang out by yourself.
Or listen to music for inspiration. I did some serious jamming while writing and revising my current novel. Certain songs would come into my head at certain times, and I’d play them over and over and over again because they captured the mood of the scene or chapter and kept my brain in that place or gave me ideas.
Not into outlines? Even Chuck Wendig hates ’em but he creates ’em.
Think of yourself as a builder. And your novel is a house.
All houses (and novels) need structure. They need supporting beams, walls, doors, windows, roofs, rooms, and hallways. A novel needs a premise, a setting, a protagonist, tension, a goal, an inciting incident, conflict, climax. Read more here about all that and more.
If you’re stuck, I’m willing to bet it’s because you don’t know where you’re headed. And that can be fixed by working on or creating an outline, even a simple one, no matter what you want to call it (a “plot plan” or plot diagram works).
Good luck! But it’s more than luck. It’s hard work, lots of practice and learning, and believing you can do it more than anything. Just do it.
Check out my tips from last year and the year before.
Comments are welcome as always!