Archive for category writing tips
Welcome to Hell, boys and girls.
Today is the first day of NaNoWriMo. And if you’re signed up, you’ve got a long, crazy, awesome journey ahead of you.
To kick start you on your way, here’s a few tips that’ll help you have fun and avoid frustration this November.
1. Back Up Your Work
If you take one thing away from this post, make it this. Back up your novel. Do it every day. There is nothing more crushing than seeing three weeks of hard work and creativity go down the drain because you didn’t back it up.
And don’t just keep your backups in a different location on the same computer. If your hard drive fries or your laptop gets stolen, what are you going to do then?
Think that’ll never happen to you? Maybe not. But if something does go wrong, you’ll be kicking yourself that you lost everything when it’s so easy to protect yourself.
Cloud storage options like Dropbox or Google Drive make it super easy to back up your novel to an off-site location. Even emailing the file to yourself will do the trick.
I suggest you keep backups in at least two locations other than your main computer. Keep one set of backups on an external hard drive or on another computer, and keep another set of backups off-site, using something like Dropbox. Even if your house burns down, you’ll still have your NaNo novel. Hey, it’s better than nothing.
And whatever you do, don’t entrust your entire novel to a USB thumb drive. Those things corrupt files at the drop of a hat, and they’re easy to lose as well.
2. Get Ahead Early
Later on in the month, things will get hard. Your enthusiasm will start to wane. Life will distract you. And I’m told those of you in America have to deal with a strange ritual called Thanksgiving.
So do yourself a favour. Get ahead of your word count goals in those early days. Instead of stopping at the daily average of 1667 words, push on to 2000, or 2500. Those extra words will add up. If you miss a day further down the line, you won’t have quite as much to catch up on the next day.
3. Write Every Chance You Get
If you live a pretty busy life, you can’t afford to wait around for a nice big chunk of time where you can do some writing. You have to get out your club and go hunting for that time.
Write while you have your breakfast. Write on your lunch break at work. Write in the bathroom. Write when you should be studying or putting on the laundry. Use writing as procrastination from more important tasks. Carve out a few minutes here and there throughout your day. A hundred words here, two hundred there. It adds up faster than you’d think.
If you don’t have a laptop you can carry around with you, use something else. Write longhand in a notebook and transcribe it later. If you have a smartphone or a tablet, you can write on that. Yes, you can. I don’t care if it feels weird writing a book with your thumbs and a touch screen. If you can write a text message or type something into Google, you can write a few more paragraphs on your book.
You really have to fight for this writing time. This may mean you have to neglect friends and family a bit. Tell them what you’re doing, and tell them that this is important to you. If they love you, they’ll understand. Or forgive you, at least.
4. Avoid Procrastination
I’m going to be a big hypocrite here and tell you not to procrastinate. I’m absolutely terrible at this. But if you’re a procrastinator like me, you’re going to have to figure out how to get your butt in that chair and actually write.
Raymond Chandler, that master of hardboiled fiction, was also a procrastinator, and he knew it. So he came up with a method to solve this problem. Every day, he marked out a certain amount of time. For those hours, he locked himself in a room with his typewriter. And he had just two rules.
- You don’t have to write.
- You can’t do anything else.
With nothing else to entertain him, he would eventually start writing out of sheer boredom.
Of course, that’s a bit more difficult these days. For most of us, our primary writing device—our computer—is a source of all manner of procrastination aids. Facebook, emails, news sites, Facebook, YouTube, Facebook, and of course, Facebook. If you’re the sort of person who can easily get trapped in an endless loop of checking emails, checking the news, checking Facebook, checking emails…, then there may be only one cure:
Turning off the Internet.
I know, I know, that sounds like a drastic measure. Like cutting off a leg to cure an ingrown toenail. But if turning off the Internet (or using a browser blocker) for a couple of hours a day is what it takes to get you a finished novel, isn’t that worth it?
5. Keep The Words Flowing
Whatever you do, don’t stop. Don’t go back and edit that last chapter. If its bothering you that much, write a note to yourself about what needs to change, then move on.
Don’t get bogged down trying to come up with the perfect name. Call your love interest Sexypants McMuscles and move on. Later on, you can always do a “Find and Replace” with the real name. Or maybe you’ll realise that Sexypants McMuscles is the best goddamn name ever.
Likewise, don’t spend half an hour on Wikipedia looking up some detail that isn’t crucial to the plot. Just type [XXX research this] or something so you can find it later.
That’s it from me. If you have your own tips, leave me a comment!
Good luck and Godspeed, brave novelists. Get out there and write. And most important of all, have fun.
Welcome back to my series on NaNoWriMo preparation. Last time, we talked about planning out your characters before you start writing. Today, let’s look at a method for creating a basic plot outline for your novel.
Remember, this is just one possible way of outlining your novel. I think it’s a pretty good method, both for newbies and experienced writers. I’ve been using it myself more and more. But in the end, only you can figure out how you write best. Take what works, and leave what doesn’t.
In the last post, I encouraged you to come up with goals, motivations, and conflicts for your main characters, and to write that information down so you can refer to it. This time, we’re going to use that information to create a plot skeleton that gives you the basic shape of your novel.
We’re not going to plot out every single scene in your novel. Instead, we’ll just be looking at the seven key scenes that almost every story has in some form or another. Different writers have different names for these scenes, but in the end it’s all the same.
If you have a plan for these seven scenes, you’ve got a rough roadmap for your entire novel. There will still be gaps where you can explore and go in different directions. But this method gives you a few landmarks to head towards when you start writing.
I’ll list each of the seven scenes here, and then we’ll go through them in more detail. As we go through each scene, write down how you think you’re going to fit that scene into your novel. If you have no idea yet, leave it blank and come back to it later when you’ve got some of the other pieces filled in.
Here are the seven key scenes:
- Opening (Inciting Incident)
- Plot turn 1 (The Point of No Return)
- Pinch 1 (Apply Pressure)
- Midpoint (Information Obtained, Plans Made)
- Pinch 2 (The Darkest Moment)
- Plot turn 2 (The Last Piece of the Puzzle)
Opening (Inciting Incident)
Openings are hard. There’s no way around that. You’re trying to introduce characters, places, maybe a whole new world. You’re trying to hook the reader. And you’re presenting the inciting incident, that event that changes everything and propels your protagonist(s) through the story.
That event—the inciting incident—is what you want to focus on for now. That’s going to be the core of this scene. The event that changes things for your character. It could be something big. A bomb going off, or the detective getting a call to inform her that the serial killer everyone thought was dead is killing once more. It could be your character getting fired, or getting arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. If your story is a quieter one, this inciting incident might be less dramatic.
But the point is that we want to introduce the first threads of the story nice and early. This serves two purposes. It hooks the reader, making them want to continue. And it means you don’t spend the first three chapters with your character wandering around doing nothing in particular while you try to figure out how to write yourself into a story.
You could read entire writing advice books dedicated to the opening scene. But don’t get too worried about trying to make your opening perfect just yet. Until November ends, the most important thing is to get the words on paper, even if they’re not as good as they could be.
Once you’re in revisions , you’ll have plenty of time to cut out info dumps and think of cool opening sentences. But for now, just think about that single incident that changes things for your character.
Plot Turn 1 (The Point of No Return)
This scene is where things really start to get serious. Here, your protagonist’s goals, motivations, and conflicts become firmly established. The character knows what he has to do, and why he has to do it. Maybe he doesn’t know how he’s going to do it yet, but he knows he has to try.
Often, this is the point where the character has a chance to back out of her quest. She could turn around and go back home and ignore the problem. But then something shows her the consequences of giving up. She then makes the conscious choice to work towards achieving her external goal.
In Star Wars, this scene occurs after Luke Skywalker rejects Obi Wan’s offer to teach him about the Force. When he returns home, he sees that his uncle and aunt have been killed by the Empire’s stormtroopers. He now knows the consequences if he refuses the call to adventure. So he chooses to go with Obi Wan and fight the Empire.
Pinch 1 (Apply Pressure)
The pinch points are scenes where pressure is applied to the characters. New threats appear. Your hero gets her butt kicked and figures out she’s in way over her head.
This is a good time to show your character exactly what she’s got herself into. Maybe she thought achieving her goal wouldn’t be too hard. Show her how wrong she is.
In an action story, this might be the protagonist’s first direct encounter with the villain or his minions. In that case, your hero probably gets defeated and only barely escapes. In a different type of novel, this might be where the protagonist comes face-to-face with the controlling mother-in-law who will stop at nothing to break up the happy couple. Or maybe your protagonist flunks a test she thought she was going to cruise through.
Basically, we want to ratchet up the tension and show both the audience and the character that it’s not going to be easy for her to achieve her goal.
Midpoint (Information Obtained, Plans Made)
Generally, this is where the protagonist goes from being reactive to being proactive. She’s sick and tired of wandering around in the dark, clueless and running away from threats. It’s time to fight back. It’s time to actually figure out how she’s going to achieve her goal.
But your character isn’t just going to wake up one morning knowing how to achieve her goals. She needs new information. That’s the other major component of this scene. New knowledge.
He may discover an important clue that changes everything, or work out that the enemy has one weakness that maybe—just maybe—he can exploit. This new information can even be something simple, like the heroine finding out that the hero likes her as much as she likes him. It all depends on your story goal.
Your protagonist has some valuable new information, but that definitely doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing from here on out. No plan survives first contact with the enemy.
That’s why this is also a good place to crank up the stakes. Increase the conflict, and increase the protagonist’s motivation. Maybe the bad guys kidnap someone important to the protagonist. Maybe there’s now an added time pressure. (We’ve just learned that there’s a bomb, and it’s going to explode in less than three hours!) Maybe our heroine just found out the hero likes her, but she also found out that he’s about to marry another woman.
Granted, this is a lot of stuff to cram into one scene. In your novel, the “midpoint scene” may actually be spread out over two or three scenes.
Also, bear in mind that this scene doesn’t have to come exactly halfway through the novel. It’s fairly common for this to happen a little earlier. Not a problem.
Pinch 2 (The Darkest Moment)
You thought things were bad before? You have no idea, pal.
This scene is where it all goes horribly wrong. For a moment there, it looked like your protagonist’s plan might just work. He was doing everything right. He learned from his earlier mistakes. Victory was within his grasp.
And then all hell broke loose.
In action and adventure stories, this is often the scene where someone important is killed by the enemy. A lot of the time, the victim is the mentor character (Gandalf falling in Moria, Obi Wan being cut down by Darth Vader). But it could just as easily be a friend or an ally who falls here.
Of course, death isn’t necessary in every story. Instead, maybe your protagonist does something that drives his friends and allies away. Or maybe his friends become trapped and cannot help. Maybe the hero and heroine have a fight so bad it looks like they’ll never recover from it. Perhaps your protagonist stands on the edge of a bridge, contemplating suicide.
Even if an actual death does not occur here, it’s common for the theme of death to cast its shadow over the scene. This might be the death of a relationship, or the death of hope.
Primarily, this scene is about despair. For a few moments, both your audience and your protagonist should believe there’s no way she can recover from this.
Don’t pull your punches here. This scene should hurt. It hurts your characters, it hurts you, and if you’ve done things right, it’ll hurt your reader as well. That pain is essential for making the climax even more powerful.
Plot Turn 2 (The Last Piece of the Puzzle)
Your character went through the worst thing imaginable. His friends have left him. He’s bruised and bloodied (either physically or metaphorically). But he’s still alive. And it’s not over yet.
In this scene, your protagonist receives the last piece of the puzzle. She finds one final clue that reveals the murderer’s identity. He realises there never was any magic potion, the magic was inside him all along. He finds out there is hope after all. He begins to believe in the Force. And now he knows what he needs to do to achieve his goal.
This might be a point where your protagonist’s internal goal finally changes. He learns to respect himself, or he learns the value of friendship, or the value of true love, or whatever.
You’ve put your character in a hole. Now it’s time to get him out of it.
Climaxes can be tricky, but you don’t necessarily need to work out every detail of them when you’re just creating your outline.
This is where the story goal (usually your protagonist’s external goal) is achieved. With the help of the information he learned in Plot Turn 2, our protagonist confronts his antagonist. But it’s a tough fight. For a moment, it might look like our hero will be defeated at the final hurdle.
But then, using his cunning, the lessons he’s learned along the way, and perhaps the help of his friends and allies, the hero snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. The bad guy is finally confronted and defeated. Or after a tense gunfight, the murderer is captured. Or the heroine crashes the hero’s wedding, confesses her love, and they finally kiss.
Victory in the climax usually comes when the hero proves that he has learned lessons over the course of his journey (and especially in Plot Turn 2). These lessons can be both external (finding out about the Death Star’s convenient exhaust vent) and moral lessons (learning to trust the Force).
Tragic endings are also possible, of course. The protagonist might fail to achieve his external goal. He snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, so to speak. Alternatively, he may have a pyrrhic victory. He achieves his goal, but the cost is so great you almost wonder if it’s a victory at all.
That’s all, folks.
And there you have it. The seven key scenes. If you’re planning to outline your novel before you start NaNoWriMo, these scenes are a great place to start. If you have other scenes in mind, slot them in wherever they fit.
Think about other books and movies in your genre and see if you can figure out which scene is the Midpoint, and which is the Darkest Moment, and so on. Different types of stories use these scenes in different ways, but most modern plots follow this basic structure.
For your novel, write down what you think will happen for each of the seven scenes. I do this on my writing program, but if you’re more of a tactile person it might help to write out your scene outlines on note cards or pieces of paper so you can see where everything fits. Once you’ve got these seven scenes pretty well nailed down, you’ll start seeing what needs to happen to get your characters from one key scene to another.
As always, remember that all we’re doing here is creating a guideline. You are not bound to follow this outline slavishly once you start writing. But having a skeleton to work with can make it much easier to figure out what to do when you’re twenty or thirty thousand words deep into the novel and wondering where the hell to go from here.
And that’s about all the pre-NaNoWriMo wisdom I have for you folks. Once November starts, I’ll have a few more posts about how to manage your time and how to keep going when the writing gets tough.
But until then, start thinking about your characters and plot. It might not all click right away. But keep at it, and soon enough you’ll be outlining with the best of them.
November creeps ever closer, and with it comes that great and terrible event, NaNoWriMo.
Last time we discussed ways of generating story ideas. As we continue this series of posts about preparing for NaNoWriMo, we’re going to start getting our hands dirty, putting those ideas to use.
Loosely speaking, there are two ways of writing a book. The first is called discovery writing, or pantsing (as in: writing by the seat of your pants). With this method, a writer starts writing the book with little or no preparation, letting the story take him where it wills.
The second method is to create an outline before the writing begins (writers who do this are called outliners or plotters). Someone who is a heavy plotter might come up with a full, extensive, scene-by-scene outline that’s tens of thousands of words long before they even start writing.
But which are you, a plotter or a pantser? If you’ve never written anything as long as a novel before, you might have no idea which method is best for you. Not to mention that the best method can often change from book to book.
In my opinion, a first-time novelist should steer clear of both extremes. When you’ve never written anything as long and complex as a novel before, you probably don’t have a good enough grasp on the entire story to plot out a book in meticulous detail. Likewise, a new author facing a blank page and no preparation may waste a lot of time and words floundering about, trying to write themselves into a story. Or worse, they may become overwhelmed and quit altogether.
I think a good idea for new NaNoers is to come up with a few characters and a handful of important scenes beforehand and let the rest fill itself in as you write.
So here I present my patent-pending guide to basic story preparation for novelists, shamelessly stolen from numerous sources and cobbled together for your pleasure. I’ve split it into two posts. Today’s post focuses mainly on character. Next time, we’ll have a look at planning out those key scenes you’ll need to build the rest of your novel around.
This guide applies mostly to genre novels (sci fi, fantasy, mystery, thriller, romance—basically anything where the story is a strong focus), but with a little adaptation it could probably work for more literary novels as well.
Novel Prep Part 1: Character
At the heart of your novel is a character. Your protagonist. I believe you should have a good grasp on your character before you start writing. Your character will undoubtedly grow on the page and take you in unexpected directions, but that’s no excuse not to put down a solid foundation at the beginning.
So how should you find out about your character? Should you write down extensive notes on hair colour, eye colour, height, scars, sexy piercings, favourite food, backstory, most embarrassing childhood memory?
Well, if you want to. But far more important than any of that is to define your character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts. These are the three things that will propel your protagonist through his or her story. Let’s look at each of these items in more detail.
Goals; or, What Does Your Character Want?
Your character probably wants a lot of things. Most people do. But what are they striving for right now? What is most important to them over the course of this book?
It can be helpful two define two main goals for your character: an external goal and an internal goal.
The external goal is usually something fixed and tangible. Something that has an obvious end point. If a character wants to solve a murder and catch the killer, it’s easy to tell when that has been achieved. Same goes for stopping the alien invasion, or getting into that hot guy’s pants. When it happens, it’s obvious.
Your protagonist’s external goal is usually the main story question. Will he succeed in the thing he’s trying to do? When the detective catches the killer, that’s usually the end of the story. The main goal has been achieved. Now everyone gets cake.
On the other hand, the character’s internal goal is usually something more personal and emotional. It may not have a definite completion point, making it a lot more nebulous than the external goal. If the character wants to atone for her sins, learn to respect herself, or gain self awareness, that’s her internal goal.
Internal goals are often subconscious: the character herself may not even know that’s what she wants.
It can make things especially juicy when a character’s external and internal goals conflict with each other. Maybe the detective wants to stop the murderer before he kills again, but she also wants to repair her relationship with her husband. It’s easy to see how over the course of the novel, these two goals could come into conflict, with the detective forced to work long hours in a dangerous situation and then suffering the consequences in her relationship.
Goals may change over the course of the story (and frequently do). The protagonist may achieve her first external goal (e.g. find the murderer) only to realise that there is an even larger plot afoot, and the external goal is now to unravel the conspiracy.
Likewise, an internal goal may change as the protagonist changes. He may begin by trying to drown his guilt, but later he may realise that he has to face up to his sins and forgive himself for them. The character’s arc (how they change over the story) is often tied to a change in their internal goals.
Motivation; or, Why Does the Character Want What They Want?
It’s not enough for the character to have a goal. There has to be a reason they want to achieve that goal. In a few cases (most commonly with villains) that motivation might be unfathomable to us. The Joker does what he does for reasons of his own, reasons no sane man can understand. But in general, your protagonist needs a motivation that makes sense.
In some cases, the motivation might be simple. Your character might simply be doing her job. Or the motivation might be so obvious and universal that it needs little explaining. In a survival story, the character wants to survive because that is a natural human reaction. Nothing particularly complicated about that.
But even in these cases, it might be worth digging a little deeper and seeing if that motivation can be beefed up a bit. Sure, it might be the detective’s job to find the killer. But maybe she has some personal drive to catch the bad guy because the crimes are particularly heinous. Or maybe the detective once made a mistake which allowed the killer to go free and continue his killing spree, so the detective has a personal motivation as well as a professional one.
Different characters may have the same goal, but different motivations. They might be in it for money, or vengeance, or to protect their family, or to regain something that was lost, or to fulfil a promise to a friend.
A character’s motivation should probably make sense to the audience, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be some generic, universal motivation. Personal motivations can be some of the most powerful when it comes to making a character unique. On the other hand, more universal motivations can be powerful for connecting with a wide audience. It’s up to you which route you go, and really depends on the type of story you’re trying to tell.
All this might seem simple, but motivation is a place where a lot of beginning writers slip up. Well-defined motivations can go a long way to make a character seem less like a character and more like a real person. You don’t need to obsess about it, but keep your character’s motivations in mind as you go forward.
Conflict; or, What’s Going to Stop the Character Getting What They Want?
Finally, we come to the third key aspect of character planning: conflict. You’ve probably heard this a million times before, but it’s true: conflict is the core of any story.
There’s a common bit of narrative theory that says there are only a few types of conflict: man against man, man against nature, man against himself. Throw in man against machine and man against the supernatural if you want to expand that out a bit. These types of conflicts are what we’re looking at here.
Your character has a goal and motivations. But something or someone has to get between your character and his goals. That’s where conflict comes in.
We’ve already talked about conflict between external and internal goals (essentially, this is man against himself). But here you want to think about what other types of conflict might stop your character getting what she wants.
If your story has a clear antagonist, that’s a pretty obvious bit of conflict right there. The detective wants to catch the murderer before he kills again, but the murderer wants to evade capture and keep on killing. Their goals are in conflict, and most likely the detective will not succeed in her goal until the climax of the novel.
But conflict can also occur between the protagonist and other characters within the novel, including characters that are on her side. No two people will agree on everything all the time, and they definitely shouldn’t in a novel. Conflict between friends or lovers can be just as powerful as conflict between the hero and the villain.
Conflict can also exist between the protagonist and his environment. Whether the character is trapped on a desert island or struggling to survive a zombie apocalypse, the world around him is seemingly bent on thwarting his goal of survival.
Look to your character’s goals and motivations to determine possible sources of conflict within the novel. Conflict might arise that is completely unrelated to those goals and motivations, but it will have much greater emotional impact on the reader if it’s related to what the character wants.
You’ve thought about goals, motivations, and conflict. Now what should you do with that information?
First and foremost: write it down. I know it might not seem like much to remember, but write it down anyway. Do this at least for your main character, and potentially for any other major characters you know will be important as well.
Even if you’re unsure about a few aspects, write something down and leave blank anything you don’t know yet. You can always fill it in later.
Keep these goals, motivations, and conflicts somewhere you can refer to them easily as you continue planning and writing your novel. Pin them to the wall beside your computer, or keep a document saved somewhere you can access it.
As you move forward, refer back to this information anytime you get stuck. You’ll be surprised how helpful it can be to have this stuff written down to remind yourself what all this is about.
What about all those others aspects of characterisation: personality, physical appearance, flaws, skills, backstory? Feel free to plan out some of that stuff and write it down along with what we’ve discussed above.
It might be helpful to have a page on each major character, with their goals, motivations, and conflicts clearly described, followed by some notes on physical appearance and personality and background. It’s really up to you how in-depth you go with all that. You’ll undoubtedly learn more about your characters as you actually start writing the novel, so feel free to leave spaces here and there that you’ll fill in later. You don’t need to map out your character’s entire life history before you start (unless you want to).
The Golden Rule
I’ve talked about what I think is a good way to plan out your characters before you start writing, both for beginners and people who have written before. But that’s all this really is: my thoughts. As with any advice, take what seems helpful and leave the rest.
This post went a little long (turns out trying to condense my entire outlining method into a few hundred words is tough—go figure), so next time I’ll finish up this novel prep discussion by talking about how to come up with a basic plot skeleton to give your characters something to do during the novel.
But before we go onto that, it’s important for me to emphasise the golden rule: everything we’re doing here is flexible. This outline is just a guideline, a rough map of the journey ahead. You are under no obligation to stick dogmatically to these character guides when you start writing. They’re here to help and point you in the right direction, but you shouldn’t feel that you’re a slave to them.
I’m always happy to discuss this stuff in the comments below or on my Facebook page, so get in touch! Next time: plot outlines and the seven key scenes. Until then, get thinking about your characters, all you crazy NaNoers out there.
So you signed up for NaNoWriMo (or you’re thinking about it). Now you have to figure out what you’re actually going to write about.
If you already have your story ready to go, great! But if you’re not quite there yet, I’m going to offer you a few tips for coming up with ideas and testing them for use in a novel.
The Three Questions
By the time November 1st rolls around there are only three questions you need to be able to answer, and they’re all pretty simple.
- Who is your main character?
- What do they want?
- Who or what is going to get in their way?
That’s it. Easy. And you don’t have to answer those questions right now. You’ve got plenty of time. Let these questions linger in the back of your head as you’re brainstorming ideas.
Write It Down
If you’re trying to generate ideas for use in a book, here’s the best piece of advice I can give you: start carrying around something you can take notes on.
For a lot of us, that’ll be a smartphone or a tablet. There are plenty of note-taking apps out there. I use Evernote, but it doesn’t really matter. Even an old-fashioned pen and notebook will do just fine.
The most important thing is to have something that you take with you everywhere. You want it with you in the bathroom, when you’re walking around, when you’re at work, everywhere.
And the second most important thing is to use it.
Write down every idea you have. Even if it’s stupid and you’ll never put it into your book. Even if it’s just a fragment of an idea. “Guy with pink hair.” “Demons with machine guns for teeth.” “What if Hitler had a pet dinosaur?” Everything.
Don’t just sit at your desk wracking your brains trying to come up with ideas. Think about it for a while, go for a walk, come back to it tomorrow and think a little bit more. Let your subconscious chew it over.
When you’re out and about, look around and see what’s interesting around you. That sinister looking man in the corner? That approaching storm cloud? See what scenarios your mind can invent for your surroundings. Think about interesting characters, fun scenes, bits of dialogue. Write them all down.
Never assume you’ll remember an idea. You won’t. Write it down.
Sure, most of those ideas will be crap. But that’s okay. The only way to start coming up with ideas is to train your brain to think about these things. By writing down your ideas, you’re not just recording them for later. You’re telling your brain that these ideas are important, and that it should keep coming up with new ones.
If you’re reading a book or watching a movie and something comes up that seems like it’d make a cool story or a great scene, steal it and write it down. Don’t take things word for word, of course, but don’t be afraid to let yourself be inspired or influenced by the stories you already enjoy.
Think about what you like and don’t like in books and movies. What’s the stuff that you really love? Great relationships? Tragic falls from grace? Blood and gore? Sexy times?
That’s where you want to go to mine ideas. Don’t worry about being original, and don’t think that you have to write some great important piece of literature that will change the course of history. Write what you love. The rest will follow.
Mix It Up
Read over your list of ideas from time to time. Think about ways in which your ideas could be combined to make even cooler ideas. Twist things around. Turn a cliche on its head. Ask “What if?”
Hopefully, some of the ideas you’re coming up with will start to jump out from the page and knock you on the head. Trust your gut here.
As your ideas begin to solidify, you’ll start thinking about how you’re going to turn them into a story. Remember to focus on those three important questions.
- Who is your main character?
- What do they want?
- Who or what is going to get in their way?
Those three things—character, goal, and conflict—are the core of pretty much every story known to man. When you’re looking at your list of ideas and trying to figure out what you’re going to write about, keep these three question in the back of your head and you won’t go far wrong.
Next time, we’re going to look at ways to flesh out your idea into something with a little more substance. But for now, get those wheels spinning and start thinking.
In one month’s time, half a million of the bravest and craziest people from around the world will participate in what is quite possibly the greatest writing event in the history of mankind: NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).
Most of these people aren’t professional writers. They’re just average folks of questionable sanity who thought it might be fun to write a book.
Each year, NaNoWriMo participants commit to writing 50,000 words of fiction between 12:01am on November 1st and midnight November 30th. I’ll save you the math: that’s about 1667 words per day.
Those who achieve this goal will be bestowed with the glorious title of “Winner,” which comes complete with a neat little certificate and bragging rights.
But of course, that’s not the real prize. When you wake up a Winner on December 1st with a writing-induced hangover, you’ll be able to look at the novel you’ve written. It might not be finished, it’ll be probably filled with typos, there’ll be plot holes you can fly a space ship through. But you know what? None of that will matter. Because that will be your book.
YOUR GODDAMN BOOK.
It came out of your head, and it’s down on paper now because you worked your ass off to put it there.
Some of you are probably reading this, saying, “So what? What’s the big deal? Why would anyone want to put themselves through that?”
But I think there’s a few people reading this right now who have always wanted to write a novel. Maybe you never got around to it. Maybe you were worried it wouldn’t be good enough. Maybe you were afraid of looking like an idiot. Maybe you thought you could never be that creative. Maybe you just didn’t have the time.
If that sounds like you, I’m here to tell you to do NaNoWriMo.
Maybe you’ve heard of NaNoWriMo before, maybe not. Doesn’t matter. If you’re even the tiniest bit interested in this crazy challenge, I strongly urge you to head over to nanowrimo.org and have a look around. There’s no catch. No cost. It’s a personal challenge, with hundreds of thousands of like-minded individuals around the world doing the same thing alongside you.
I did NaNo for the first time in 2010. Until then, I’d written a few short stories and started a couple of novels, but I’d never finished any. I always lost the enthusiasm for the book, or real life got in the way and I never ended up finishing it.
Then I did NaNoWriMo. This stupid challenge gave me the focus I needed to sit down every day and put words down on the page until the novel was completed. I had work and university to deal with, but I carved out time to write whenever I could.
I passed 50,000 words by the end of the third week and went on to write another 10,000 words and finish the novel before the month ended.
The book was silly and not that great. But that didn’t matter. I saw that I could actually finish something as long as a novel. And I now knew that even though it got tough sometimes, I could push through and reach the end. Which, really, is the biggest part of being a novelist.
If I hadn’t done NaNoWriMo, I don’t think I’d be a writer today. I’d still think about writing, and I’d come up with cool ideas. I’d write a couple of chapters here and there. But I wouldn’t have the perseverance to actually turn those ideas and chapters into full novels.
It’s been a few years since I officially did NaNoWriMo. And I think it’s about time I went back to my roots and did it again.
In a week or two I’ll talk a little bit about what I’m planning to work on this November. But for now, I just want to offer some encouragement to anyone out there thinking about it. Head to the site, sign up, have a browse around the forums, and make a commitment to yourself.
You can do it. You know you want to.
FAQ for first-time novelists:
Q – I don’t understand. What do I get if I write 50,000 words in a month?
A – The adulation of your peers and the knowledge that you worked hard to bring a new story into the world.
Q – That’s it?
A – What more could you want?
Q – How long is 50,000 words anyway?
A – This site has a great list of word counts of famous novels. 50,000 words is pretty short for a full novel, especially in some genres like sci fi and fantasy. That’s a good thing. You don’t have to write some huge doorstopper to win. 50,000 words is achievable. And that’s the key to this entire thing. It can be done. I know. I’ve done it.
Q – What if I don’t have time to write 1667 words a day?
A – Here’s the thing: you’re never going to have time to write 1667 words a day. I know you’re busy. But if you want to write, you have to make time. Let your friends know that you’ll be a little less available this November. Take a notebook wherever you go and write out a couple of paragraphs when you’re waiting at the doctor’s office. Lock yourself in the bathroom with your laptop and feign constipation. Wake up early, go to bed late. Eschew basic cleanliness and forsake loved ones to carve out a few minutes here, an hour there.
I’ll have more tips on this later. Just don’t let “I’m too busy” be your excuse.
(Note: Do not skip exams, job interviews, or urgent medical treatment to write your novel. It’s not that important, seriously.)
Q – What if I try and I don’t make it to 50,000 words? I don’t want to be a failure.
A – I’m going to let you in on another secret. If you write even one more word during NaNoWriMo than you would have normally, you’re a winner. Maybe you won’t be a “Winner” by the definition of the Official Rules. But remember, this is a personal challenge. The only way you can fail is if you don’t try.
If you “only” write 30,000 words, fantastic! That’s a great achievement. If you write 3000 words, good job! That’s 3000 more words of fiction than most people write in their entire lives. Whatever you do, just write!
Q – But I don’t have an idea!
A – Ideas are cheap. You’ve got a whole month to come up with something. I’ll have some more tips on that later in the month. But don’t worry about that yet.
Q – I don’t know how to write a story!
A – Have you ever read a book? Seen a movie? Watched TV? Then you’ve got the gist of it. Humans are a species of storytellers and story consumers. Once upon a time we sat around the fire in our loincloths and told each other stories about the mammoth that got away. We spend our entire lives immersed in stories. Sure, telling a story is a craft, and like any craft you get better with practice. But you have an innate understanding of story. And if you never try to write one, how will you ever learn?
Q – What if I put in all this effort and the book ends up being shit?
A – Put all thoughts of quality out of your head right now. Right fucking now. That’s your inner editor talking. And from now until the time you finish your book, he is your enemy. He will try to trip you up every step of the way. He will tell you you’re not good enough to write a book. He’ll laugh at you when you can’t find the right words. He’ll compare your novel with your favourite books and he’ll tell you point-by-point why your work will never match up to those greats.
Fuck. That. Guy. Kick him in the teeth and leave him bleeding in the corner. He wants you to quit. Do not let him win. This isn’t about quality. This is about sitting down and writing. Because nothing is more worthless than a book that doesn’t exist.
Q – All right, all right. But say I finish the book. What then?
A – That’s up to you. Maybe that’ll be enough for you. Maybe you’ll just smile to yourself and know that you can now say “I wrote a novel.” Even if you go no further than that, you will have gained a new appreciation for how stories are created. You’ll be able to read your favourite authors with new eyes. You’ll be able to see how they constructed their characters and their plots. That’s worth the price of admission alone.
Or maybe once you’ve finished that first novel, once you know you can do it, you’ll go on to write more. Maybe you’ll share your book with your friends and family, or maybe you’ll hone your craft and go in search of a wider audience.
Once November’s over, I’ll have a few more tips on what to do with your fresh new novel. But that’s something to worry about later. For now, the important thing is to get that first book on paper.
Q – Okay, maybe I’m a little bit interested. Now what?
A – Head over to nanowrimo.org and sign up. It doesn’t cost a cent (although they do have a donation drive later on in November if you’d like to support them). Then tell everyone who will listen what you’re planning to do with your November.
Be aware that most people will look at you like you’re crazy. That’s okay. They probably enjoy weird stuff too, like pickling vegetables or watching tennis. But it might help explain why you haven’t showered in three days or why you keep zoning out in the middle of conversations to think about some new plot twist.
And maybe, if you’re very lucky, one or two of the people you tell will light up and say something like “I always wanted to write a novel.” That’s your chance. Grab them and browbeat them until they sign up as well. Like starting a new exercise regime, doing NaNoWriMo is a lot easier if you’ve got someone else to make sure you’re on track.
All right, that’s enough from me. Over the course of October and November I’m going to be sharing some more tips, shouting encouragement, and talking about what I’m writing for NaNoWriMo.
Until then, stay awesome everyone.