Category Archives: NaNoWriMo

#NaNoWriMo2019 Prepping: Setting #amwriting

If you follow this blog and you are planning to write a novel in November, you now have the first three key elements you will need to begin:

  1. Plot: Devising a Plot in 8 Questions
  2. Outline: The Outline for Pantsers
  3. Characters: Prepping your Characters

All you need now is a world to set this story in. Prepping now will save you time when you begin the 30-day challenge.

Worlds evolve as we write the first draft, but it helps to have a solid idea of where we are setting the story at the outset.

What follows is a plan to help you lay the groundwork for the world in which your novel is set.

Picture the opening scene.

Open a new document and give it a title, such as your_book_title_worldbuilding.docx

Simple and clear labels make a good file names. You want one that clearly says “this is world building” for whatever you have titled your novel, and if you put it in the same folder as your manuscript, you will be able to easily find it.

Here is a short list of questions to help you begin the process:

  1. What is the name of the world in which the story opens? What is the name of the town/village where the protagonists are living? Place names can give the reader an idea of the sort of town or village it is set in.
  2. Does it take place on earth in a real place? If so, do the research and use Google Earth and Google maps.
  3. On earth in an alternate time/place? Make that clear at the outset
  4. Is it set on some other world entirely? The best way to make the fantasy world real is to visualize the scene clearly. Blend the real world into it and write out all the details that will never make it into your story.
  5. Where is the protagonist, indoors or out? Is it a gentle or a hostile environment? Does the environment work for or against him/her?
  6. If the setting is indoors, is it home, an office, a shop, a smithy…etc. etc. How does the protagonist fit into this place? Are they visiting, or do they live/work there? List the furniture and other objects that the characters interact with and know where it’s placed.
  7. Looking through their eyes, what emotions do they feel about the world around them? THIS DOES NOT HAVE TO GO INTO THE NARRATIVE, as this is backstory for you. It will evolve into the story organically as you write.

Now we get to the tactile parts of the setting:

  1. How does the air feel, and what scents and odors are common to that place? The smells, the sounds, the way certain doors creak are all good things to know.
  2. What is the quality of the lighting both indoors and out? Is it dark, bright, subdued, glaring, etc.?
  3. If they are out of doors, what is the weather like? Weather is crucial and impacts your characters’ ability to easily go places.

On this world-building document, write every single detail the characters see and feel, from the largest down to the insects. Keep adding to it whenever you think of something new. The act of designing this scenery builds the world in your mind. For my own work, I stick with the familiar, with some unfamiliar creatures thrown in for fun. Use all the power words you can think of to build that world.

As you write the first draft of your novel, the world you are creating will grow and evolve. I highly recommend two things:

  1. Draw a quick, simple map, such as the sample map to the right, if your characters are traveling in a fantasy world—it doesn’t have to be fancy. This way your place names and directions won’t inadvertently shift as the book progresses.
  2. Make a list of character names and place names, and any words that are unique to your world and your story. This will be your reference manual for this novel and will keep the spelling from evolving as you get further into the story.

A world is more than the environment. You should have an idea of how your society works, to ensure your characters are firmly in your mind at the outset:

  • How is your society divided? Who has wealth?
  • Who has the power? Men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect? Is one race more entitled than another?
  • What place does religion have in this society? Is it central to the governance of the society, or is it a peripheral, perhaps nonexistent thing?
  • What passes for morality? Is sex before marriage taboo? What constitutes murder, and how is it viewed? You only need to worry about the moral dilemmas that come into your story.
  • If a character goes against society’s unwritten or moral laws, what are the consequences?

This is atmosphere. This is knowledge the characters have, but the reader does not.  The way you convey this is to show how these larger societal influences affect your character and his/her ability to resolve their situation.

Fantasy worlds often involve magic. If magic is central to your story, it is essential that you have finite rules for limiting how magic works.

Unlimited power is completely unbelievable. If magic is part of your story, rules and limitations create the tension that moves the plot forward.

  • Who has the magic, and what social power does this give them?
  • What are the limitations of his/her powers? How does this hamper them?

Each time you make limits and frameworks for your magic, you make opportunities for conflict within your fantasy world. Conflict is what drives the plot. There can be an occasional exception to the rules, but there has to be a good reason for it, and it must be clear to the reader why that sole exception is acceptable.

Spending an evening working these details out before you sit down to write will make your work go faster. Many things will change as you go along, and better ideas emerge, but having the jumping off point will get you out of the gate with confidence.

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Prepping your Characters #NaNoWriMo2019 #amwriting

November and NaNoWriMo approaches. On November 1st thousands of authors will begin the 30 day challenge. Many will fall out of the game in first few days, but an amazing number of authors will finish their novels in those 30 days.

I see on the boards at www.nanowrimo.org  that a large number of people are drawing up personnel files for their characters. They are finding pictures of actors that might look most like their characters and writing short bios. I have done this in the past, and it worked well, as far as getting the obvious things down.

But I discovered that personnel files only show us the surface of these characters. Thanks to my obsession with learning new things and going to seminars, I do things a bit differently nowadays.

A seminar by Damon Suede triggered a cascade of ideas in my mind, the things I habitually did but didn’t realize I was doing it. These aspects of characterization were in my head but never written down, and as a consequence, things sometimes got muddied up in the writing.

We form our characters out of Action and Reaction. This happens in several ways. I will use the 3 main characters in my forthcoming novel, Julian Lackland, as my examples, as they are most firmly in my mind right now.

First, we  make a simple word picture of each character. The word picture is made of a verb (action) and a noun (person, place, or thing), the two words that best describe each person.

We want to know the good things about these characters, so we assign nouns that tell us how they see themselves at the outset of the story. We also look at sub-nouns and synonyms:

Julian’s Noun is: Chivalry (Gallantry, Bravery, Daring, Courtliness, Valor, Love)

Beau’s Noun is: Bravery (Courage, Loyalty, Daring, Gallantry, Passion)

Lady Mags’s Noun is: Audacity (Daring, Courage)

The way we see ourselves is the face we present to the world. These self-conceptions color how they react but aren’t engraved in stone. By the end of the story, the way they see themselves will change because circumstances will both break and remake them.

Next, we assign a verb that describes their gut reactions, which will guide the way they react to every situation that arises. They might think one thing about themselves, but this verb is the truth and while it may evolve, it does not completely change. Again, we also look at sub-verbs and synonyms:

Julian has 2 Verbs. They are: Defend, Fight, (Preserve, Uphold, Protect)

Beau’s 2 Verbs are: Protect, Fight (Defend, Shield, Combat, Dare)

Lady Mags’s 2 Verbs are : Fight, Defy (Compete, Combat, Resist)

When I write one of these three characters, I know how they believe they will react in a given situation. Why? Because I have drawn the portrait of their soul in words:

Julian must Fight for and Defend Chivalry. Julian’s commitment to defending innocents against inhumanity ultimately breaks his mind.

Beau must Fight for and Protect Bravery. Beau’s commitment to protecting Julian and concealing his madness consumes his life.

Lady Mags must Fight for and Defy Audacity. Mags is audacious–she is determined to remain a mercenary knight, no matter what the cost. She’s at war with herself in regard to her desire for a life with Julian and Beau. That war ruins her chance at happiness.

Do you see what happened? Placing the verb before the noun describes their core conflict. It lays bare their flaws and opens the way to building new strengths.

Who they are before we meet them is important, so go ahead and make that personnel file. But their story will be built upon who they think they are and what their gut reactions are.

Our characters’ preconceptions color their experience of events, which color the readers’ view. They are unreliable witnesses. It shades their reactions when they fail to live up to their own standards. These are the watershed moments when they must honestly examine their motives.

It adds to a scene where they triumph despite their flaws, succeeding against the odds.

What two words describe the primary weaknesses of your characters, the thing that could be their ultimate ruin?

Julian Lackland: Obsession and Honor

Beau Baker: Steadfast Loyalty

Lady Mags De Leon: Stubbornness and Fear

So, when you sit down to make a personnel file for your characters, you need more than a picture of your favorite actor and bio. You also need to decide the verb (action word) and the noun (object of the action) that best represents your characters.

For me, knowing these two words about my characters make writing the story easier. Their actions and reactions unfold as if the story writes itself.

I am in the process of assigning verbs and nouns to the characters in my own projected NaNoWriMo novel. Some of my characters are difficult to get a grip on, so this exercise will help me on November 1st when I begin to write their story.

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Prepping for November #amwriting #NaNoWriMo2019

November is National Novel Writing Month. Every year starting on November 1st, several hundred thousand people sit down and attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

Most will do this while holding down jobs and raising kids.

I began participating in NaNoWriMo in 2010. For the first four years, 2010 – 2014, I used the month of November to lay down the rough draft of an intended novel. However, in 2015, I already had two novels in the final stages and one simmering on the back burner.

What I lacked that year were short stories. I decided to write a short story collection because I knew I had to build my backlog of submittable work. As a result, and despite suffering a respiratory virus during the entire month of November, I wrote 42 short stories for a total of 105,000 words.

That’s not counting the blog posts I also wrote. NaNoWriMo 2015 was a prolific year despite the plague!

That was such a boost to my short story collection that I did the same in 2016 and 2017. I worked on a novel in 2018 and also wrote short stories, so that was a “blender” year.

My first year, 2010, was difficult in many ways. My story arc wandered all over the place, my main character sometimes disappeared for several chapters, and my hokey prose got away from me.

But that year was a great experience. I learned how to prep for the month of madness so that it can be a productive 30 days. I learned that October is an important month, even though you aren’t writing for official word count.

October, cold and dark, is your NaNo Prep Month.

I have a number of tricks I will share with you each Monday during the month of October, all aimed toward helping you succeed at your writing goal during National Novel Writing Month.

My goal is that on November 1st, you will be able to hit the ground running.

Once I have the foundations laid, I can write off the cuff. That is how three of my books came into existence.

For many participants, the challenge of sitting down and using the “seat of your pants” style of creative writing is what draws them to sign up.

Many authors are unwilling to commit to NaNoWriMo because it takes discipline to write 1667 words a day.

Also, they fear having to recoup any perceived losses should they find themselves in the middle of NaNoWriMo when they suddenly realize they’ve gone terribly astray. Or they fear writers’ block.

It happens.

Not to me usually, because I know the secret: If you can’t write on the subject you intended, write about what you are experiencing and what interests you at that moment.

I know; ranting on paper about your life is not writing that fabulous fantasy novel you began but don’t know how to finish.

But you are writing!

The answers will come, sometimes in the middle of a rant about your evil mother-in-law.

The key here is you will be writing, and that is what is important.

Rule 1 of NaNoWriMo: SIT DOWN AND WRITE.

Rule 2: WRITE AT LEAST 1667 WORDS EVERY DAY.

Rule 3: NEVER DELETE WHAT YOU HAVE WRITTEN, NO MATTER HOW GARBLED OR AWFUL OR OFF TOPIC.

There are 2 ways to create the official manuscript that you use to upload to the national site every day.

  1. Type it all in one document. When you don’t like something, just change the font color to red in that section and begin rewriting the scene the way it SHOULD have been written in the first place, using the usual black font. Every time you rewrite the scene with a slightly different outcome, it counts toward your word count. Your official wordcount manuscript will be a lo-o-o-ong, multicolored thing of beauty for a few weeks.
  2. OR, you can write each new section in a new file but paste all of them into the official manuscript at the end of your writing session. I make notes as I go for my later rewrite because if I don’t leave a message for myself, I will forget until my beta reader (who is a structural genius) points it out.

December is “Read-‘em-and-Weep” month. That is when we go over the ramblings of November and doubt our sanity.

In December, save what you want to discard in a ‘Background File’ in the same folder as the main manuscript. By doing that, you don’t lose prose you may need later.

During National Novel Writing Month, every word we write over and above 50,000 counts toward the region’s total word count. Once I hit that mark, I keep plowing ahead right to the bitter end.

Other people stop when they make the official winning word count. It’s a stressful month, so how you handle it is your choice.

If you want to sign up for this year’s month of madness and mayhem, get on the internet and go to:

www.nanowrimo.org

Sign up, pick a NaNo name – mine is Dragon_Fangirl, and you are in business. Look me up and make me one of your writing buddies. Spend the rest of October organizing what you think you will need to begin your story on November first. Then, on the first day of November you begin writing. If you apply yourself, and write (AT the minimum) 1667 words every day, on the 30th of November you should have a novel…or something.

In reality, if you set aside one or two hours a day, and pound out the words as fast as you can during that time, you will get your word count. Never delete, and do not self-edit as you go along. Just spew words, misspelled and awkward as they may be. They all count, readable or not, and it is the discipline of writing that we are working on here, not the nuts and bolts of the good manuscript.

Revising and correcting gross mistakes will come after November 30th. The second draft is when you have time to look at it with a critical eye. What you are doing now is getting the raw ideas down before you forget them.

Never discard your work no matter how much your first reader says it stinks. Even if what you wrote is the worst crap she ever read, some of it will be worth saving and reusing later. (And don’t ask “Sharp Tongue Sally” to read your work again because if she can’t find at least one good thing, she’s not a good beta reader.)

Spending a month immersed in stream-of-consciousness writing is not a waste of time. You will definitely have something to show for your efforts, and you will have developed the most important skill a writer must have: self-discipline.

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The Functions of the Scene revisited #amwriting

We are at mid-month for NaNoWriMo, and I am not writing my novel. Instead, I am trying to write short stories, but my mind won’t cooperate. I keep waking up with new scenes filling my head, scenes that demand to be written for all my works in progress.

Scenes are what I want to talk about today, but I just discovered that I wrote a perfectly good post on them last year and can’t think of anything to add to it. So, we may as well revisit last year’s post on The Functions of the Scene. I hope you find it useful as your writing journey continues.

Keep writing, update your word count every day if you are participating in NaNoWriMo, and happy writing to you, whether you participate in that merry month of madness or not!


A great story consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, and is made of scenes. We have action, emotion, ups and downs, a plot all sewn together by the thread that is the theme. But the entire structure of the novel is built scene-by-scene, connected by transitions.

Scenes may consist of conversations, or they may be action sequences, but put them together in the right order, link them with a plot featuring a good protagonist and a worthy antagonist, they combine to form a story.

I perceive the scene as a small area of focus within a larger story with an arc of its own, small arcs holding up a larger arc: the chapter. So, scenes are the building blocks of the story. Strong scenes make for a memorable novel, and we all strive to make each scene as important as we can. Therefore, no scene can be wasted. Each scene must have a function, or the story fails to hold the reader’s interest.

Some things a scene can show:

  • Information
  • Confrontation
  • Revelation
  • Negotiation
  • Decision
  • Capitulation
  • Catalyst
  • Contemplation/Reflection
  • Turning Point
  • Resolution
  • Myriad deep emotions

Make one or more of these functions the core of the scene, and you will have a compelling story.

Let’s examine a watershed scene that occurs in the Fellowship of the Ring, book one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring series: The Council of Elrond. The scene is set in Rivendell, Elrond’s remote mountain citadel.

Each of those characters attending the Council has arrived there on separate errands, and each has different hopes for what will ultimately come from the meeting. Despite their different agendas, each is ultimately concerned with the Ring and protecting the people of Middle-earth from the depredations of Sauron, if he were to regain possession of it. This scene serves several functions:

Information/Revelation: The Council of Elrond serves the purpose of conveying information to both the protagonists and the reader. It is a conversation scene, driven by the fact that each person in the meeting has knowledge the others need. Conversations are an excellent way to deploy needed information. Remember, plot points are driven by the characters who have the critical knowledge.

The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension. At the Council of Elrond, many things are discussed, and the full story of the One Ring is explained, with each character offering a new piece of the puzzle. The reader and the characters receive the information at the same time at this point in the novel.

Confrontation: Action/confrontation, conversation, reaction. A scene that is all action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed confrontational conversation (an argument/dispute) gives the reader the context needed to understand the reason for the action.

At the Council of Elrond, long simmering racial tensions between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf surface. Each is possessed of a confrontational nature, and it isn’t clear whether they will be able to work together or not.

Other conflicts are explored, and heated exchanges occur between Aragorn and Boromir.

Negotiation: What concessions will have to be made to achieve the final goal? These concessions must be negotiated. Tom Bombadil is at first mentioned as one who could safely take the ring to Mordor as it has no power over him. Gandalf feels he would simply lose the ring, or give it away because Tom lives in a reality of his own and doesn’t see the conflict with Sauron as a problem. Bilbo volunteers, but he is too old and frail. Others offer, but none are accepted as good candidates for the job of ring-bearer for one reason or another. Each reason offered for why these characters are found to be less than satisfactory by Gandalf and Elrond deploys a small bit of information the reader needs.

Turning Point: After much discussion, many revelations, and bitter arguments, Frodo declares that he will go to Mordor and dispose of the ring, giving up his chance to live his remaining life in the comfort and safety of Rivendell. Sam emerges from his hiding place and demands to be allowed to accompany Frodo. This is the turning point of the story.

(The movie portrays this scene differently, with Pip and Merry hiding in the shadows. Also, in the book, the decision as to who will accompany Frodo, other than Sam, is not made for several days, while the movie shortens it to the one day.)

So, within the arc of the story are smaller arcs, arcs of conflict and reflection, each created by scenes. The arc of the scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending on a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it began, leading to the brief transition scene.

Transitions can be as simple as a change of setting, one character leaving the room for a breath of air. They can be hard transitions, the scene ends and with it, so does that chapter. Within a chapter, conversations can serve as good transitions that propel the story forward to the next scene, offering a chance to absorb what just happened. If using a conversation as a transition, it’s important you don’t have your characters engage in idle chit-chat. In literary terms, a good conversation is about something we didn’t know and builds toward something we are only beginning to understand.

That is true of every aspect of a scene—it must reveal something and push the story forward toward something.

With each scene we are also pushing the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist grows and is shaped by receiving needed information through action and conversation, followed by reaction and regrouping. This allows the reader to experience the story as the protagonist does, and then to reflect and absorb the information gained before moving on to the next scene.

All the arcs together form a cathedral-like structure: the novel. By creating small arcs in the form of scenes, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, the life-breath of the novel.


Credits and Attributions:

The Functions of the Scene, ©2017 by Connie J. Jasperson, first appeared here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on November 22, 2017.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Reissue edition (February 15, 2012) Fair Use.

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Many will begin, few will succeed #amwriting

Every year, many writers begin writing on November 1st, fully intending to get their 1,667 words (or more) written every day, to get their 50,000 words by November 30th. In my region last year, 245 writers created profiles and began an official manuscript at www.nanowrimo.org.

The reality sets in within the first week. Last year 64 writers in our region never got more than 5,000 words written.

Some are young people just out of school who “always wanted to write a book.” They usually don’t have any idea of what they want to write, and no clue of how to be disciplined enough to spend two hours a day writing any words, much less the number of words it takes to make a novel.

They start, get 30 to 1,000 words in, and realize they have nothing to say. But 34 people made it to the 10,000 word mark before they stopped writing. That is almost a novella.

Others do well for a week, or even two, and then, at the 20,000 word mark, they take a day off. Somehow, they never get back to it. Someday, they may actually succeed in finishing that book. Just not this year.

Even seasoned writers may find the commitment to sit and write 1,667 words every day is not doable for them. Things come up—life happens.

But 78 writers out of the 245 in our region made it to the 50,000 word mark, and 5 exceeded 100,000 words.

It takes personal discipline to write 1,667 new words every day. This is not revising old work—this is writing something new, not looking at what you wrote yesterday. This is starting where you left off and moving forward.

For me, having the outline keeps me on track.

I’m not a good typist. The words that fall out of my head during this month are not all golden, just so you know. Some words will be garbled and miskeyed. This means I sometimes have a lot of revising of the work I intend to keep.

Some of what I write will be worth keeping, and some not at all. But even among the weeds, some passages and scenes  will be found that could make a story work. I will keep and use them because they say what I mean to say, and the others I will revise.

One flash fiction that came out of November 2015 fully formed and required little in the way of revisions is The Iron Dragon. The story wanted to be told, and I wrote it in two hours one morning.

Yet another very short story came out of NaNoWriMo 2015, The Cat, the Jeweler, and the Thief. That story remained very much as it began, and also was written in one morning.

I had the prompts and basic ideas of what I intended to write when I sat down. The words fell out of my mind, and the stories told themselves.

For me, as a NaNo Rebel, this is my little vacation from the serious novels that take up most of my time. I don’t accept any editing clients during November or December—my attention is on writing in November and cooking in December.

It’s a matter of getting the ideas down and putting the words on paper. If you don’t get those ideas out of your head and onto paper, you can’t revise and reshape them into something worth reading.

How do we develop the discipline to write every day? This is my list of suggestions for how to have a successful NaNoWriMo, and end November with that winner’s certificate:

  1. Write at least 1,670 words every day (three more than is required) This takes me about 2 hours – I’m not fast at this.
  2. Write every day, no matter if you have an idea worth writing about or not. Do it even if you have to get up at 4:00 am to find the time and don’t let anything derail you.
  3. If you are stuck, write about how your day went and how you are feeling about things that are happening in your life, or write that grocery list. Just write and think about where you want to take your real story. Write about what you would like to have happen in that story. Soon, you will be writing that story.
  4. Check in on the national threads and your regional thread to keep in contact with other writers.
  5. Attend a write-in if your region is having any or join a virtual write-in at NaNoWriMo on Facebook. This will keep you enthused about your project.
  6. Delete nothing. Passages you want to delete later can be highlighted, and the font turned to red or blue, so you can easily separate them out later.
  7. Remember, not every story is a novel. If your story comes to an end, start a new story in the same manuscript. Use a different font or a different color of font, and you can always separate the stories later. That way you won’t lose your word count.
  8. Validate your word count every day.

These suggestions require you to actually sit in a chair and write. Talking about what you intend to write isn’t getting the book written—for that you must sit your backside down and write.

That is what NaNoWriMo is all about. Writing, and developing discipline.

Authors write. Authors have finished manuscripts to show for their efforts, whether they are good or bad.

If you don’t actually have time to write, you may be a dreamer and a story teller, but you aren’t an author – yet.

Set aside the time to write, develop a habit of writing, and don’t let anything get in the way of your writing time. Don’t allow your writing time to be infringed upon, but also, don’t let it eat into your family time. In 1989, as a single parent with one child still at home, I found myself writing on the bus as I rode to work. I hadn’t ever had the thought that someone would want to read my work, but I had one hour of peace and quiet each way in the morning and evening, and so I wrote in a notebook.

Find the least intrusive block of time for you to have to yourself. What would happen if you dedicated two hours an evening to writing your novel instead of watching TV? What if you got up an hour early and wrote before you went to work every day? Make it your rule, your daily habit to use that time to write 1,667 new words a day for the month of November.

That is how you can get your first draft of a novel written in 30 days and still have time for your family.


Credits and Attributions:

Leo Tolstoy by Ilya Repin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Notebooks, by L.Marie (https://www.flickr.com/photos/lenore-m/2812598573/) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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#NaNoWriMo2018 pre-planning

When I begin penning a story, the working title is usually just a handle, something to carry it by for the time being, and which will be changed when I rewrite it anyway. While the title might not actually exist, the story does, in the form of an idea, a prompt.

So, before I sit down to write anything, I answer a short list of questions about the overall story arc of my intended tale.

I mentioned a few post’s back that I keep a document pinned to my desktop, one that I write down topics and ideas for stories on. This list is crucial, and now, as part of my preparations for next month’s madness, I am taking each idea, and answering eight questions, and making a separate file folder for each story.

I have a master folder in my writing folder that is titled: NaNoWriMo2018. Within that folder are my small files, one for each story I plan to write.

For a novel, you only need two files: your work-in-progress document, and a document to keep all the back story in.

But I am a NaNo Rebel and so for me, at this point, there are fifteen file folders in that file. I will probably only get ten of them written at 4,000 to 10,000 words per story.

I title each story folder with a working-title, such as Mitzi.

The file contains two documents. The first one is blank except for one line, which is the prompt, the  premise of the story. It is labeled MITZIdraft1. That stands for Mitzi first draft. This document will be the manuscript for that story. Any subsequent revisions will be labeled title_draft2, etc.

At 12:01 a.m. in November 1st, I will open this document and begin writing Mitzi’s story. I think her tale will top out at about 4,000 words. Then I will open the next file: Doors. I’ll begin working on that short story, which I expect will top out at 5,000 words.

I doubt I’ll keep the title of Mitzi, but it’s about a dog who “lives” at about six different homes, who answers to six different names, and the people who think they own her.

I got the idea for that story from “Rufus,” the name I gave the cat who sleeps on my back porch all day, but who actually belongs to one of our neighbors. We don’t know his real name, or which neighbor owns him. We never have to feed him, and his vet bills are not an issue for us. We just get to enjoy his orange and white fur, all over our outdoor furniture.

I mentioned there were two documents in each file. The other document is the basic premise of the story, answered in eight questions. Each answer is simply one or two lines telling me what to write.

  1. Who are the players?
  2. Who is the POV character?
  3. Where does the story open?
  4. What does the protagonist have to say about their story?
  5. How did they arrive at the point of no return?
  6. What do they want and what are they willing to do to get it?
  7. What hinders them?
  8. How does the story end? Is there more than one way this could go?

The answers to these questions make writing the actual story go faster because I know what happened, what the goal is, why the goal is difficult to achieve, and how the story ends.

Once you have answered questions one and two, you know who you are writing about and which character has the most compelling story.

At that point, you must decide what will be your inciting incident. An event happens that throws them into the action. Now, what is their goal/objective?

At the beginning of the story, what does our protagonist want that causes them to risk everything to acquire it? How badly do they want it and why? The answer to that question must be that they want whatever it is desperately.

Question number six is an important thought to consider. What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in their attempt to overcome the odds and achieve their objective?

Many final objectives are not issues of morality, but all final objectives should have consequences and should involve a struggle.

The answer to question number seven is vitally important because the story hinges on how the protagonist overcomes adversity. What hinders them? Is there an antagonist? If so, who are they and why are they the villain of the piece?

Answering question eight is crucial if I want to complete my short story during November. Endings are frequently difficult to write because I can see so many different outcomes. Because it is NaNoWriMo, and every new word I write counts toward my goal, I write as many endings as I need to.

This is where making use of scene breaks can be your friend. For a short story, an ending is usually only 500 words or so. I simply head that section (in bolded front) with the words Possible Ending 1 or 2, or however many endings I have come up with.

Once I have finished my short story, I save that file, close it, and move on to the next. I have to keep that story factory working, because during the rest of the year, whatever novel I am writing takes priority in the writing queue.

But I always have time to revise something that is already written, especially if I have come to a stopping place in my novel.

Every evening, I copy and paste each day’s work into my NaNo Master Manuscript, which is also in my NaNoWriMo2018 file. This gives me the satisfaction of seeing my total word count growing day by day.  I upload that manuscript every night to the www.nanowrimo.org website so that my work is validated and my writing buddies can see I am meeting my daily word count goals.

November is the only time I can dedicate to exploring the many topics and wild ideas that come to me over the course of a year. On December 1st, I will go back to my usual routine, editing for clients in the morning and working on my novel after editing is done.

When I need a break and something new to work on, I will pull out my short story file, and begin revisions. The work I have planned for selected anthologies will be revised first, as they will have deadlines early in 2019.

This keeps me working and ensures I am being productive even when my novel is stranded in the desert of “Now What?”.

Pre-planning means I have a good system established for version control for my revisions, as each story has its own file and I don’t have to waste time dealing with that on the front end. As I say, this is my system, and it works for me. I use this system for all my work.

Develop your system, lay the groundwork for your novel. Create the master file, and in that file, include any sub-files that pertain to your novel. Do it now, well in advance of November 1st, so that all you have to do is write and save your work.

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October 22, 2018 · 6:00 am

What is NaNoWriMo and why bother with it? #amwriting

As most of you know by now, I regularly participate in the annual writing rumble known as NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I’m a rebel in that I usually scratch out as many short stories as I am able in those thirty days.

I participate every year because for 30 precious days, writing is the only thing I “have” to do.

My friends and family all know that November, in our house, is referred to “National Pot Pie Month,” so if you drop by expecting a hot meal from Grandma, it will probably emerge from the microwave in the form of a formerly frozen hockey puck.

I usually have my “winners’ certificate” by the day they become available, but I continue writing every day through the 30th and update my word count daily.

NaNoWriMo is a contest in the sense that if you write 50,000 words and have your word count validated through the national website you ‘win.’ But it is not a contest in any other way as there are no huge prizes or great amounts of acclaim for those winners, only a PDF winner’s certificate that you can fill out and print to hang on your wall.

It is simply a month that is solely dedicated to the act of writing a novel.

Now let’s face it–a novel of only 50,000 words is not a very long novel. It’s a good length for YA or romance, but for epic fantasy or literary fiction it’s only half a novel. But regardless of the proposed length of their finished novel, a dedicated author can get the rough draft–the basic structure and story-line of a novel–down in those thirty days simply by sitting down for an hour or two each day and writing a minimum of 1667 words per day.

With a simple outline to keep you on track, that isn’t too hard. In this age of word processors, most authors can double or triple that. As always, there is a downside to this intense month of stream-of-consciousness writing. Just because you can sit in front of a computer and spew words does not mean you can write a novel that others want to read.

Every year many cheap or free eBooks will emerge testifying to that fundamental truth.

The good thing is, over the next few months many people will realize they enjoy the act of writing and are fired to learn the craft. They will find that for them this month of madness was not about getting a certain number of words written by a certain date, although that goal was important. For them, it is about embarking on a creative journey and learning a craft with a dual reputation that difficult to live up to. Depending on the cocktail party, authors are either disregarded as lazy ne’er-do-wells or given far more respect than we deserve.

As I said in my previous post on NaNoWriMo, more people do this during November than you would think–about half the NaNo Writers in my regional area devote this time journaling or writing college papers.

For a very few people, participating in NaNoWriMo will give them the confidence to admit that an author lives in their soul and is demanding to get out. In their case, NaNoWriMo is about writing and completing a novel they had wanted to write for years, something that had been in the back of their minds for all their lives.

These are the people who will join writing groups and begin the long journey of learning the craft of writing. Whether they pursue formal educations or not, these authors will take the time and make an effort to learn writing conventions (practices). They will attend seminars, they will develop the skills needed to take a story and make it a novel with a proper beginning, a great middle, and an incredible end.

They will properly polish their work and run it past critique groups before they publish it. They will have it professionally edited. These are books I will want to read.

The life of an artist or author is not one of constant accolades and fetes. After you have downloaded the PDF Winners’ Certificate from www.NaNoWriMo.org, you will rarely receive an award to show for your labors. Yes, some people will love and admire what we have created, but other times what we hear back from our beta readers and editors is not what we wanted to hear.

The smart authors haul themselves to a corner, lick their wounds, and persevere. They pull up their socks and keep to the path and don’t expect or demand overnight success.

When we write something that a reader loves—that is a feeling that can’t be described. That moment makes the months of intense work and financial sacrifice worth it.

And whether we go indie or the traditional route, writing is a career that will require financial sacrifice.

Most authors must keep their day jobs because success as an author can’t always be measured in cash or visibility in the New York Times bestsellers list. For most authors, success can only be measured in the satisfaction you as an author get out of your work. Traditionally published authors see a smaller percentage of their royalties than the more successful indies, but if they are among the lucky few, they can sell more books and earn more because of that.

The fact your book has been picked up by a traditional publisher does not guarantee they will put a lot of effort into pushing the first novel by an unknown author. You will have to do all the social media footwork yourself, tweeting, getting an Instagram account, getting a website, etc. You may even have to arrange your own book signing events, just as if you were an indie.

This is time-consuming, and you will feel as if you need a personal assistant to handle these things—indeed, some people rely on the services of hourly personal assistants to help navigate the rough waters of being your own publicist.

Every year, participating in NaNoWriMo will inspire many discussions about becoming an author. Going full-time or keeping the day job, going indie or aiming for a traditional contract—these are conundrums many new authors will be considering after they have finished the chaotic month of NaNoWriMo. While few of us have the luxury to go indie and write full-time (my husband has a good job), many authors will struggle to decide their publishing path.

However, if you don’t sit down and write that story, you aren’t an author. You won’t have to worry about it. With that in mind, November and NaNoWriMo would be a great time to put that idea on paper and see if you really do have a novel lurking in your future.

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Fritz Leiber, Takuma Sato, and #NaNoWriMo #amwriting

My first NaNoWriMo novel, written in 2010, began with the idea of writing a book Fritz Leiber might write if he were still alive and if he had consumed several hallucinogenic mushrooms. I had just finished re-reading my collection of Fritz Leiber tales, and I had Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser on the brain. These two characters are scoundrels, living in a decadent world where a lack of scruples is a requirement for survival.

The book I produced had no resemblance to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and was nothing like anything Fritz would have written. But within the uneven plot and hokey, frequently overblown dialogue lay the bones of a good story.

My participation in NaNoWriMo began in 2010 when a young writer in the Philippines whom I had met through a gaming website mentioned he was going to do this writing challenge. I was intrigued, discovering it was a worldwide contest of sorts, where hundreds of thousands of people began writing a novel on November 1st with the intention of having it finished by November 30.

The catch was, you couldn’t start until 12:01 am on November 1st, and the finished book had to be at least 50,000 words long, but it could longer than that if you needed it to be. And, you had to have it validated by 11:59 PM on November 30th to “win” the coveted winner’s goodies.

Fear of failure had never stopped me from making my life more complicated, so when I signed up, I chose the handle dragon_fangirl.

As my favorite Indycar Driver, Takuma Sato says, “No attack, no chance.” At 6:30 a.m. on November 1, 2010, I looked at my laptop and had no idea what to do. Then it came to me: Just write the first line:

There was a cabin in the woods.

It wasn’t exactly literary brilliance, but it wasn’t too terrible, and it gave my idea little more form. I just began telling the story as it fell out of my mind. To my surprise, I discovered my word count averaged 2,500 to 3,000 words a day. By day fifteen I knew I would have no trouble getting the 50,000, and by November 21 I had attained the winning number of words.

At the 68,000-word point, I had completed my rollicking tale of snark and medieval derring-do. Of course, it was completely unpublishable, but I didn’t know that until later.

What I did know, was that I had written a complete novel, and told a story that I would have wanted to read. Three years later I realized all it needed was rewriting, editing, revising, rewriting, and putting in a drawer, never to be seen again.

Out of the wreckage of that book came the novel, Huw the Bard.

One rule they tell you at NaNoWriMo is “never delete,” and “don’t self-edit” as you go along. This is all strictly stream-of-consciousness, write it the way you think it. That was hard for me, but I did get into the swing of things eventually.

When I was out lurking on the various threads on the national website, I discovered a contingent of writers who were not trying to write a book that could be published. For them, this was a game they wanted to win at any cost, and their goal was to see how high their word count could get.

One suggestion from them for increasing your word count was to use no contractions.

Let’s be clear: I do NOT recommend this. If you ever want to publish your manuscript, you will have a lot of work ahead of you to make it readable if you do that.

My rules for NaNoWriMo:

  1. Write at least 1,670 words every day (three more than is required) This takes me about 2 hours – I’m not fast at this.
  2. Write every day, no matter if you have an idea worth writing about or not. Do it even if you have to get up at 4:00 am to find the time and don’t let anything derail you. If you are stuck, write about how your day went and how you are feeling about things that are happening in your life, or write that grocery list. Just write, and think about where you want to take your real story. Write about what you would like to see happen in that story.
  3. Check in on the national threads and your regional thread to keep in contact with other writers.
  4. Attend a write-in if your region is having any, or join a virtual write-in at NaNoWriMo on Facebook. This will keep you enthused about your project.
  5. Delete nothing. Passages you want to delete later can be highlighted, and the font turned to red or blue, so you can easily separate them out later.
  6. Remember, not every story is a novel. If your story comes to an end, start a new story in the same manuscript. Use a different font or a different color of font, and you can always separate the stories later. That way you won’t lose your word count.
  7. Validate your word count every day.

This year, I have so far written over 80,000 words. I’ve made headway on a manuscript, set in the world of Neveyah, five-hundred years before Tower of Bones. I have also worked on several short stories, trying to flesh them out and discover who the protagonists are as people. I’ve written some poetic doggerel and a great many words that will never see the light of day. But buried deep within the rubbish are some good words, words that will one day become a novel.

Participating in NaNoWriMo forces me to become disciplined, and forces me to ignore the inner editor, the little voice that slows my productivity down and squashes my creativity.

For those two reasons alone, I will most likely always “do” NaNoWriMo, even when I am no longer able to be a Municipal Liaison.

I love the rush, the thrill of having written something for myself, something that I alone will see and enjoy. But more than that, I love knowing that some of what I have written is good, and is worthy of submission elsewhere. Perhaps one or more of these short stories I have begun fleshing out will be accepted by a contest or magazine.

As Takuma Sato says, “No attack, no chance.”


Credits and Attributions

Cover art from Swords and Deviltry by Fritz LeiberAce Books, 1970. Fair Use. Wikipedia contributors. “Swords and Deviltry.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 May. 2016. Web. 26 Nov. 2017.

Takuma Sato May 28 2017 Indy 500 by Jonathan Mauer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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#NaNoWriMo Getting word count when you’ve fallen behind #amwriting

For some NaNoWriMo novelists, falling slightly behind becomes a death knell to their project. They feel there is no way they can make it up, that they are doomed, and therefore they quit.

In my experience, falling behind on your word count is the easiest problem to fix.

First, don’t let self-doubt creep in. This is human nature, but don’t let it defeat you.

Second, you must buckle down and write more than the minimum for a while. That is also hard, but if you catch it early, you can do it.

Do a little math. Figure out how many words per day you will need to write to make up what you missed. Add that number to your daily word goals. You might want to add a hundred or so words to that number, so you have a little wiggle-room.

Remember, what you are writing is a rough draft, so your story arc is going to be bumpy and uneven. It doesn’t have to be perfect so don’t fuss over making so. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to get that rough draft written in thirty days. So, every time you have fifteen minutes to spare, sit down and write as much as you can in that short time period. Spew your story as fast as you can in those moments before you are pulled away. With six or seven short bursts of writing, you can really rack up the word count, and perhaps make up the difference there.

We all must eat, so during NaNoWriMo, I am the queen of the crockpot and anything that can be baked in the oven. Think about it—once the food is in the oven, you will have at least half an hour of downtime. Set your laptop on the counter and write while things are baking/nuking. That is how I cook Thanksgiving dinner for my extended family—I start prepping food on Tuesday, and by writing every time I have a ten or fifteen minute pause in the preparations, I don’t fall behind. This also allows me to enjoy my family on Thanksgiving day, because most of the work is already done.

Yes, the vegan does roast 2 turkeys for the numerous carnivores, but everything else is plant based and homemade. Despite the extra work that Thanksgiving week adds to my life, I get my word count every day and still get my house ready for guests by using this method.

For much of my working life, I was a single parent, sometimes with three part-time jobs. My main job was as a bookkeeper, or working in data entry for corporate America, but though the 1990s I worked weekends and holidays as a hotel maid. I’m retired now, but although I’d never heard of NaNoWriMo, I was a secret novelist, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what I was writing.

What I did in those old days was this—I always took my lunch to work and wrote during my lunch half-hour. You don’t have to announce you are writing a book if you don’t wish to—I certainly didn’t feel comfortable doing so. If you want to spend your lunch time writing, politely let people know you’re handling personal business and won’t have time to chat.

Some offices will allow you to use your workstation computer for personal business, but most of my places of employment frowned on that. I brought a notebook and pen as I didn’t own a good laptop. By writing down all my thoughts and ideas, I had a great start when I finally did get a chance to write. If your work allows, bring your laptop or your iPad/Android. So you don’t get into trouble with the boss, sit in the lunchroom (if you have one).

I always wrote in the evenings while my children did their homework, which sometimes meant a lot of stopping and starting, but I did get some writing done. Some is better than none! You can also set aside a block of time on the weekend to make up some words, though that can be difficult, as setting aside an un-infringeable time on a weekend can become a hardship, especially if you have a young family.

But by writing in short bursts whenever you have the opportunity, you might get your first draft finished, and get that certificate that says you completed 50,000 words in 30 days.

One way to cultivate your emotional and poetic mind, and to improve your writing skills in general, is to write in the stream-of-consciousness style. This is unstructured, unedited writing. It reflects your (or your character’s) observations. Writing in this fashion mirrors the way internal thoughts in the human mind work – you are quickly processing thoughts and perhaps switching from one topic to another with a certain amount of abandon. Just go for it.

Remember what I said above? Don’t worry about perfection. The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to get that rough draft written in thirty days. In January or March, or whenever you go to rewrite your rough draft, you might be amazed to find that much of what you originally wrote has life and passion.

The point is to keep on writing even when you have fallen behind. Use whatever motivational tricks you need to encourage yourself, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Far more importantly than simply getting word count, the goal is to finish your novel.

And remember: you can do it.

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#amwriting: the truth about #NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo-General-FlyerEvery author knows that writing is about so much more than merely laying words down on a page.   Most people with a minimal education can do that, and can even whack out a creditable paragraph or two. However, sustaining the momentum and carrying that vision through an entire story is quite another thing.

Over the years, I’ve seen disparaging articles where people have expressed their scorn and disdain of authors who participate in Nation Novel Writing Month, mocking the notion of a “competition.”

But these naysayers are overlooking one important point: to write a novel one must begin a novel and then complete it.

If it takes a special month of writing and a group frenzy to get some people fired up about an idea they’ve had rolling around in their heads, who am I to complain?  I am a reader as much as I am an author, and I say the more, the merrier!

Take a look at some of the most well-known “NaNo Novels” of all time:

  1. Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. On the best-seller lists for over a year, turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, started as a NaNo novel.
  2. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. What eventually became The Night Circus began life in 2004, seven years before it was finally published, started as a NaNo novel.
  3. Wool, by Hugh Howey. Howey’s dystopian sci-fi novel is one of those credited with putting self-publishing on the map, started as a NaNo novel.

I’m not bothered by the “poo-poo on the contest” noise. Whatever gets a writer fired up and writing is fine by me, and we are all the better for the experience.

The real thing that causes angst among the elite is the notion that anyone with an idea can sit down and write the bare bones of a book in 30 days. Being an author is not being in a private club anymore, and it secretly bothers some of the stodgier “real” authors that a person of any background, religion, or ethnicity can dare to write meaningful or entertaining work, even people with minimal education.

Fear and Loathing, we call that. It’s irrational, but then no one ever accused authors of being rational! There will always be a need for more authors and more books, as once a book has been read, the dedicated reader wants a new book. It is the law of supply and demand, and publishing is a business.

The fact is, most people who begin a novel in November do not reach their goal of 50,000 words and never finish those novels. They do not have the discipline to sit down every day and dedicate a portion of their time to this project.

A great number of Nano Authors discover that doing NaNoWriMo is just like doing karaoke. They love to read, and they want to write the next Gone with the Wind, but their work reads like a tone-deaf drunk sounds when singing Wind Beneath my Wings.  They are not talented writers. But so what? The cream always rises to the top, my grandma used to say.

Because of NaNoWriMo, many truly talented people are now embarking on learning a craft, committing their time and resources to educating themselves about how to write a novel that others will want to read. Several years down the road, who knows what wonderful works of fiction will have emerged from this year’s madness?

NANO CrestI only know that I am always looking for a good book, and so I will be first in line, hoping to be blown away by a fresh, new work of art. This is why I volunteer as a Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo. Every year we have new, young writers, with fresh, amazing ideas. But we also have many new older people who are writing their first novel, embarking on a dream they always had but never thought they could do.

Most who begin their novel this year will never write again. But every year a few writers  in each age group continue on after the month of madness is over. When I talk to them and hear how fired up and passionate they are, I am proud to have been a part of their writing life. They see the goal, and and are filled with the desire to finish what they started.

They have embarked on the quest to learn how to write well.

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