Wednesday, November 2, 2011

National Starting a Novel Month

PROMINENT AND OBNOXIOUS DISCLAIMER: I am not against the National Novel Writing Month project. I think it’s awesome. I think it’s exactly what a lot of people need to motivate them. I think that it results in great writing, a greener environment, and puppies, rainbows, hearts, and unicorns. Nothing but love for NaNoWriMo.

That said, I have declared this November National There’s-No-Way-On-Earth-I’m-Writing-A-Novel Month. This is mostly because of my lack of faith in my ability to balance an intense writing project with my junior year of college, which would be something like trying to juggle flamethrowers and chainsaws at the same time.

But I am starting a novel. And, unless I find that the plot is totally unredeemable, I will finish it.

How can I say this with confidence? Let me explain in a way that looks like I’m completely changing the subject.

A few people have asked me how I could get a book contract so young. After all, all authorities on writing say, “You write your first novel for yourself,” because it’ll be so terrible that no one will want to buy it.

This is probably true. But Quest for the Scorpion’s Jewel wasn’t my first novel. It was my sixth.

I am not saying this to brag, because, frankly, they’re pretty bad. However, through the process of writing them, I learned some important lessons about seeing a project through to its completion.

If you can finish a novel in a month, great! But for the rest of us, here are some tips about how to keep going over the long haul, chapter by chapter.

Tip #1: Writing is like flossing.

When I go to the dentist, if I tell the hygienist that I will floss, I do it. Every single day. If she never brings it up during my cleaning, I floss occasionally. When I feel like it.

The key is accountability. If I give my word that I will do something, I will do it. Period. So, basically, I can trick myself into completing a project by promising it to someone else as a gift, or by telling an editing group that I’ll have a manuscript to swap by a certain time.

I prefer this method to the honor-shame strategy of having someone check on my progress at a certain date to see if I’m where I said I would be. For me, self-induced pressure creates fear of failure and fear of disappointing others, two big ones for me. Not to mention writer’s block. That’s a really bad trio for an aspiring novelist.

Tip #2: Writing is like being a storm chaser.

Consider starting a novel with very little idea of what’s going to happen next. Write each chapter as it comes instead of making an outline. This is the organization method I call the Storm Chaser, because you never know what’s going to happen next. It can be exhilarating, and it can also be risky. (It also usually requires more editing and multiple drafts to fix problems. Be prepared.)

This method can help you finish your novel for several reasons. First, you have to finish in order to find out what happens in the end. Second, your ideas tend to flow faster, since you’re writing down whatever comes to mind. And, finally, it’s fun, and when you’re excited about sitting down to write, it’s easier to motivate yourself to do so.

Note-that-really-ought-to-be-in-fine-print: This method is not for everyone. Women who are nursing or pregnant or could become pregnant have nothing to do with this paragraph. What am I even talking about?

What I really meant to say before my dumb sense of humor hijacked this point is that some people will just be stressed and frustrated by a lack of planning. In this case, please do not attempt.

Tip #3: Writing is like walking into the wind.

This is not a nice pep talk about writing being hard work, where I tell you to persevere and all that good stuff. You know that already.

What I want you to do is make your problems your enemy.

In the winter, when I have to walk long distances in the bitter cold, I march out of the building, square my shoulders, and shout, “Bring it!” to the particles of ice smacking my face. The wind is now my enemy. I must defeat it. Every step is an attack, every successful arrival, a victory.

In the same way, if you see yourself as a poor, helpless victim of inevitable struggles like writer’s block or procrastination or laziness or plot flaws, then you’ve just lost. Here’s what to do instead: watch any motivational speech in a sports movie or epic battle saga and replace the opposing team, Nazis, or orcs with whatever is keeping you from finishing that manuscript. Then fight back with everything you have.

There are many other ways to motivate yourself to follow through on a long project, but these are the ones I use most often. Plus, you’ve received some rich insights into my thought process that you can deconstruct in order to psychoanalyze me. That’s a bonus.

So, it’s National Novel Starting Month. I promise you I’ll finish the novel I’m starting. Who’s with me?


  1. Amy,
    Thank you for sharing these insightful tips! This is so true - unless I have a deadline, even an artificial one, my writings are much more likely to collect dust. (digital dust perhaps, but unnecessary nonetheless.) If you don't mind, I'll share your thoughts with the writing group I attend each Friday. if only I could floss every day...

  2. I really enjoyed the second tip, Amy, it's how I write. The disclaimer gave me my morning laugh, an important ingredient of every breakfast...
    Josh Spotts

  3. @angieknight - Sure, go ahead! And good luck with the flossing...

  4. Your post here and tips were appreciated by the group! And I wanted to share the NaNoWriMo theme song that my husband saw online. ("I've only got 50,000 words to go ... I've got everything I need except the plot.")

  5. I just read something that made me think of this post... I certainly see a point in following a story without an outline initially, but I had to take note of John Grisham's reasoning. His genre of writing requires this more, I think, but still... it made me think.

    “An outline is crucial. It saves so much time. When you write suspense, you have to know where you’re going because you have to drop little hints along the way. With the outline, I always know where the story is going. So before I ever write, I prepare an outline of 40 or 50 pages.”

  6. Great quote! The guy who did the Suspense class at Taylor last J-term insisted that a suspense book would never surprise readers unless it also surprised the writer. Personally, I don't think either one of them is right. I think it's a matter of personal preference and what works best for each individual.

    The time when I did make up my story as it went, it needed a lot of editing afterward to take care of the problems Grisham mentions. I think, though, that I must have intuitively known where the story was going, because I had foreshadowing before I even knew it.