It’s nearly that time again—the time of year where the air has bite, the nights are cold, and NaNoWriMo warriors far and near dust off their keyboards and prepare to stare at the unforgiving blink of the computer cursor with dogged determination. Some approach National Novel Writing Month with an air of celebration; this is their chance to strut their literary stuff, to put that long-gestating story idea to paper, to excuse themselves from family barbeques and movie nights because it’s November… and in November nobody comes between them and their laptop. But most step up to the plate with a dubious glance and shifty eyes; they play with the idea of writing a novel the way an aquaphobic dips their toes over the edge of a particularly deep swimming pool. They’re cautious, and for good reason. These are the people who have tried to write a novel before and failed, some giving up by choice, others bowing to overriding responsibilities, many drowning beneath their own self-doubt. And why not? Yes, writing is fulfilling and fun and magical and empowering, but writing is also a hard, unforgiving, and lonely activity. It’s no wonder so many NaNoWriMo hopefuls throw in the towel a week or two into November. They put in a valiant effort but eventually shrug their shoulders and leave it for next year. There will always be next November. Maybe a year from now your schedule will be less crazy, maybe the kids will be calmer, maybe you won’t have to finish that Breaking Bad marathon you started last week… or maybe, just maybe, you’ll have magically developed more discipline to get you through that thirty day stretch.
But probably not.
I’ll come clean: I’m not a NaNoWriMo fan. I’m a Carpe Diem sort of girl—don’t wait until November, seize the day inspiration sparks. There is nothing magical about the eleventh month of the year, no special juju floating around that will stroke your muse into a frenzy of creative genius. If you’re not inspired enough to write in March or June or September, November probably won’t be all that kind either. This is the cold and unattractive truth. The fact of the matter is that not everyone is cut out to be a novelist. But, then again, if nobody ever tried, nobody would ever know.
Regardless of whether I’m a fan or not, thousands of people will sit down at their computers come November first and type the first sentences, paragraphs, and pages of the first draft of their manuscript—and in a way that’s pretty incredible. Someone with wisdom beyond my own once said that the world gains nothing from putting an artist down, but they can very well gain everything from encouraging the creative process. Which is why I’m here, typing this, encouraging the exuberant, the excited, the doubtful, and the downright scared to go forth and go with gusto; give it your all, do your best, write the next Great American Novel you crazy genius.
But before you run off to slay the dragon, don’t forget your sword.
Writers have tools, just like carpenters and carnival freaks. A carpenter can have the best hammer money can buy, but unless he has nails he isn’t going to build much. A circus clown can have the best center ring act of all time, but nobody’s going to laugh if he forgets his white makeup and red rubber nose. A writer can have the best story idea since that one bestseller that made that one author a million billion bucks, but that thing isn’t going to get written on a wing and a prayer. So there in the question lies: how does one go about writing a novel? How do you take this journey without getting hopelessly lost, stuck, or disenchanted half-way through? It’s difficult, yes, but not impossible. The dragon awaits. Here is your sword.
1. DON’T WALK IN BLIND
Take a look at the calendar. If it’s November 1st and you have no idea what you’re going to write yet, take a bit of advice: forget November and do December instead. Sure, December isn’t national novel writing month, but it can be your own private novel writing month instead. The fact of the matter is, if you haven’t prepared—if you have no story idea and no knowledge of your characters—don’t try this at home. Sure, you could wing it, but there’s a ninety-nine percent chance that you’re going to be one sad panda come Thanksgiving. Story writing is hard work. Lay out a roadmap, especially if you’re on a schedule. Know what you’re going to write about and think about the progression from beginning to middle to end—what has to happen for the story to get from point A to point Z.
2. KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS
Your characters come first, your plot second. You can outline and reoutline your plot all you want, but nobody’s going to care if your characters fall flat. When it comes down to it, your characters are your story. Without them you have nothing. Know your characters in and out; what motivates them, what they want and need, what they hate and are afraid of. Give them a goal that, in their eyes, is life or death. Your characters, no matter whether they’re good or bad, need to have a driving force behind them, regardless of whether they want to save the world or destroy it. It all boils down to making your characters real. The best characters are flawed. They make mistakes, they say the wrong things, they have bad hair days, and sometimes they drink too much. There is no one perfect human in this world, and so there can’t realistically be a perfect character in a book either. But just as nobody’s perfect, nobody is completely flawed. Even a serial killer has one or two redeeming qualities. John Wayne Gacy murdered teenage boys and buried them beneath his house, but he was also a party clown who visited sick kids in the hospital. Creepy? Yeah. But real, and real is never black or white. Real is always gray.
3. WRITE A SYNOPSIS, EVEN IF IT HURTS
Writing a synopsis for a story that doesn’t exist yet is like ripping a Bandaid off of a particularly hairy arm: it’s going to hurt, but the quicker you do it the better. So, how does one write synopsis? First, start out with a single sentence. In that sentence, write what your story is about. Now expand that sentence into a simple paragraph. Go back, take each sentence in that paragraph and expand it into a paragraph of its own. Suddenly, you’ll find you have an entire page dedicated to what your story is going to be about, and you haven’t even started writing yet. The trick here is to explore. The more you write, the more you’re going to stop and think “yeah, that’s a great idea” or “wait a minute, that doesn’t make any sense.” I do this process myself, and the last time I went through the steps my entire story became something altogether new, something I had never expected. Your synopsis is a safe place where it’s easy to go back and change things, to delete the whole thing and start over. Trust me, it’s much easier to delete a four or five page summary than it is a manuscript thirty thousand words in.
4. HAVE A MAP, DON’T GET LOST
Your synopsis is your map. If you need to get from New York to California, it’s a lot easier to get there if you know you need to drive west rather than east, and it’s even easier if you know what highway to get on. Can you get from New York to California without a map? Sure. But it’s going to take a lot longer, you’re going to get lost, and you might end up in a rough neighborhood where you very well may get mugged (think: writers block, think: lost motivation, think: frustration). If you’re on a schedule, you should know where you’re going so you can get there in the allotted time. Take the synopsis you wrote and start jotting down scenes that will take you from beginning to middle to end. You don’t have to plot out your entire story if you don’t want to, but at least now you’ll know what points to hit, and that in itself will propel you forward.
5. IF IT DOESN’T ADVANCE THE STORY, DITCH IT
With such a short amount of time, think efficient. In general, you don’t want anything in your story that doesn’t somehow speak to the overall plot. If you have extra characters that only distract, get rid of them. If you have a scene in which nothing happens, what’s the point? Remember Donnie Darko and that weird gelatinous worm that spawned from his chest and propelled him forward through time and space? Give that to your characters. Always give them a place to go or someone to see or something to do that will, in the end, get them to that final scene of your novel. Every move should have a purpose, either to reveal character or advance the plot. If it doesn’t add to the story, get rid of it. If you aren’t sure what it adds to the story, it probably doesn’t add much.
6. WRITE EVERYDAY
It seems like common sense, but it’s harder than it sounds. As I mentioned earlier, writing is a lonely endeavor. To write and write well, you need to be disciplined. Some days you’ll be inspired, other days all you’ll want is a long nap on the couch, but you’ll never reach your end goal if you give in to those types of temptations. And then there will be things like going out with friends, watching an extra hour of TV, that new video game you just bought or catching up on your Twitter mentions. If you want to succeed during NaNoWriMo or, more accurately, if you want to succeed as a writer at all, you need to know how to push those distractions into the background; while you’re typing away, emails wait, texts don’t get answered, and phone calls go to voicemail.
7. UNPLUG YOUR ROUTER AND TURN OFF YOUR PHONE
Sticking with rule number six is a lot easier when you remove some of those temptations. Disconnect your computer from the internet. During the hour or two hours you’ve dedicated to writing each day, there is no Facebook, no Reddit, no instant messages, and no Google crawling for cat pictures. Every distraction you allow through your wall of defense is a distraction that eats away a little bit of your time and a lot of your creative drive. If you run into a detail that you need to research, do the research after your allotted writing time. Research doesn’t add in to your word count. And neither does editing.
8. IF IT’S ALREADY WRITTEN, LEAVE IT ALONE
One of the major pitfalls of beginning writers is that knee-jerk reaction of editing everything as its written. You pump out a sentence, read it over and over, decide it’s terrible, rewrite it, reread it… suddenly half an hour has gone by and you’ve written a whopping seventeen words. Allow your first draft to be terrible, don’t worry about the holes. If half-way through the draft you decide you hate a character’s name, change it mid-draft. If you suddenly want your main character to be a rocket scientist rather than a pastry chef, change their career on the fly. Don’t go back. Always move forward. The final scene of your novel is your destination.
9. KEEP THE CARDS CLOSE TO YOUR CHEST
Don’t tell everyone you know what you’re writing. Pretend its top secret. The point isn’t to look mysterious, but to keep your muse happy and your self-doubt at bay. Creative people are terrible self-doubters as it is; to invite friends and family to ask questions about your plot and characters is to invite disaster. Your mom or your bestie may have the best intentions, but advice and critique mid-draft (especially the first draft) is a great way to lost momentum and take on a lot of self-directed negativity. You’re already feeling shaky about this huge undertaking as it is—it’s difficult to stay focused, hard to convince yourself to just keep going, to let the first draft suck. It’s going to be almost impossible when a colleague says “this is a great idea, but what if you did this instead?” Let me tell you, your reaction won’t be “that’s awesome,” it’s going to be “why didn’t I think of that? I’m so stupid. What am I doing? I’m just wasting my time. I’m no writer.” It’s easy to avoid this situation, just remember what your teacher used to tell you: keep your eyes on your own paper, and no talking. Put your head down, get to the end. Once you finish your first draft, you can show it to everyone you’ve ever met and get as much advice as you can handle. Until then, save yourself some grief and just say no.
10. REMEMBER, NOBODY KNOWS WHAT THEY’RE DOING
It’s very easy to get into a negative mindset when taking on such a massive project, especially if it’s your first time doing it. You’ll have many moments where you lean back in your chair, shove your fingers into your hair, and mutter about how clueless you are, how writing a novel is impossible because you simply have no idea what the hell you’re doing. Except, here’s a trade secret: none of us do. I’m about to start writing my sixth novel, and I’ve already had moments of crippling self-doubt. It doesn’t matter that I’ve written five of these in the past. The sixth feels impossible; new characters, new situations, a whole new potential to fail spectacularly. You’re not alone in your self-doubt. Even the best writers wonder what the hell they’re doing until they find that they’ve somehow, miraculously, done the impossible.
My personal thoughts on NaNoWriMo are somewhat confused. I don’t understand why anyone would wait until November to do something they want to do, nor do I understand why someone would take on such a huge task and give themselves such a short amount of time to complete it. Imagine your favorite band deciding they were going to write every single song of their next album in a month—write, not record. You’d be perplexed, right? That’s me and National Novel Writing Month. I feel like you have to be a little crazy to take on such a lofty goal, but sometimes crazy is good. Kudos to those who have the guts to take NaNoWriMo on, and thumbs up to those who actually manage to get through it. But for those who are afraid, and those who may try but come up short, to you I say: don’t sweat it. There are twelve months in a year, not one. As long as you follow the above advice, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to put your book to paper… and in the end, it isn’t going to matter whether you wrote your first draft in a month or in six; and it certainly won’t matter if you wrote it in November.