Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘National Novel Writing Month

A modest proposal for NaNoWriMo

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Not the author's typewriter

As God, in the form of George Burns, once said: “To tell you the truth, I spent the first five days thinking and created everything on the sixth.” That isn’t a bad approach to any creative act, even if you have a somewhat more modest goal in mind—say, to write an entire novel in four weeks. Yes, it’s National Novel Writing Month, and while I don’t intend to offer much here in the way of comprehensive advice, I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned about writing, and particularly finishing, an ambitious project on a deadline. (If you’re looking for additional resources, this post from WordPress is a good place to start.) I’ve never written a novel in a month myself, but in some ways, every month of my life is like NaNoWriMo: I’ve had to write two novels on highly compressed timelines, I try to write my short fiction at a similarly efficient rate, and I often average upward of 2,000 words a day. This is partly the result of external factors, partly of the habits of writing I’ve developed, partly of my own obsessive nature. But If there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that productivity is close to a virtue in its own right, but it doesn’t mean much if you can’t finish what you start.

As a result, my modest proposal for anyone thinking about jumping into a novel this month is that you spend the first few days, and maybe even the first week, on an outline. This won’t come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog, for whom my love of outlines should be abundantly clear by now, but it might seem counterintuitive in a setting when every day counts. Yet I’ve found that any time spent on planning, even in a rudimentary way, is more than compensated down the line by the support and momentum it provides. To write a 60,000-word novel in a month requires cranking out 2,000 words per day. If you spend the first five or six days on planning, your daily output rises to 2,500, which isn’t a trivial difference, but it’s far from insurmountable. Speaking from experience, I can say that 2,500 words written with the help of an outline fly by infinitely faster than half that number written without some kind of plan. And while part of the point of NaNoWriMo is to encourage participants to get words down on paper without looking back—which is a skill that every writer has to master—there’s no rule that says you can’t spend a few days looking forward.

Initial notes for my second novel

What I’d suggest, at minimum, is an outline that fits on a single index card. Forget about the inciting incident, rising action, climax, or denouement, which are all things that emerge over the course of revision, and aren’t particularly helpful at this stage. Instead, I’d start with the following:

  1. A protagonist with a problem to solve. This by itself should take up at least your first day of planning. You may already have a protagonist in mind, and maybe a problem, which is wonderful, and if that’s the case, you’ll want to spend that first day refining it further. In particular, you want the problem, or some aspect of it, to appear in the first chapter, and for the protagonist to take a logical action to address it. When you finally sit down to write, on your first day, that’s what you’re going to be writing about. This is the beginning of your novel.
  2. A solution to the problem. This solution may change along the way, and if it does, that’s fine. All that matters is that you have some kind of resolution in mind, and that it arises from another logical action taken by the protagonist. This is your ending.
  3. Two or three intermediate complications that make the problem harder to solve. These are your second- and third-act turning points. (For the sake of convenience, we’re going to assume that your story follows a three-act structure, which is a reliably useful assumption to make.) And again, for each complication, you’ll give your protagonist something logical to do in response. To paraphrase David Mamet in On Directing Film: “We don’t want our protagonist to do things that are interesting. We want him to do things that are logical.”

When you’re done, you’ll have a little card with eight or nine pieces of information: a protagonist, an initial problem, two or three complications, and a solution, each accompanied—and this is the crucial part—by a logical action that the protagonist takes in pursuit of his or her immediate objectives. In short, you’ll have an outline, and don’t let its simplicity fool you: it’s the fundamental structure that gives a story purpose and direction. (Don’t underestimate the time it takes, either. These bullet points may be few in number, but they should be chosen with care, and I’d devote at least a full day to each step.) And what’s nice about this structure is that it works for all kinds of novels. The story you write can be highly personal, introspective, even apparently plotless, but as long as you orient yourself with an initial problem and a series of logical steps, that basic throughline will see the reader—and the writer—all the way to the end. An outline is a bridge that can be blown up once the troops have made their way across, and the final draft will almost certainly look very different, especially once you’ve gone through the necessary stages of revision. But taking the time to draw yourself a map, even a rudimentary one, will enormously increase the odds that you’ll end this month with a manuscript, and not just thirty days’ worth of good intentions.

Written by nevalalee

November 4, 2013 at 8:44 am

How much should you write every day?

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According to his own autobiography, the novelist Anthony Trollope wrote a thousand words an hour, between 5:30 and 8:30 every morning, and if he finished a novel before the day’s work was done, he took out a fresh piece of paper, wrote Chapter One at the top, and began another. Max Brand, the incredibly prolific author of westerns, wrote fourteen pages at a sitting—and in only two hours per session. More recently, in his book On Writing, Stephen King advises beginning writers to write at least 2,000 words a day, which is also the recommended pace for participants in National Novel Writing Month. (And judging from King’s legendary productivity, it’s likely that his own pace is much higher).

Of course, not every novelist is a writing machine. Jerzy Kosinski wrote a page and a half per sitting. Nabokov famously wrote his novels one perfect paragraph at a time, on individual index cards. Even the most modest pace will eventually produce an entire book, like water wearing away stone. At one point, when I was struggling to balance my writing life with a full-time job, I reminded myself that a hundred words a day—that is, something substantially shorter than this paragraph—would produce a novel of 100,000 words in just over two and a half years. For all my good intentions, though, I never actually stuck to that schedule, and ultimately decided to quit my job first. Still, the principle seems sound enough.

These days, when I’m working on a first draft, I write a lot. Yesterday, which was my first serious writing day in a long time, I wrote an entire draft of the prologue of my novel, which is about 3,500 words long, over the course of seven hours of work. Now, I’m not saying that all these words were great, or even good. I had the luxury of writing from a detailed outline. And I expect that the prologue will eventually be cut to something like 2,000 words or shorter. But like John le Carré, to compare small things with great, I like to write a chapter every day. And I do believe that there are good reasons to push yourself to write, if not an entire chapter, at least a fully realized unit of your story at each session—whether it’s a chapter, a scene, or even a paragraph, if you’re a writer like Nabokov.

In something so long and complicated as a novel, it’s crucial that its units hang together fairly organically, and writing the first draft of each unit in one session strikes me as the best possible way to do this. In my own novels, the length of each chapter is largely determined by how much I can write in one day, which also happens to approximate, conveniently enough, the amount of information that a reader can process before pausing for a break. (Poe says something similar about the ideal length of a short story.) And there’s something gratifying about crossing an entire chapter off my outline when a day’s work is done, even if I know that the real work of revision is only beginning. When I’ve got fifty chapters or more to write, that kind of pace is often all that keeps me going.

So I guess I’d better get started again.

Written by nevalalee

March 8, 2011 at 9:02 am

2,872,682,109 words

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No, that isn’t the word count for the Kung Fu Panda fanfic I mentioned a few days ago—it’s the number of words written by participants in this year’s National Novel Writing Month, which officially wrapped up this week.

How many of those words are actually worth reading? Given the nature of any first draft, it’s probably close to zero. But that doesn’t mean, as Brian Gresko recently argued in the Huffington Post, that National Novel Writing Month is “hooey.” The most useful qualities that any writer can possess, at least early on, are energy and productivity. And if you can write 2,000 grammatically correct words a day, every day, most other issues will eventually take care of themselves. (As Elmore Leonard reminds us, it may take a million words or more, but it will happen sooner or later.)

The main event, though, comes next March, which is National Novel Editing Month. I don’t know offhand how many participants from NaNoWriMo will stick around for NaNoEdMo, but if they’re serious about their writing, they’ll all make an effort to do so. Revision, it bears repeating, is the heart of creation. As John Gardner notes in On Writers and Writing, it’s what writers do:

Before Boccaccio’s time, as has been recently pointed out, writers used parchment. To make a Bible you had to kill three hundred cows. Books cost a lot, in money and cattle-blood….Then in Boccaccio’s time paper was introduced, so that suddenly it was possible for Boccaccio to write down a dirty joke he’d heard, fool around with it a little—change the farmer’s daughter into a nun, for instance, or introduce comically disparate high-class symbolism—and produce the Decameron. Chaucer did the same only better…For artists, writing has always meant, in effect, the art of endless revising.

So for all of you who finished your novel this month, congratulations. The real work, and the real fun, is just beginning…

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