NaNoCoDo #13 A Writing Space and Time to Write

This is my tenth year of doing NaNoWriMo. I have written at least 50,000 words every November for the last nine years and I plan to do the same this year.

I have other commitments, other demands on my time. I have writing that’s promised to magazines, family problems, health issues, computer glitches and all the other things that get in the way of a good month’s writing. We all do. I was even packing our house ready to move one November. NaNoWriMo is all about being the one who produces 50,000 words in a month despite everything else that’s going on in your life. If it was easy, what would be the point of doing it?

One of the great benefits lies in finding out how much time you waste in a “normal” month. Ten minutes waiting for someone to get ready. Half an hour while dinner’s in the oven. An hour in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep. Yup, I’ve written in all of those timeslots. And that’s the key to NaNoWriMo.

People tend to assume that writers have a set schedule, that they type all day and then have a normal social life. The reality is often more to do with holding down a full-time job and squeezing their story into tiny snatched moments during their day. NaNo is great practice for just such a life. If you’re hoping your work will be discovered by a publisher someday, get used to the idea that you’ve got to spend the next few years earning a living in the mundane world before that happens. Sorry, but that’s reality for you!

One other useful point to NaNoWriMo is that you can use this month to train your family / friends not to interrupt when you’re writing. My long-suffering Hubby knows the dangers of speaking to me when I’m typing and he has the bite-marks to prove it. You can explain to everyone that it’s only for November – they’ll be happy to humour you for a month and then they’ll have got used to it so you can continue writing (although not as frantically) afterwards. By the time you’ve done this for thirty days, you’ll have trained yourself to write (or think about your story) at every opportunity. And your family / significant other / friends will have learnt that you’re serious about this writing lark.

You don’t need to be sitting at your favourite desk to write. You don’t have to wear your writing undies. You don’t need silence or solitude.

You’re not trying to produce deathless prose, just a novel-length piece
of work you can be proud of.

Write when you can, think about your plot when you can’t write. Hold conversations (in your head) with your characters when you’re on the bus. Make sure you take backups!

All you need is a computer, imagination and the will to succeed.

See you in December, Writers! <<– Sign up here.

NaNoCoDo #12 Begin at the Beginning

Oh no – November is fast approaching. Now is the time to think about types of writing style. First person or Third? Past tense or Present? And if Past – which one?

Simple answer – don’t get hung up on any of these details. Try telling the opening of your story out loud, as if you were telling a mate. Do you find yourself using third person? Then write in third. Do you talk in a past tense? Then write in that one.

If all else fails, just start writing. If you find you’ve changed point of view (PoV) after a couple of chapters, don’t panic. Just keep going.
You can sort it all out in an edit later – if the book’s worth polishing. I’ve advised a lot of writers to change their PoV and their stories have been much stronger after that edit!

Likewise character names. I don’t always know what my characters are called when I start a story, so I just give them a label I can change later. That’s what “Find – Replace” is for in your word processor. You could call them AAA, BBB, CCC and so on. I tend to name them according to their role in the tale – Donna was the daughter, Frank her father, Simon the son – and so on. Your characters will tell you if they want a different name, or you will come across one you think is perfect. Find – Replace. Simples!

I’ve known writers complain, “No-one reads novels written in the first person” and try to force their narrative into the third person, even if that fits like a shoe on the wrong foot.

Or “My heroine needs a really cool name” and then spend weeks trying to find the ideal name before they write a word.

My advice is always the same – just get to work writing your first draft. You can make those decisions later and edit what you’ve written.

We’re all procrastinators some of the time.

But writers write!

NaNoCoDo #11 Endpoints and Sequels

You have to end your book by wrapping up the story it started with. Sounds simple, but if you’re writing the first books in a series, you don’t want to end your plot. You want to leave things open for the sequel. And if you’re writing the middle of a five-book saga, it’s even worse – because you don’t even have a clear point to begin your tale.
But you have to.

If you look at books that form a series you’ve enjoyed, each volume has its own identity. Yes, there are threads which pass from one to the next, but there are more that get tied-off.

In television terms, this is the difference between a continuing drama and a soap opera. Drama may have plots that carry from one episode to the next, but there is character development and an overall structure that you can see if you stand back from the action. Soap opera may have development of some characters, but there is no overall plot. I’m not knocking soaps, millions of people enjoy them, but they are a different type of drama. And many series sit somewhere between the two extremes. So if you’re going to turn out books in a series that doesn’t go anywhere, you’ll be alright as long as you produce two a week for the indefinite future.

Think of sci-fi series. Good old Star Trek had no overall plot. Each episode was contained in its own little bubble. If a character was aged by fifty years at the start, they were miraculously restored by the end of the show. Whereas Babylon 5 had a plan, there were plots setup very early on that didn’t come to fruition for years!

More examples.

James Bond can get married in a book / film – but she’s bumped off at the end, leaving him free for the next one.

Doctor Who can be on trial at the start of an episode, but he’s free by the end. (Unless the story runs over a few weeks, but the same rule applies.)

The way to check this is to imagine reading / watching the stories out of order. Do they still make sense? Then there’s no overall story arc.

But what if you don’t have a plan for your saga? You just want the same characters to have a series of adventures, each of which is self-contained. Then you simply tie off all the threads at the end of a book and very little is carried forward. You’re writing a soap opera – and that’s fine.

But if you want an overall plot and don’t actually know what it will be, you’ve got the toughest job. One good tactic is to use a different viewpoint character for each phase of your story. So:

Book1: Tom’s Story – ends when he dies heroically, saving a younger man.
Book 2: Dick’s Story – starts when he’s saved and ends when he falls in love with a woman he’s only just met.
Book 3: Harriet’s Story – starts when she’s being stalked by an admirer and ends when she marries him.

You get the idea.

This may be more structured than you want for NaNoWriMo – but why not use this month as a practice run for a novel you actually want to sell someday? Even if you don’t have a detailed structure at the start, think about it as you’re writing and look out for the point where you can wrap up the plots you want to, even if you leave some open for next year.

NaNoCoDo #10 Subplots and Plot Shapes

So you have some idea what sort of story you’re writing, who your characters are and you’ve been living in your setting for the last month. But what is actually going to happen in your book? Is this a love story, a quest, a horror slasher? Whatever you plan, there are certain shortcuts to plot structures that will leave your reader happy at the end of your book.
More to the point, there are easy ways to leave them unhappy and your job is to avoid these!

Each plot or subplot has a definite story arc – it begins, things happen, it resolves. Even if a particular subplot is left open at the end, you still need to round it off ready to pick up in the sequel. Or in the reader’s mind.

And your book needs to have a single story arc that starts as close to the beginning as possible and ends climatically at the close of the book.

This is important.

If you begin with a character’s lousy love life, you end with them snogging the man (or woman, or alien) of their dreams. You do not end with their city being blown up – that’s a different story arc.
There is a contract with the reader. You will signal the end of your story by the beginning. You promise that you’ll end by wrapping up the tale they bought in to at the beginning.

Your subplots can start and begin in a convoluted way during the book – but your final paragraphs are to close the story you began in the first chapter. That’s how the reader knows they’ve finished your book. That’s what makes them happy.

The only time you can really dodge this rule is with murder mysteries. Your reader knows someone’s going to get killed fairly early on, so you can build up the tension for a few chapters. Otherwise, you must start by setting up your major plot. And finish with the same plot’s ending.

Okay – this might be too involved for a NaNoWriMo book. But there’s no harm in knowing what to aim for.

Sounds trivial, but I’ve seen stories which open with the heroine looking for love and close with her finding the hidden treasure. Gold is no substitute for love! If your story opens with a ghost being sighted – it doesn’t end with the hero and heroine walking away hand-in-hand.

It sounds trivial, but this is essential for a good story – whether it’s a book, a film or whatever. Even if you’re continuing for a ten-book saga, each volume must end with some sort of closure that relates to where it began.

Think about it.

NaNoCoDo #9 Supporting Cast

By now, you should be on good terms with your Main Character and their partner / sidekick / love interest. But you’re gonna need more people to make a decent book of their adventures. Each of these needs you to keep some records of them.

As a rule of thumb, the bigger a character’s part will be, the more details you need to keep a note of. The two henchmen may not have names, but you need to remember the tall, skinny one’s ginger and the shorter one sweats when he runs – if these details are likely to crop up again. But the retired knight / policeman who’s teaching your heroine to fight needs a lot more description, as he’s going to stick around for a few chapters – and may sneak back in towards the end, too.

Don’t assume you’ll remember all the details without making a note – even if you do, what happens if you make a change? To remember everything in an up-to-date way would require a freakish memory and scrupulous attention to detail.

Similarly, don’t ever think it doesn’t matter – your readers WILL notice. They always do. It’s not just me!

It doesn’t matter whether these notes are in a notebook, electronic file or written on your bedroom wall – so long as you can refer to them all the time and update them when you need to.

As well as physical and character descriptions, you need to keep track of the relationships between your various characters. This could be a list of who’s going out with whom for a High School Romance story, a family tree for your inter-generational saga or a detailed hierarchy of both military and civilian characters (as in the great Russian epics).

If you’ve got multiple threads going on, you may want to use sticky notes to keep track of who’s in each group. Try colour-coding them for clarity.

Or you may have a better idea that works perfectly for you.

National Novel Writing Month starts on 1st November but the site is open for sign-ups now. If you don’t know what it’s about, have a read of my NaNoCoDo posts. If you think you’ve got a novel in you, why not sign up? What have you got to lose? <<– Sign up here.

NaNoCoDo #8 Baddies

I can’t think of anything more boring than a story where only good things happen to your Main Character. They set out on a quest, find the treasure, meet the love of their life and live happily ever after.


That may be a life to aspire to – but it’s never going to be a book worth reading.

Readers want conflict, difficulties, trauma, drama, suffering, blood – and that’s just for a light romantic read!

Seriously, your hero(ine) needs obstacles to overcome so the reader can see them at their best. This is your baddie. It may not be a person – it could be a group of people, fate, the weather, a computer, an alien civilisation – whatever you like. It could be the Sheriff, if your “good guys” are outlaws! The Opposition. But let’s refer to it as your baddie.

Baddies need motivation (I mentioned this in my previous entry). If it’s a person (or alien or computer) then it must be sentient enough to have its own wants and needs. Even the giant wolf that’s hunting your character has needs – DINNER.

Non-sentient baddies don’t have conscious needs, but they have set patterns of behaviour. If your characters are battling to build a shelter before the monsoon, they know roughly when it’s likely to start. It may come a week early and wash away their undried mortar, but there will be warning signs.

Natural disasters may appear to be random events – but they can trigger each other. In European history, the Black Death killed a large part of the population and the survivors were not up to preventing the Great Fire of London the following year. (Which was a good thing – fire really kills all those lingering germs!) Look at the Plagues of Egypt in the Bible (Exodus) and the Q’ran. Each plague could have caused the next – the plague of frogs die and then there’s a plague of insects, presumably springing from the frog carcasses. You need to think like this for your fiction, too. Cause and effect makes the sequence more acceptable to the reader of your book – and helps you structure a crescendo of danger for your characters to overcome.

So give some thought to the way your baddies will interact with your good guys. Think about how their actions will escalate, forcing your heroes to ever greater trials to win through. And make sure you understand their motivation, so they aren’t just a collection of random obstacles on the hero’s way to win the crown.

NaNoCoDo #7 One-Hour Sprint

My favourite cure for so-called writers’ block. And it’s a useful technique to master, even though you haven’t started writing your NaNo book yet!

Can’t decide what your baddie’s motivation is? Unsure what your characters are meant to be doing? Spending too much time staring out the window and hardly any time pressing letter keys (except the ones you immediately delete)?

You need a way to tap your unconscious. Let’s face it, if the answers are ever going to find their way onto paper, that’s where you’re going to find them. But your type-ready conscious mind and creative unconscious aren’t speaking to each other. So how do you dredge ideas out of one part of your brain so they can be processed by the part you have control (*) over?
This is my answer – connect your creative mind directly to your typing fingers without going through the tiresome business of your conscious brain. Kind of like the automatic writing at Victorian Spiritualist meetings, only higher-tech.

You will need:
About an hour and ten minutes (including preparation time).
Kitchen timer (or similar).
Your computer.
Drink of your choice (I like herbal teas for this).
Small heavy objects for throwing at family members who try to interrupt.

Gather all ingredients together.
Switch off phone.
Open file on computer.
Make sure auto-backups are run every few minutes (if using computer).
Banish your inner editor to the pub.
Set timer for one hour.
Disconnect internet.
Start typing and don’t stop until the timer pings.

I begin these sessions by typing what I’m sure about, then letting the rest come out on the screen. Let’s take an example:

There’s this baddie who’s based on a mythological character. But I wasn’t sure why he wanted to stop my good guys from achieving their aims. And I don’t accept “because it helps the plot” as an answer. Bad guys need their motivation, too!

So, I began by typing what I know about the relevant myths, what this guy’s function was in the myths and extrapolated these to fit the setting of my novel-in-progress.

I found myself typing that he wasn’t actually trying to stop them achieve anything, just to maintain a balance they were threatening by their actions. So he didn’t have anything against them, as such.
Light bulb moment!

Then I continued, finding out that what I’d thought was a minor trait in this baddie is actually a very significant one. I don’t want to give too much away, as this is central to my next novel, but the way he kills people has repercussions on the way he operates with his minions.

And yes, all of this came about in a one-hour session.

It’s kind of taking the principle of NaNoWriMo to the extreme – although it isn’t about the number of words you write so much as giving yourself permission to type garbage for an hour. I find that the garbage spontaneously ignites due to the speed of your typing and the resultant ash compacts to form one or two tiny diamonds. (Not a bad metaphor – I’ll remember that one!)

We all spend too much of our writing time trying to make things sensible, coherent, realistic. Which gets in the way of the creation process. Is an hour too much time to spend on the problem?

So go on, next time you aren’t sure where to go next, see if you can find the answer in one hour!

NanoWriMo: <<– Sign up here.

(*) This is untrue. A writer has even less control over their mind than normal people do. We just learn to fake it.

NaNoCoDo #6 Research

“Write what you know!” Every writer is given this piece of writing advice and every writer has those moments of, “Am I sure about that?” and has to check their facts.

I love doing research. Books, the internet, wherever. I start by looking up one detail and get distracted by an incidental fact (like another word on that page of a dictionary). And the next thing I know, hours have gone and I haven’t even answered my original question.

But I’m happy.

My biggest problem is that I love the research so much I find it hard to contain my browsing – but many writers hate fact-checking and their problem is motivating themselves to start! Whether you love it or hate it, it is important to check your facts, even for a novel.

I’m an evil reader. I’m the one who complains if a book gets something wrong. I’ve even been known to look something up if I’m not sure it’s right! Yes, I’m that pedantic. And I’m not the only one. If you’re tempted to write a fact you’re not sure about – just imagine that I’m reading it, with my inner pedant scrutinising every last detail. Yes, blame me for being picky, then you’ll be ready to deal with any normal readers who might spot the odd error.

Even with fiction. Your characters will be moving through an environment the reader has to recognise. Getting historical facts wrong will really wind people up – so will contemporary legal issues, police procedures, any science, – the list is endless. If you’re not an expert on a subject, then find someone who is.

Of course, accepted facts will change from time to time, so it’s hard to be completely certain about anything. But your reader deserves your best effort. And who knows? You may find you enjoy research as much as I do.

NaNoCoDo #5 World Building

Not just for sci-fi!

Beginning writers may assume that they don’t have to spend time working out the “rules” of their world. Only sci-fi writers need to think about World Building.

Not true.

You may be writing a book set in your own world and think that’s simple because you know it so well. But your reader doesn’t. If you hope to be read by people who live more than a few streets away, you must tell them about your world in enough detail that they know it, too. If your plot needs the rubbish to be collected every other Friday, then you need to mention this fact. If you have a character who’s a bullying prefect at school, then you must explain (before it’s relevant) just what powers a prefect has.

In other words, world building means preparing to tell the reader all about your particular setting in as much detail as they’re going to need.

Think about it – in a costume drama, TV viewers need to understand how servants below stairs and their employers above stairs would behave in their own world and when they interact outside their class. These things are shown very early in the film / series, so a viewer understands how this world differs from their own. In a police-based mystery, we need to know that our hero is on a ship cut off from his wonderful Forensics Department who could identify the killer from a blood spot in one hour.

As the writer, you will know all of this, but you may need to change the rules when you realise you’ve written yourself into a dead end you can’t get out of.

So write down the rules that apply to your world. Refer to them when you start writing and be prepared to add changes as you write. Always add them – don’t just edit your rules document. If you’re got lines at the end like:
Chapter 8: Need prefects to be allowed to go out on Wed afternoons.
-then you’ll know to check chapters 1~7 for anything that contradicts this rule.

Spend some time on these rules – you cannot assume your reader knows everything about the town you live in, and you’ll probably want to improve on reality, anyhow.

Then print this document out and go through it with a highlighter pen – so you know which bits need to find their way into your opening chapters.

NaNoCoDo #4 Second Character and Relationship

All the best stories have a central relationships, usually between two people and usually unequal.

Holmes and Watson, Batman and Robin, Scarlett and Rhett, Doctor Who and …
It’s conversations and actions between your characters that let the reader know what’s going on. Whether that’s because we need Sherlock to explain things to the good doctor so we know what he’s thinking or The Doctor’s companion being held hostage so our hero has to rescue them and incidentally save the world from the Bad Guys. Or get the guy, or … ?

In many stories, the second character is the one the reader is expected to relate to. So Watson writes his memoirs about Sherlock Holmes, The Doctor (Who?) constantly has to explain things to his companion(s) and so on. It’s easier for the reader to relate to fallible human than the hero of the piece. Which means your second character must be likeable. One of the commonest mistakes is to have everything solved by the hero and their sidekick to be little more than baggage.

Or a squealing damsel to be rescued. Repeatedly.

So give your second character some thought. Write out a set of details as you did for your Main character. (
Decide which trait your reader will relate to and spend a few days getting to know them. Remember to work out what their relationship is to your hero – and what they want to get out of this adventure.