Friday, October 26, 2012

10 Tips to Get from Idea to Finished Novel (updated): NaNoWriMo

For all those who are warming up to run the NaNoWriMo marathon, here's my annual list of 10 things that I personally try to keep in mind as I turn the idea I scribbled on a napkin into that thing we call a book.

There are ten of them, which makes a handy size for a list.

Ten Tips to Get From Idea to Finished Novel
1. Be interested in your story. 
Writing a novel is a relationship between you and a story. Before you spend hundreds of hours sitting in a chair stringing words together to tell that story, you'd better darn well be sure it's worth the commitment or it will all end in tears.
2. Feed your brain. 
Your brain generates stories from the stuff you cram in there. Give it the fodder it needs to make new and interesting stories and well fleshed-out characters. Ask questions. Pay attention to the world around you. Everything is research. Pay attention. Take notes and snapshots. You never know when you'll need that story about the kid who accidentally ordered a Harrier fighter jet on eBay, or the chap that put lasers on sharks just to prove he could.
3. Ideas are not sacred. 
Don't get so attached to an idea that you're unwilling to allow it to evolve. A story idea is less like the directions from a GPS and more like finding your way through a new city with written directions scrawled on the back of a coffee-stained napkin.
4. Write now; edit later. 
On the first draft, it's your job to put your butt in the chair and put the story on the page. The chair is the only part that's optional. Editing is inevitable, but it is a stage of its own that can wait until later. Your initial goal is to get the story out of your head; everything else follows that.
5. Take small bites. 
A big idea can choke you if you try to eat it all at once. A big idea can choke you if you try to eat it all at once. Writing anything that's as large and complex as the average novel is a lot like the old adage about eating an elephant: Start at one end and take it one bite at a time.
6. Make stuff up. 
Research can be an addictive drug. It's easy to get so wrapped up in the intriguing minutiae of your subject matter that you forget to write a book about it. If it ever gets shelved in a library or bookstore, your novel will be in the fiction section, this gives you license to fake it... within reason, of course.
7. Be a story hoarder.
Never throw anything away. Not everything you create while writing will fit the story you're working on. Hang on to those tidbits and trimmings for later use in this or another story. Some of my favorite odd moments become short stories, the rest go back in the hopper for the next go-round.
8. Step away from the television and/or the Internet.
That might sound odd coming from me, but these mediums are specifically designed to catch your attention and hold it. I've recently begun doing my writing on a computer that is isolated from the internet to combat this. My writing output tripled when we got rid of TV and as a bonus we saved a lot of money each month.
9. Use your own words.
Write with the vocabulary you have. Put away the thesaurus, it's just slowing you down and making you feel self-conscious. Finding your authorial "voice" is about telling the story the way you tell it, not the way Roget would tell it. Let your vocabulary grow organically on its own and in a way that is unique to you as you research and read. Language is a fragile thing and it will break if you try to force it.
10. Finish. 
Writing may make you a writer, but only finishing will make you a novelist. You have to finish the story, even if you have to keep writing into December and January. The inability to write a complete novel in a month doesn't make you a bad writer. Quite the contrary, in fact. 50,000 words isn't a complete novel anyway. An unfinished novel is worth its weight in paper. Keep going until you get to type "The End".  
It pains me somewhat that I can't finish that list with the words "And it's as simple as that".  It's not simple. It's work, this thing that we do. And if you learn nothing else from participating in NaNoWriMo, it should be that.

Writing is hard. Breathing life into the inanimate is supposed to be hard. Don't beat yourself up when you find that it isn't easy.  

However you choose to proceed and whether you reach November 30th with 50,000 words in the kitty or not, you will have learned something, maybe even accomplished something. I will be here on the sidelines, waving a banner and cheering you on. Revel in the words you are putting on the page. Try something that scares you. Read the things being shared by your compatriots if you can find the time. Celebrate the writing. Have fun.

Just remember, the deadline is imaginary, the prizes are fake, but the book you are trying to write can be real.

Best of luck to you all!


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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).