Monday, October 31, 2011

NaNoWriMo: How do you get started?

Tomorrow's the day: the official start of NaNoWriMo 2011. All over the country (really, the world!), writers are sharpening their pencils... or charging their laptops, hoping to start tomorrow with a bang.

NaNoWriMo, as you no doubt already know, has all kinds of "rules" about how far into a work you can be before it's "cheating" to use it as your NaNoWriMo project. Fair enough. The idea is not to end the month of November with something super-polished (ha, ha), but to get some words-- a LOT of words!-- on the page.

The official NaNoWriMo organization website says that the only things you're allowed to have done before beginning your novel on November 1 are outlines, character sketches, and research. All well and good.

But here's the thing: I know a lot of you don't work from outlines, maybe CAN'T work from outlines. I know because I've seen the look on your face when I ask you to write an outline or a synopsis. Even when you've already written the manuscript, outlining the plot feels incredibly daunting and unpleasant.

I had the privilege of attending a terrific breakfast panel at the RWA Nationals convention in New York back in late June. The speakers were Steve Berry, Diana Gabaldon, and Tess Gerritsen: incredibly successful, incredibly prolific writers all. And guess what: none of them really write from outlines. Diana Gabaldon, I seem to recall, doesn't use them at all. (She is just as funny as you think she's going to be, by the way.) Tess Gerritsen, who seems extremely organized and "together," doesn't use them either. She wrote an interesting post about her process here, if you want to take a look. But it was Steve Berry's remarks about using outlines that really stuck with me: he said he's used outlines in the past, and it's an effective way of making sure you've got your structure in place from the first draft, but it really sucks all the joy out of the writing. Working on the book became a task to be dreaded, rather than something to look forward to.

This is the opposite of the way I'd always figured I would try to write a novel myself (which might serve in part to explain why I've never actually "gotten around to" it)-- but for all three writers, surprising themselves with what comes next is an important part of the writing process.

Maybe this all comes down to a question of what you're more scared of: a creativity-squelching outline or the ominous and terrifying blank page.

But basically, either way you go about putting your manuscript together, you have my blessing.

Here's a little pre-NaNo reading for you, though, so (regardless of your stance on outlining) you can be mindful of some key points in creating a successful and satisfying novel. I expect you're already familiar with Cheryl Klein of Arthur A. Levine Books; here's a talk she wrote a few years ago called "A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter."


Jessica Brockmole said...

For me, you've hit on it right here: "surprising themselves with what comes next is an important part of the writing process". I like to discover my story along with my imaginary readers. In letting the characters steer the story, I come up with twists and turns that I never would've been able to plot out. And it's just fun to let it run ahead and chase after! So, yes, creativity-squelching outlines are terrifying for me.

Kara said...

I only outline after I think I have a pretty finished product. Even then, it doesn't exactly look like an outline. But it does help put into perspective what I've written, how it fits into the story, and whether or not it gets to stay. I have to agree, though, that pre-writing outlines are complete fun-suckers. As are synopses. Pure evil.

Sara Rayne said...

Thank you for the link to the Cheryl Klein talk. It was just beautiful - makes me want to write ... and read the HP books again. :)

Shoshanna Evers said...

While I've followed the NaNoWriMo rules in the past, I won't be doing that this year.

I'll be writing every day and posting my word count, but ultimately my goal is to get the rest of the Dominatrix Fantasy Series written - I have four more short novellas to write. Each of the five books in the series can stand alone, so I'm not following the rule of "write one whole novel".

As for outlines... meh. I love to write them but my characters always take over and do their own thing anyway, LOL. So now I just "pants it".

Delphine Dryden said...

Before writing any book (not just for NaNo) I'll spend a lot of time just jotting down notes about characters, conflicts, setting, possible scraps of dialog/description, and a general idea of where the story is going to go. But I usually have to start writing the thing before I know enough about it to even attempt to outline. Even then, it's not really an outline...just more of those same notes and stuff. I keep a "Save the Cat" beat sheet handy and try to consider those points as far as structure goes; I write stuff down as it occurs to me, then I refer back to that semi-structure if I find myself stuck, as happens at least a couple of times in the course of writing a book.

As for NaNo, I used to be stricter with those "rules" but I think it's pretty silly to get too hung up on that aspect, since it's all self-policed anyway and the whole point is to just write and not worry so much about the rules. For me, it's all about the word count. Fifty thousand fresh words, during the month of November. I'm dead scrupulous about that, and I will do a preliminary word count tonight just to be sure I DON'T count any existing material. But I freely admit I have a couple paragraphs floating around that probably WILL be in the final book. My only guarantee is that I won't count those toward my total for NaNo.

Again, this is partly because my planning strategy does include writing down snippets as I think of them, sometimes for months (or in this case, about three years, as this is the last book in a series) before actually starting on the it's simply not feasible for me to say I'm going to write zero, nada, none, of the book before Nov. 1. Does that render me permanently ineligible for NaNo? Aw, hell no.

All these "rules"...I think I hear a new one every year. When NaNo started there was much more focus on the 50K part than the rules of what could/couldn't be a NaNo project (I know, I know...get off my lawn, whippersnappers!). But if you find yourself overly concerned about whether something can/can't be a NaNo project because you've written a scene or two already, or because it's that back-burner book you've gotten one chapter into and been trying to start working on again for three years...then you're already defeating the purpose of the entire exercise, IMO. Which is probably why that book is still staring you in the face after three years (and I speak from SO MUCH experience on this, believe you me). Just do it, find a project and start counting wherever you are on Nov. 1; don't let the "rules" of this self-policed, honor-system project become just another excuse for you not to write the book. If the end of the month comes along and you've written 50K+ words that you didn't have before, that's a tremendous accomplishment and you should consider yourself a NaNo winner.

Your inner critic already has enough tools, don't hand it any more. BICHOK, already!

Karen said...

I so agree with Steve Berry. For me, an outline sucks the fun out of the writing. I'm a technical writer in my day job, and there I have to outline, so outlines just make it feel like work.

I like the rules, because I think that's part of what works with NaNoWriMo. Surprising yourself with what you can do, surprising yourself with a story you haven't worked on before. I also think it helps, because for me it's easier to write a fast first draft. If I have a story in progress then I have to rewrite along the way. It's a longer process.

Of course, there is one problem. I don't know until about 5-10,000 words in whether a story is a goer.

Amy said...

I start with the scene that prompted the story, but have found that rather than being "squelching," the outline does help me structure the story, and to help me get down broad the ideas that might be coming too fast, and I'm afraid I'll forget them!
Then I can go back and concentrate on the specific scenes...