National Novel Writing Month

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Advice from a noveling veteran

I have a confession to make: I’ve never actually finished a novel in 30 days. I met NaNoWriMo’s 50,000-world goal in both my previous outings—as my editors could tell you, writing long has never been a problem for me—but I didn’t actually finish either first draft until months later. Still, my experience has given me a few good insights that might help your own noveling efforts.

NaNoWriMo’s Web site provides numerous widgets to track your progress, independently or in comparison to your friends on the site.

Think Small 50,000 words sounds like a big, scary goal—until you realize that it breaks down to just 1,667 words a day, about an hour or two’s worth of steady typing. Rather than keeping your eyes on the distant finish line, use your program’s word-count targets to work toward the end of your latest paragraph, scene, or chapter. Those words will add up faster than you think. To keep track of your progress, you can enter your word count for each day in a box on the NaNoWriMo site, and compare it with those of your friends in the contest. And the site’s Word Count Widgets let you show off your progress on your own Web site.

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Everybody Wants Something Are your characters just sitting there like deadweight? Figure out what they want. Frodo Baggins wants to destroy (or, in darker moments, keep) the One Ring; Gully Foyle wants revenge on the spaceship that marooned him; Scout Finch wants to solve the mystery of Boo Radley. The simplest goals can create conflict and suspense, propelling your story forward. Screenwriter and playwright Todd Alcott’s terrific blog, What Does the Protagonist Want?, dissects popular movies to reveal their characters’ driving desires; check out his “Screenwriting 101” and “Spielberg” series of posts.

Keep Moving Forward Writing is an adventure, and adventures always involve plenty of mistakes and wrong turns. For now, silence your inner critic, and stop caring whether what you’re writing is any good. Just keep writing. And don’t go back to tinker with your existing text, either. If you start editing when you should be writing, you might lose momentum and end up stuck. Besides, revisiting your prose in the cold light of December (or, better yet, February) will make you a much better judge of what works and what doesn’t.

Don’t Overplan A fellow NaNoWriMo participant once showed me her elaborate spreadsheets filled with specific character details and breakdowns of her daily writing output, and then complained that she was stuck because her characters weren’t doing what she wanted them to. Keeping a few notes on your characters, settings, or overall story arc is a good idea. But half the fun of writing is seeing your characters do something you never expected. Too much planning can squelch that improvisational spirit.

Unleash your creative spirit! Join several Macworld writers and editors as they take the 2008 National Novel Writing Month challenge. For more information, visit the Macworld Forums.

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