Ever thought you might want to write a novel someday? The task can seem so daunting that most people put it off indefinitely. So how about writing a novel in just 30 days?
That challenge might seem nuts, but it has led thousands of people around the world to participate in National Novel Writing Month. Starting at midnight on November 1, they gather at cafes and bookstores (or just settle into their favorite chair at home) to scribble or type their way furiously through to the end of November. The goal: Write 50,000 words by the time December dawns.
If, like me, you never thought you had a novel in you, NaNoWriMo is a great way to prove yourself wrong. (It’s also a great way to lose sleep and make your wrists ache.) While a nimble brain and dogged persistence are the most important tools for getting to the summit of this particular mountain, you can also call on some excellent Mac-based writing tools to reach the top.
Plan Your Ascent
There’s no one right way to write a novel. Some writers pound out their prose in furious bursts, whenever and wherever inspiration happens to strike; others stick to a schedule, writing at set times and in certain places. Some writers plan their book with meticulous notes and outlines, while others jump in with both feet and hope for the best. Whatever type of writer you are, there’s a Mac-friendly tool available to help you.
The Freewheeler If you like to throw caution (and notes and outlines) to the wind and just follow your muse, you’ll probably want a simple tool to let you write with minimal distractions. Hog Bay Software’s $25 WriteRoom does exactly that. This stylishly spartan text editor takes over your entire screen, letting you focus solely on your prose. You can tweak the colors of the background and text to make sure they’re easy on your eyes, and adjust the width of your text for greater readability—but don’t look for frills beyond that. Many of WriteRoom’s rivals have aped its full-screen editing style, but none has quite matched its elegant execution.
The Master Planner If structure is your friend, you need a tool that’ll help you organize your notes, flesh out your cast of characters, and keep your story lines straight. Mariner Software’s $45 StoryMill (), Storyist Software’s $59 Storyist (), and Bartas Technologies’ $25 CopyWrite () offer powerful tools to keep your novel from running away with you.
Each of these programs offers customizable categories for filing away your chapters, characters, locations, and other novel elements. In a fun touch, Storyist lets you add photographs to your character and location entries to help you better visualize them. And if you’ve got your novel planned down to the minute, StoryMill lets you specify start and end times and dates for each of your scenes, then shuffle them around on a visual timeline. CopyWrite and StoryMill also let you set a word-count goal for your entire novel, a given chapter, or a particular session of writing—a useful feature for NaNoWriMo word warriors.
The Do-It-Yourselfer If you’re seeking a middle ground between absolute anarchy and rigid order, Literature & Latte’s $40 Scrivener ()—my favorite writing program—can give you both power and flexibility. It’s armed with most of the best features of its rivals, including word-count goals and full-screen editing. Like Storyist, Scrivener lets you plot out your novel as an outline or a series of note cards on a virtual corkboard, then flesh out those steps into full chapters. Best of all, Scrivener doesn’t try to lock you into any one method of writing; it just hands you the tools and lets you decide how you want to use them.
Do Some Research
If you don’t believe in the world you’re creating—whether it involves elite New York City chefs, the armies of ancient Rome, or the windswept deserts of Mars—your readers won’t either. A little research can go a long way, providing the small details that will lend your novel the ring of truth. And since reality often is stranger than fiction, research can be a writer’s best friend; real-world details may suggest new twists in your story, or provide deeper thematic parallels.
Luckily for authors, the Internet makes research easier than ever. Once you’ve got a basic story in mind, run a few quick Web queries for key concepts from your story line in search of details that can flesh out your narrative. Wikipedia is a great place to turn for information about a specific country or culture, while Flickr puts photographs from the world’s most far-flung locales at your fingertips.
Once you’ve compiled all this supporting material, you’ll need a place to put it. StoryMill, Storyist, and Scrivener let you keep Web pages, documents, photos, and more within easy reach. Scrivener will even let you display two documents simultaneously, so you can keep glancing at that photo of the canals of Venice while you write your big gondola chase scene.
To Blog, or Not to Blog?
Authors as diverse as Charles Dickens and Stephen King have tried their hand at serial novels, publishing one chapter at a time to keep their readers hooked while they work through their narratives. Today, anyone can serialize a novel-in-progress through free, easy blogging sites such as LiveJournal, Blogger, or WordPress.
I thrive on deadline pressure, so I’ve blogged both of my previous NaNoWriMo attempts. I did my best to post a chapter (or part of one) every day, driven by the thought that someone might be waiting expectantly for the next installment. Getting encouraging comments from both friends and total strangers was great motivation, too.
That said, there are plenty of valid reasons not to blog your novel. If you’re shy or insecure about your prose, letting it hang out for the entire world to see can be paralyzing. You’re also running the risk that some enterprising plagiarist will rip off your hard-won ideas; everything posted on the Web is implicitly copyrighted to its author, even without a specific copyright notice, but that hasn’t stopped thieves in the past. And some writers have valid concerns that publishing their novel on the Web first could ruin their chances of eventually getting it published in book form.
If you think blogging your novel will help you write better and more consistently, I say go for it. But there’s also nothing wrong with keeping your story between you and your word processor.
Congratulations! Your magnum opus about the lives and loves of Polynesian pearl divers is complete. Now how are you going to publish it? Happily, the Web offers several excellent resources to help you avoid publishing pitfalls and maybe—just maybe—see your work in print.
The NaNoWriMo site offers its own follow-up page, with links to related contests like ScriptFrenzy (write a complete screenplay in 30 days) and advice on rewriting from published authors.
Writer Beware maintains an excellent database of frauds and scam artists who prey on would-be authors, along with clear-eyed descriptions of the pros and cons of self-publishing, agents, and other aspects of the publishing world. And the Writer Beware blog offers updates on the latest publishing news, and includes a treasure trove of links to other writing and publishing sites.
Happily Ever After
For wannabe writers, National Novel Writing Month can be frustrating, exhausting, and ultimately exhilarating. Nothing feels quite like typing the last sentence of your very first novel, especially if you never thought you could start it in the first place. The tools we’ve highlighted here can’t do the work for you. But like a pair of good boots for a mountaineer, they’ll certainly make the journey a lot easier, and give you plenty of support along the way.
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.