NaNo Prep Advice

It doesn’t look like I’m going to be doing NaNo (aka NaNoWriMo, aka National Novel Writing Month) this year, due to still trying to revise last year’s NaNo project.

However, I thought I’d put up some info for those getting ready to attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel in November.

Whether you’re a pantser (someone who writes with no plan/flies by the seat of their pants) or a plotter (someone who plans out the storyline of their novel in advance) or somewhere in between, it’s a good idea to know your characters.

After all, in a well-written book, your characters’ personalities will dictate their actions, and have a huge influence on the plot, so it’s important to know what makes them tick.

I always fill out a questionnaire like this one from agent Carly Watters, for each of my main characters, so I can get a feel for their personalities.

I think it’s also important to know what kind of emotional growth your character is going to experience, as an aid to plotting. This series of blog posts by author K.M. Weiland includes a set of exercises to help craft character arcs to drive your plot.

As far as the actual finding-time-to-write part goes, check out this post written when I still had 2 kids at home. I still use many of those strategies while drafting (although I’m definitely a plotter now).

My penultimate (heehee, love using that word) NaNo advice is to celebrate every milestone. Stock up on Halloween candy and reward/bribe yourself (1 bar for every 1,000 or 2,500 words or maybe 1 bar for an hour on the computer, depending on what works best for you). Treat yourself to dinner when you hit 10,000 words.

(If using food as a motivator doesn’t work for you, there are lots of other options: no checking your phone/social media until you hit 1,000 words; an hour of reading for every three hours of writing; treat yourself to some NaNo swag when you hit 10,000 words; go Christmas Shopping when you hit 30,000!)

And my final advice: don’t stress/panic. There’s no penalty for not “winning” NaNo. Any words you write during NaNo are more words than you had at the start of that month, so just entering makes you a winner in my book.

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The Dreaded Synopsis

It’s not easy to distill an entire novel into a single page (two if you’re lucky), but pretty much every writer has to do it at some time in their career. Not only do a lot of agents require them along with queries, but so do many contests and paid critiques.

The synopsis’s main job is to outline the entire plot of your book – yes, including the ending. (Note: I’m describing a story synopsis here, not the synopsis part of a query letter, which doesn’t include the ending. For more info on writing those, see this post.)

There are a few different ways to break your novel down into its essential parts. There’s no right way or wrong way to do it, so long as you can find a way to condense your story.

Some people write out a description of the events in each chapter, then winnow it down to only the most important parts. (Personally I find this one can be overwhelming, as it still requires you to write out pretty much everything that happens in your novel, and then try and condense it, but YMMV.)

Other people go back their very first outlines (the ones they made while plotting) and use that to write their synopsis. There’s definitely something to be said for writing your synopsis before you write your manuscript, as far as getting to the essentials – however, if you’re like me, the story you end up with may not resemble that first outline very much by the time you’ve finished all your revisions.

My personal favorite method requires answering a few simple questions:

  • Who is your character at the start of the story?
  • What changes? (ie what’s the inciting incident?)
  • What challenges do they face? (depending on the synopsis length, you may have to go with the single largest one)
  • How does the main character win in the end?

Once you answer these, you have the bare bones of what’s needed in a synopsis. Of course, you still have to make it interesting – and one of the best ways to do that is to make it specific.

That means, when you’re answering your first question, don’t just write that your MC is “a typical twelve-year-old” (is there really such a thing?) or “the smartest girl at school.” Use a specific example. “The most exciting thing twelve-year-old SOSUKE MITSUDA has ever done is beat his older brother at Fortnite.” “When sixteen-year-old TRINITY BROWN isn’t doing homework from her college-level classes, she’s building robots out of parts she scavenges from the dump.”

(Technical notes: the first time a character is mentioned, their name should be in all caps. Synopses for children’s books should include the age of the main character. No matter what tense or POV your manuscript is written in, your synopsis should be in Third Person, Present Tense.)

The same specifics should be applied to your main character’s challenges; don’t write that “Mitali needs to stop the evil wizard before he ends life as she knows it,” explain that “Mitali needs to stop the evil wizard PHRED before he turns every firstborn child – including Mitali – into a chicken.” (Yeah, I know these are weird examples, don’t @ me.)

Once you get all your specifics sorted out, the next step is to make sure the elements of your synopsis flow logically into each other.

(My first synopsis sounded like my seven-year-old describing the show he just watched: and then this happened, and then that happened, and then this other thing happened, the end.)

To avoid sounding like a grade school book report, I suggest concentrating on the connections between events. Think about how one event affects, causes or impacts the next thing that happens. Sosuke’s life is boring until… Trinity spends all her time building robots. But when… Mitali needs to stop Phred before…

As you’re writing your specific, logically flowing synopsis, try to keep the voice of your story in mind. I know it’s hard with only 250 words, but make sure the tone of your synopsis reflects the tone of your manuscript (a synopsis for a Middle Grade comedy should sound pretty different from one for a Young Adult issue-book).

Finally, once you think you’ve got your synopsis done, see if you can find a friend or critique partner who hasn’t read your manuscript to read your synopsis to ensure it makes sense to someone who doesn’t already know the story.

Right, hope that helps make synopses a little less dreadful.

Why the First Edit is the Worst

As you probably know if you follow this blog, writing has not been going well for me these last two months. Some of that can be put down to my fibromyalgia flares but some is due to motivation.

I’m currently working on the first round of edits for my Adult Urban Fantasy WiP that I drafted as part of NaNoWriMo in November. And it’s positively painful.

But I think I finally figured out why.

When I’m drafting (especially when I’m doing it quickly, like for NaNo), I give myself permission to be messy. I leave lines, names, and sometimes whole scenes blank, rather than stop my momentum to do whatever research/effort is required to write the missing piece. (Usually I leave myself notes like: “insert funny line here” or “what happens between now and getting to the hospital?”)

And that plan works really well for drafting (for me, YMMV).

Of course, that means when it’s time to edit, suddenly I have to come up with the funny lines, or figure out what exactly did happen before she goes to the hospital. You know, the hard stuff.

I’m also left figuring out timeline questions (Should the demon attack come before or after she finds out why she’s being targeted?), how much backstory is necessary vs too much, and (in this specific case) adding a subplot.

Then there’s all the line editing: checking for typos (or the harder to see missing words – which happen a lot during my fast-drafts), making sure my character names are consistent (Hmmm, he’s named Kevin Callahan in Chapter 3, but she calls him Mr. Carruthers in Chapter 10), and that I don’t use the same word sixteen times on one page (looking at you, “had”).

On top of all of that, there’s the huge, gaping distance between the quality of that messy first draft, and the book I have in my head – not to mention books I’ve read.

Intellectually, I know those books started out messy, too. That no one writes a perfect first draft. But, (and maybe it’s due to impostor syndrome, or low self-confidence) that distance feels completely overwhelming.

Normally I love editing. When someone points out a problem (or I spot one) puzzling out the solution is just the kind of challenge I enjoy. But on this first draft, there are so many problems that trying to tackle them all in one go feels like trying to clean a room with a toddler in it.

I’ve had to do a lot of back and forth on this round of edits – I haven’t actually made it through the whole draft yet, because I keep changing things that require me to go back and alter something in an earlier chapter to keep the story consistent. Which, in a lot of ways, makes me feel like I’m spinning my wheels.

On the other hand, I can see the story getting better. Slowly. But the improvement is there.

I think what I really need to do is give myself permission for this draft to be messy too. I’m not saying I should leave blank scenes, but I need to lower my standards and stop stressing over perfection. No matter how much work I put into this draft, there are still going to be more rounds of edits (there are always more rounds of edits. So many edits!). And maybe some of the problems will be easier to see on the next pass through.

Right, off to try and whip this book into shape!

 

 

Studying a Mentor Text

I’m a firm believer that reading (including to listening to audiobooks) is a great way to advance your writing skills. Which isn’t to say you need to dissect every book you consume – reading for pleasure still lets you unconsciously pick up on things like dialogue, character, plot, pacing, and reader expectations.

But sometimes it can really help to break a book down and see what makes it work.

My newest WiP (Work in Progress) is an Adult Urban Fantasy, which is a genre I love reading, but not one I’ve tried writing before – leading to some issues.

My biggest problem so far is a low word count. While I do tend to underwrite my first drafts (not put in enough description, or occasionally skip awkward scenes to fill in later) I doubt I have more than 10,000 words worth of missing material.

Leaving me about 15,000 words short of an acceptable length novel. Gulp.

Which is where the mentor text comes in.

I took the first novel of my favourite Urban Fantasy series (The Dresden Files) and broke it down, mainly with an eye to plot and pacing. I’ve probably read this book five or six times already, so I’m pretty familiar with the story, but I’ve never taken the time to look at the mechanics of its writing.

I started by writing some quick point form notes about the events of each chapter, so I could really examine how the story spins out (I’m not going to spell them all out here, just explain the theory of the work I did). I also noted chapter lengths (they range from 7 – 25 pages).

Next I looked at the antagonists. There is one main “bad guy” whose identity isn’t revealed until the end, and who employs four different minions/monsters to attack the main character (Harry) throughout the book. But there are also four separate lesser antagonists who each attack/provoke Harry in their own ways, some of whom turn out to be allies later on.

And on top of all that, there’s a romantic subplot too.

Because this is the first novel of a series (which is what I’m hoping mine will be) I also took note of the way the world-building was laid out. For instance, The basic rules of the world are laid out from page one (Harry is a wizard in a world where magic exists, but hardly anyone believes in it), but he waits until chapters five and six (and later) to introduce certain locations and characters that come to be staples in future books.

Hints about Harry’s past are also dropped in a few places – with just enough information given to make the events happening because of them make sense, without actually spelling out every detail of his past (in fact many of the things hinted about don’t get explained until much later in the series – if that).

The goal of all this analysis is, of course, not to create a carbon copy of the mentor text, but to help see where my own is falling short. Already, I can tell I need at least one more subplot, and perhaps another minor antagonist (or else to expand the role of one of my existing antagonists).

I plan to analyze another couple of first books from other Urban Fantasy series to see how different authors lay out their plots, as well as some later books in The Dresden Files, as a comparison.

After all, as Hermione always says, “When in doubt, go to the library!”

 

 

How to Turn a Sick Day Into a Writing Day

It’s only February, and yet already 2019 has handed off its beer and attempted to out-dumpster fire the last two years.

Last week passed in a haze of stress, sleep deprivation, anxiety, brain fog, and the good old common cold. Needless to say, it was beyond my capability to word last week.

However, since I was unwilling to lose the whole week of writing, I managed to find a few ways to work on my craft that didn’t involve making words, and didn’t take a lot of energy/brain power. (Squeezed in between bouts of sleeping/attempting to sleep.)

So here are my suggestions for ways to work on writing, when you just can’t word:

  • Read/listen to audiobooks: you knew I was going to say that, right? But it’s true. Reading has been the #1 thing that has improved my writing over the last few years. I stopped reading for a while because of my concussion, but now that I’m into audiobooks and able to read some print books, my writing skills are so much better. Read the kind of books you want to write. Read outside the books you want to write. Not to say you have to dissect every book you read, just reading (/listening to) them lets you absorb the basics of plot structure, dialogue, character development, and reader expectations. Having said that, also
  • Dissect mentor texts: find a couple of good books in the genre you want to read and tear those suckers apart. Consciously and critically look at what makes the book work (more on this next week).
  • Consume good storytelling via other media: I’m working my way through a few good shows on Netflix right now. Russian Doll was excellent (an may have already sparked a story idea), and I’ve loved the three episodes of Umbrella Academy  I’ve watched so far (I think it does a great job of weaving flashbacks into the story, and the way the first episode used a scene of the main characters each dancing on their own to display their characters was just *chef’s kiss*). Dragon Prince is up next, and I’m counting down the minutes until the next season of She-Ra is released. (Have any other must-see suggestions? Drop them in the comments)
  • Engage on social media: I didn’t do a lot of original posting last week (see the whole “unable to word” bit above) but I did try and interact a little more by replying to other people’s tweets (I often just speed-skim my feed and retweet things I find interesting). But social media is made for, well, being social, so I’m trying to chat more and actually make friends/acquaintances.
  • Read books/blogs/posts about writing: there are so many good sources out there! Two of my favourites are Chuck Wendig’s blog (I’m sure his writing books are excellent as well, but I don’t own any yet, despite them being on my Xmas list for the past two years), and Delilah Dawson‘s Twitter threads.
  • Think about your book: this may seem really simple, but since I’m in the early revising stage (aka turning the word-vomit of my first draft into something with an actual plot and character development) pondering things over really helps. But why would x character do that, when it makes things worse?  How can I make y character more likeable while still keeping him opposing the MC?  and How can I filter in necessary background info without just dumping it all in the first chapter?  are all questions I asked myself (and answered) while lazing on my couch this week.

And that’s how I spent my sick week. Have any other suggestions to add? Drop them in the comments.

Killing Your Darlings

Writing is a bit like giving birth; not just because it’s painful and messy and involves an awful lot of screaming and crying, but because you spend months (or years) of your life bringing a little part of you into the world, and even more time trying to mold it into the best version of itself.

So it’s natural to become attached to your work.

And just like it’s hard to hear criticism of your children, it can be difficult to hear criticism of your writing as well. And even more difficult to act upon that criticism.

Especially if doing so involves killing your darlings.

*Wonders if I should rethink this analogy. Keeps going anyway.*

Where was I again? Oh, right.

Killing your darlings. Deleting or changing beloved words/sentences/paragraphs/chapters/characters/plotlines/etc in your precious, precious work to (gasp!) improve it overall.

In revising my MG Fantasy, I just removed/rewrote my favourite parts: the witty, acerbic dialogue between my two MCs. Why? Well, because critiques had helped me realize their voices were two similar.

As much as I loved seeing my two characters snipe at each other, they couldn’t both be masters of snark. Not only was it confusing for readers, but it went against one MC’s personality. So, it’s gone.

Did it hurt? Damn Skippy.

But is the book better for it? I certainly believe it is.

And, as I enter my (hopefully) final revisions before sending it out into the world, I’ll be looking for more darlings that aren’t contributing to the overall quality of the book. Because no part of your manuscript should be considered too precious to improve* (insert gif of Gollum here).

*Not saying that every critique you receive will be right, or carry the same weight, but if you get multiple critiques of the same issue, it’s definitely worth considering ways to improve things.

 

The Magic of Showers

Writing is hard.

Or at least, writing a good, coherent story with zero plot holes, engaging characters, and gripping stakes is hard.

Some days the words don’t want to come

For me, when I hit one of these blocks, it usually means something in the story isn’t working – I just haven’t noticed it yet. But my subconscious has, and it’s the one throwing up road blocks trying to get me to slow down before I write myself off a cliff.

Or something like that.

The point is, that sometimes I need to walk away. Not permanently. Not even for very long. But (for me at least, YMMV) sitting and staring at the dreaded pulsing cursor of doom is not helpful.

What works for me is getting my butt up out of the chair and doing something relatively brainless, so my mind can wander and try to deal with whatever plot bunnies are plaguing me. Good tasks for this include showering, cleaning the house, and going for a walk.

In fact I can credit a shower with last week’s solution to a plot issue in my MG Fantasy. I’ve been working on this book on and off for years with the help of an agent and editors, but none of us even noticed this plot problem, let alone the relatively simple way to fix it (okay, while the fix is simple, actually incorporating it into the book will take a little more effort).

The point is: that’s how magic showers are. And bonus: they also get you all clean and stuff.