How to be a Better Writer

A notebook in a bookstore coffeehouse, with coffe.

About four years ago, one of my colleagues at work found out I was a writer and asked, “So, tell me Anthony, how can I be a better writer?”

I don’t claim any special wisdom in this department, but I do claim two things: first, that I have opinions about the matter, and second, that I wrote a long email to my friend about it, an email which I thought I’d posted on my blog. Unfortunately, after an extensive search, I wasn’t able to find the post.

Now, I could attempt to clean this email up prior to posting it here, but I’m afraid that if I do that, I’ll just end up going several years without posting it.

SO! Here’s that email, largely unedited, on “How to be a better writer!”

Sorry it took so long to respond to your question about how to be a better writer – I thought I wrote an article on this on my blog, or perhaps in an email to a friend, but if so, I couldn’t find it. Then I tried to write a long response, but that turned into something book length. So let me give you the short version.

  • First, just write! That’s the best thing anyone can do to become a better writer. Ten thousand hours of practice can build mastery in almost any skill, so the first thing you can do to help yourself is to write regularly – preferably, about whatever comes to mind, so you’re not trying to practice when you’re on the spot.
  • Try morning pages. The best tool I know to help people get into the habit of writing is to write morning pages – writing, each day, ideally when you get up, three pages in a notebook. Write bla bla bla if you have to – you’ll get bored of it quickly, and will write what comes to mind.
  • Take a creativity course. The book The Artist’s Way is one of the most famous of these, and it’s what inspires me to suggest morning pages. Actually, I’ve never finished this course – I always get so energized just trying it that I get sucked off into my own projects. Try one that works for you.
  • Read more than you write. You can’t consciously choose the words that come out as you write them; they come from your subconscious. So it’s important to feed your subconscious with a lot of interesting material to help you generate a lot of interesting material of your own.
  • Read great writing of the type you want to create. What you enjoy reading most might not be the writing you want to emulate most, so hunt down the great writers of the type of writing you’re aiming for, read them, and try to figure out what you like about them – and what makes them tick.
  • Read great books on writing. The first two I always recommend to people are Ayn Rand’s (yes, that Ayn Rand) The Art of Fiction and The Art of Nonfiction. More than any book I’ve ever read, the Art of Fiction boils down what makes good fiction writing. John Gardner’s On Being a Novelist is another great, but there are so many of these it’s hard to pick one.
  • Read great books on style. The two I recommend to people the most are The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon. Strunk and White is the classic, and Building Great Sentences is its antidote. If you have to pick one, pick Building Great Sentences – hands down.
  • Do writing exercises. There are many, many of these – The Artist’s Way has some, at Barnes and Noble you can find dozens of books like 500 Writing Prompts or Creativity Bootcamp that have others; the important thing is to try different writing styles on.
  • Try timed challenges. Write to the End (writetotheend.com) tries 20 minute writing challenges; Shut Up and Write ( meetup.com/shutupandwritesfo ) tries (I think) an hour; National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org) tries 50,000 words in a month. These cure you of the notion you need to wait for your muse.
  • Join a writing group. Not a critique group – those are dangerous until you get more confidence in and acceptance of your own writing (and a thicker skin). I already mentioned Write to the End and Shut Up and Write, but there are many more (even some at Google, such as the Creative Writing Lunch).
  • Take on writing projects. Write novels, write stories, write essays, write memoirs, write documentation, write songs, write plays, write poetry, write haiku, write impenetrable postmodern explorations of what it means for something to be writing – but take on a writing project that has a beginning, middle, and end …
  • Finish what you write! This is so important I wanted to write this earlier, but the problem is, it depends on what you’re writing for. If you just want to improve your skill, reading Strunk and White might do it – but if you want your writing to go further, you need to finish what you write.
  • Don’t edit while you write! Some people do this very well, but most people have two modes: producing text, and refining text. Unless you’re very confident in your ability to not rework the first paragraph of something forever, make sure you first finish, then edit. But before you do that …
  • Let your manuscripts cool off. It’s hard to have perspective right after you’ve finished something. At least sleep on it, if you have time; ideally, come back to a story after a week or two and see if what you wrote before still makes sense to you and does what you wanted it to. In the meantime …
  • Work on something else. Start something new. Creating a new work has an almost magical way of solving problems you have in the work you have cooling on the back burner. Your skills improve, you’re not invested in your old ideas, and you come back with a fresh start.
  • Revise your work! Give your manuscript at least a once over. I guarantee, it’s not perfect. The books Self Editing for Fiction Writers or The Elements of Editing can help you with this task. It’s worth working on something a bit until you can’t see anything obviously wrong to it.
  • Share your work with a friendly audience. You’re not ready for a critique group yet; they’re often way too harsh. What you want are three friendly reviewers: a coach to help with your skills, a critic to help find flaws, and a cheerleader to praise goodness – and if the cheerleader complains, listen very closely to them.
  • Revise your work again before sending it out. Listen to your friendly critics. Revise your work. Make it the best it can be. Then you’re ready to send it out – to a critique group if you have to and if you have one, but ideally, to where you want the work received or published.
  • Keep your work circulating until sold. This may not apply to bloggers, writers of memoirs, and internal communications, but if you’ve got something you want to send to an external audience, send it to as many places as you can. Some great books went to dozens of publishers before getting accepted.
  • Don’t argue with your critics. Whether it’s a friend, a critique group, or an editor, they’re not critiquing you to hurt your feelings. Listen carefully, and perhaps if there’s some small misconception, feel free to clear it up, but ask yourself – why wasn’t your story so clear that they got it the first time?
  • Solve the problems your critics raise, but don’t feel compelled to use their solutions. Humans are great at confabulating fake reasons for the feelings they have. Don’t feel the need to use every suggestion your critics raise – but if two or more have problems at the same spot, listen closely.
  • Learn from your genre. Whether it’s writing a thesis, writing documentation, or writing science fiction stories, there are documents out there on the pitfalls of the genre and the techniques from success, from How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation to the Evil Overlord List.
  • Learn from the style guide. If you’re aimed at a particular market, whether it’s a science fiction magazine accepting William Shunn’s document format, or a book publisher who wants the Chicago Manual of Style, or it’s the American Psychological Association, read the style book. With a grain of salt, of course.
  • Learn from publication. Once something is published, take a look at the published work. I can guarantee you, you’ll find something about it you’d do differently now, whether it’s a typo or a new way to phrase things. Think carefully about this difference and what it can teach you.
  • Find a great critique group. By this point, you’ve been exposed to enough information to have your own opinions and to make up your own mind – and that’s the right time to engage a whole bunch of other opinionated, thoughtful people to get their ideas of how to improve your work.
  • Find a great workshop. These are harder to get into, but put you in touch with great writers of your particular genre or style and can really take you to the next level, if that’s what you want.
  • Find a great program – or embark on a great project. If you really want to be a writer, some people suggest a MFA program or other longer-term, intensive course. I simply prefer to take on little projects like 21 book urban fantasy series; these force you to learn some of the same things. 😀
Well, that’s about it for the short version. As I said … the long version’s probably a book. 🙂 I hope this helps! Please feel free to ask me more questions!
And there you have it. I hope that’s not a repeat!
-the Centaur

Viiictory #23

Wow, I just won {Nanowrimo|Camp Nanowrimo} for the twenty-third time!

For readers of this blog who have missed, like, 75% of my posts over the years, National Novel Writing Month is a challenge to write 50,000 words of a new novel in the month of November, and Camp Nanowrimo is its sister challenge in April and July. I adapt this to write 50,000 words on top of whatever I’m currently working on, and have been doing it since 2002.

This is my 25th Nano or Nano-like attempt, and my 23rd victory. (Interestingly, my two failures were times that I tried Nano on my own, without the motivation of the Nano “Validate your Project” button).

This month, because of friggin’ March, man, I started out pretty far behind, compounded by my robot work and the fact that I was working on JEREMIAH WILLSTONE AND THE MACHINERY OF THE APOCALYPSE. This is less a novel than a series of loosely connected novellas, each slightly different in setting and tone, and has been my most research-heavy project to date. But, nevertheless, I got back on track and climbed the mountain.

Interestingly, a couple of the days in there were my most productive writing days ever – 7,000 and 8,000 word days, right up with the 9,014 word day that I did once on the last day of Nano. I didn’t want to do that again – I wanted to take today off – so I powered through 8000 words on Saturday, finished with 2,600 words on Sunday, and leisurely wrote 2,000 words today unpacking a few of the ideas I had that were still fresh.

And now, the traditional excerpt:

“So,” General Weiss said, sitting down. “You desire to become one of my acolytes?”

Jeremiah glanced over at him, trying to contain her glare. “I desire to learn, sir.”


“What I have to teach is not easy to learn,” Weiss said, patting her leg. “It requires long-term commitment, supreme dedication, self-sacrifice—”


“Are …” Jeremiah felt her brow furrow, tried to control it. “Are you aware of—”


“The nature of your injuries?” Weiss said. “Yes, I heard you were reckless.”


No, sir,” Jeremiah said. She hit the switch to raise her bed until she could look the man more closely in the eye. “I have been injured, repeatedly, because I have been sent into the line of fire without adequate support, repeatedly, and I did my duty, repeatedly.”


“The story goes is that you tried to leap across a city street, four stories up.”


“No, sir,” Jeremiah said. “A monster that had killed dozens was about to make its escape, and I leapt for it, sir, dragging it down to the street, possibly saving hundreds more lives—well, that’s debatable, but I definitively stopped it, at least that is not in dispute—”


“No, no, you’re quite right about the outcome of the operation.” Weiss rubbed his hands together. “And whether I think you’re reckless in the large, I would never dispute the actions of a operative in the clinch. But do you know why the enemy exposed itself to you?”


“I …” Jeremiah said. “But it didn’t. We caught it, and tracked it—”


“Yes, yes, and let’s not dispute that either,” Weiss said, leaning forward. “A hypothetical. Imagine you had two operations running, physically separated, one large and important, one … less so. To protect them, you can run recon missions looking for the enemy, but the enemy might find them. You can run ten recces in the operation period. Where do you put them?”


“Er, well,” Jeremiah said. “Proportionally on the more important—”


“No,” Weiss said. “You run five. All around the least important one. Why?”


“Er …” What clues had he given? “The larger force, is well, larger. It can defend itself.”

“Yes. And?”

Jeremiah’s eyes narrowed. “You want the recces caught?”

“No, not really, but I do, yes.”

“But the smaller force, exposed—”

“And overwhelmed,” Weiss said, “by a mass mobilization of the enemy. Away from my primary force. Now the other five recces probe ahead of the main op, clearing the way while the decoy fights for its life. If done properly—if the decoy force is given both a true objective and the best chance of success, their fight for their lives will only attract more enemy forces. If they win, you have a true two-front victory. If they fail, you don’t even need to send reinforcements—the moment the main force engages the enemy, the enemy will naturally pull back.”

Jeremiah’s brow furrowed.

“Yes, yes, there are many specifics which would make this kind of plan succeed or fail,” Weiss said. “To truly instruct you, we’d need to work through many more patterns, then make them concrete for the kind of forces you will end up commanding—”

“All of them,” Jeremiah said.

“What?”

“I’m going to command all of them,” Jeremiah said. “My aim is to be Minister of War.”

“Oho,” the general said. “Then we have a lot of work to do. Tell me why the thing exposed itself to you. Quick, now.”

“They’re—” Jeremiah’s mouth fell open. “The things are wearing us down.”

Sounds like they have a lot of problems on that boat. The first of the stories in THE MACHINERY OF THE APOCALYPSE is already out: A Choir of Demons, at Aurora Wolf. For the rest … well, you’ll have to wait a bit. Enjoy!

-the Centaur

Gettin’ a Move On

Well, the Nano climb is starting off great, for a switch! Fourth of July, and I’m already 800 words ahead of what my goal is for this time of the month.

Not bad, but then, I am on vacation. 🙂 An excerpt:

On our way out, I sighs. “That went … well—”

“It so very did not,” Karoo says, bouncing from rock to rock.

“What?” I says. “We learned a lot—”

“We learned nothing but that this so-called Huntswoman wants the Ere Mother dead—or worse!” Karoo snarls. “You learned nothing from the Huntswoman about the Ere Mother herself that I could not have told you, had you only asked—”

“Was she wrong about the spell that’s killing her?” I asks, and Karoo says nothing. “If you knew that, why didn’t you tell me?”

“You didn’t ask,” Karoo says.

“Well, maybe I should change that,” I says, “startin’ now. But I learned a lot—”

“A faerie queen flattered you by putting you through paces that would not have fazed the most junior adept in medieval times, when training meant something,” Karoo said. “You learned what you should have learned months or years ago in your training—”

“I have not been wand training for years,” I says. “Graffiti magic, three years, wand magic, more like one and a half. Actually, a bit closer to one—”

“So you’re hungry and she fed you,” Karoo says huffily. “One way and one way alone this creature is like the Li’ía Ní’qua I remember. You heard her banish me from her court, me, her consort? I loved her once, with all my heart. Now I hate her with equal fervor—”

“Don’t say that,” I says. “She’ll … she’ll eventually remember you—”

“Li’ía Ní’qua is dead,” Karoo says. “I never want to come back to this place again!”

Ouch, Karoo, that’s harsh! Especially coming from a cute glowing anthropmorphic fox.

-the Centaur

Camp Nano, July 2018 Edition

Well, so insanely busy, I haven’t posted in a while. But not for want of working on things that I want to post about! Most pressingly, my Camp Nano project for the July Camp of 2018, and what I hope is the last major chunk of the third book in the Cinnamon Frost series … SPELLPUNK: ROOT USER!

Cinnamon Frost, once-delinquent weretiger stray, is now a rising star in the secretive werekindred kingdom … until she unwittingly unleashes an ancient faerie monster and is banished to the human world as a result. As the monster wreaks havoc on human and werekin alike, Cinnamon must scramble to save herself, save her city – and save her mother, as the monster turns upon them all in its rage.

And, of course, the obligatory excerpt:

I clenches my fist. The fox shimmers, his magic going through my fingers; of course, it’s a magic projectia, not a holographic projection. Mom told me about this: an entombed court of faerie, and the warriors that went back to finish the job. I folds my hands to my breast.

“I’m sorry,” I says. “I knows the story. I just didn’t know it happened here too.”

“Only three of us were left,” the fox says. “My shattered body. The queen, entombed in layers of crystal too hard to be destroyed—though she freed herself and left us, I have no idea how. And the other, the Ere Mother, entombed half-alive, half-dead on the other side of the cavern; I have not seen her directly for centuries … until now.”

The hair creeps up on my spine: the cracking and scraping is louder now.

“Did you free her?” the fox asks. “Perhaps she will be grateful—”

I whirls. Behind the shattered iceberg, something looms, a glint of red—and a mammoth bony paw slams down to the iceberg’s right. Rock scrapes on rock, and the crystal-encased paw grinds against stone, formin’ and reshapin’, crystal planes flashin’ intermittently within as it rearchitects itself. Then the lumberin’ split head of the sloth-corpse roars into view, wobblin’ on a half-crystal, half-bone neck, its single red eye blazin’ like a laser.

“Maybe yes,” I says, “and looks like no!”

Red eye blazin’, the Ere Mother screams magic at me in a rasping bellow of rage.

Now, none of the Cinnamon Frost books have been published yet; since Cinnamon Frost #1, #2 and #3 are interleaved in time with Dakota Frost #4, #5, and #6, and since both are loose trilogies, I’ve been working on all six together, in a giant manuscript which would be close to 750,000 words if all put together. Oy! But the outcome is I understand the story much better, and when this giant Hexology is finally put out, I think it will be a much stronger story.

Onward!

-the Centaur

Pictured: a mockup cover for SPELLPUNK: ROOT USER, based on a picture of an eremotherium by Eden, Janine and Jim, and a picture of Doll’s Theater in Carlsbad Cavern picture by Daniel Meyer, both licensed for reuse with attribution on variants of the Creative Commons license.

Viiictory the Twentieth!

Hail, fellow adventurers! And now you know why you haven’t heard from me for a while: I was heads down finishing my wordcount for Camp Nanowrimo! And this is a very special one, because it marks the twentieth time I have won a National Novel Writing Month style challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel in a month! Woohoo! When I started, I never thought I’d finish this many!

This was a difficult month for it. Sure, I just finished early, but that final push involved locking me in a downstairs room with my laptop until I finished so I could enjoy the rest of my vacation with my wife. And the push up to this point has been hard: my wife returning from vacation, with me scrambling to finish a spring cleaning gone awry before she got home. A cat being treated for cancer. An organization I’m volunteering with had an emergency that involved multiple meetings over the month. Major shifts and dustups at work. Robots, on the loose, being chased down the corridors. Ok, that last one isn’t real. Well, actually, it was, but it was much, much, much more prosaic than it sounds.

The upshot, seen above, is blood on the water (behind on my wordcount) for most of the month. And with the very last weekend of the month being my long-planned vacation in Monterey with my wife before she flies out on her next business trip, there was a very real danger that I wouldn’t make it. But my wife is awesome, and tolerated me taking out this first evening to do a massive push to get all my words done!

And now, sleep. But first, an excerpt:

“The Ere Mother is … not the most dangerous enemy I’ve ever faced,” I says. “Actually, she doesn’t rate really highly compared to the thing we found in the Vault of Nightmares, which was the real source of the magic that tried to burn down this city, Lady Scara—not me. But the Ere Mother is terribly dangerous, that I admit, Magus Meredith, Elder Jackson-Monarch. She’s terribly dangerous. But I did not ‘unleash’ her on the city. I went where my leadership told me to go and did what they told me to do, and the bottom dropped out under me. Yes, she came to life when I fell into the chambers of her court, but I strongly doubt that she was brought to life by a magic tiger butt. As unstable as that structure was—and it was still subsiding from time to time—the Ere Mother could have been unleashed at anytime, and we’d know even less about her than we do because I was down there investigatin’—as you all asked me to.”

I stands there, quietly.

“OH!” I says. “Um, yeah. That’s … that’s my report.”

“Well,” Mom says. “Thank you, First Mage, for your testimony—”

“Chair Frost?” Meredith says, raising his hand politely. “Are questions allowed?”

Mom blinks. “Always, as long as we maintain order. You have the floor.”

“Shoot,” I says. “Not literally—”

“How do you know the structure was still subsiding?” asked Meredith.

I stares at him. The hair rises on the back of my head. I thinks very, very fast.

“I heard it from the remaining member of the Dire Court,” I says. “A fox changeling, er, proto-fox changeling, at least I assume it was a changeling—er, anyway, we spoke, briefly, before the Ere Mother attacked. He mentioned a subsidence that, um.”

“Yes?” Meredith says, eyes gleaming.

“That, ah, uncovered his eye, so he wasn’t stuck in the dark anymore,” I says quietly. Meredith’s face falls, with true horror. “There was light down there, from runes. But after the Ere Mother’s attack … I don’t think there’s anything left of the fox fae anymore.”

“That’s … horrible,” Meredith says. “Do you remember what else you spoke about?”

“I will try to reconstruct a transcript. Mostly, he said shit like, ‘Oh, God’, and ‘Don’t hurt me.’” Somebody laughs, and I idly turns towards them and says, “Hey, I was pretty scared. You wanna be pretty scared to, I can always Change into what I looked like down there.”

“Cinnamon Stray Foundling Frost,” Mom says sternly, “if you eat anyone at this Council, you’re grounded!”

“Yes, Mom,” I says.

Ah, Cinnamon. You and your wacky hijinks with ancient faerie changelings!

Now … zzzzz…

-the Centaur

Camp Nanowrimo – Spellpunk: ROOT USER

Um, so, hi! I’m Cinnamon! (That’s me, below!)

And I’m supposed to tell you that my biographer, Anthony Francis, is working on my third book, ROOT USER, for Camp Nanowrimo! Camp is the sister challenge to the November challenge to write 50,000 words in a month, and that sounds crazy unless you are my brother and love writing words, and are not dyslexic and ADD and whatever, and what was I saying? SO! Anyway. My biographer’s busy writing, or something. So you get me! Except, um, I gots nothin’, except, hey, I’m a teenage weretiger, and this is my third book! The first two ain’t out yet, but this one has monsters and high school and kids straight out of Harry Potter and yummy yummy wereguys fightin’ over the me. Choice! I am awesome, if I do say so myself about myself. Hee hee!

What? Oh! Ok. My biographer is askin’ me to post an excerpt or somethin’, so, here goes:

I glowers. “Fine,” I says.

We steps up to the blockhouse surroundin’ the base of the mineshaft. Nri nods to the guard, makes a funny hand sign. The guard nods, opens the chain, lets us in—but as he puts the chain back, he flips down a sign that says, MAINTENANCE—OUT OF ORDER.

“This elevator seems to be out of order a lot lately,” I mutters. “Your doin?”

“Yes, but why do you care?” Nri asks, pullin’ out a key. “You have a teleporter—”

“Common knowledge, thanks to you,” I grumbles, and it’s true: Nri has no respect for my secrets, none at all, but he’s cagey as a wolf. “Now everyone wants to pop out in my den, every time you’re doin’ whatever you’re doin’—what are you doin’ down here, anyway?”

“Using the elevator’s special features,” Nri says, slidin’ the gate closed.

He inserts the key, turns it—and the elevator starts to go down.

“Hey!” I says, as the blockhouse recedes above us. “I thought this was ground zero!”

“Ground floor,” Nri corrects. “But no, it is not. The Werehold is a basement. This …”

“Sub-basement?” I asks hopefully, as the shaft recedes above us.

“I said I’d tell you on the surface,” Nri says. “I never said the surface of what.”

And then … the world turns upside down.

“Whooaoaaoaa!” I cries, as my feet lifts off the floor—and the elevator keeps descendin. Nri has moved to the side of the elevator, and grips the cage, turnin’ his body a hundred and eighty degrees, so his feet are pointin’ at the ceiling—and then I falls. Up! “Ow!”

Nri’s feet land on the ceilin’. I lands on my noggin.

Ow! Embarrasin’. Why’d you have to call up that bit, Mister Biographer, huh? Rip your face off, I oughtta. Grr. And stop calling me cute when I growl. A tiger, I am, not to be mocked by those who could be morsels—stop touslin’ my hair!

Grrrrr. Enjoy, or whatevers.

-Cinnamon, on behalf of the Centaur

75K

I was going to write “And from his labors, he rested” but that’s entirely to uncomfortably Messianic for me, so here’s the scoop: on the last day of Nano, I have stopped at 75,282 words.

This somehow all magically happened because I never lost my momentum after the Night of Writing Dangerously, oh, and because this is Cinnamon Frost, and she’s awesome!

This is the most I’ve ever written in Nano, by a long shot – almost 10,000 words more. Not quite, and I’m not super motivated to make it exactly 10,000 words more. If I think of more words tonight, eh maybe.

Oh yes, the traditional excerpt:

The first challenge was easy—spirit. Awareness. Being aware of faerie.

The second challenge was harder—mind. Intellect. Learnin’ the logic of faerie.

The third challenge was the hardest of all. Body. Emotion. Feeling faerie in your bones.

A huge cacklin’ thing bursts out of the water. Its head is as big as Krishna’s, a huge green dripping thing under a mass of hair, its wide smooth but mottled nose remindin’ me of a diseased muppet. We can’t see the thing’s eyes, but its arms loom around us. Ben and Surrey screams.

Do you care?” it screams, openin’ a maw filled with giant teeth the size of playing cards. I think it could swallow any of us whole. “Do you care if you diieie?”

“Aaaah!” Benjamin and Surrey screams. “We care! We care!”

The thing looms further forward. “Then flee, mortals, or you may perish here!

“Don’t flee,” I murmurs. “Or you may perish elsewhere—”

“We—we will not flee,” Surrey cries.

“For we may perish elsewhere,” Benjamin says with sudden insight. Did he hear me?

But stay here, and death will be certain, mortals!” the thing cries, loomin’ over them.

“Stay anywhere, and death is certain, for mortals!” Benjamin cries.

“And you don’t care if you die,” I murmurs into Surrey’s ear.

“And we don’t care if we die,” Surrey says. “What? Ci—”

“Surely death comes to all mortals,” Benjamin says. “Why should we care?”

I could make death hurt,” the thing cries, stretchin’ its arms out like a giant Muppet.

“Or we could die in our sleep,” I murmurs. “But I can make death hurt him more.”

I actually have practically finished BOT NET,  so next up is Cinnamon Frost #3, ROOT USER! Oh, and editing Dakota Frost #4, SPECTRAL IRON! Due in about 4-5 months. Aaaaaaa!

Onward!

-the Centaur

Ludicrous Speed

If I keep up the pace that I’ve been keeping …

I won’t just beat my best record ever (which I already have) …

… I’ll hit the somewhat ludicrous amount of 75,000 words in a month, beyond the 70,000 I’ve already hit.

4,648 words to hit that goal … less than I did yesterday or even today. Let’s get cracking.

-the Centaur

Nanowrimo, Challenge Mode

If I write 11,293 words by the end of the month …

~2900 words a day, not counting today …

I will beat my all time Nanowrimo record of 65,995 words:

Sounds like a worthier goal than spending the same words responding to everyone who’s wrong on the Internet.

Onward!

-the Centaur

The Way to Succeed at Nano is to Put Nano First

Hey gang, now that I’ve succeeded at National Novel Writing Month nineteen times, I thought I’d take a little time out to tell you that my secret to National Novel Writing Month success is to put Nano first.

Now, that seems obvious – almost, like, too obvious to be advice – but I want to put it into perspective by first asking you a few questions.

  1. Do you care about finishing what you write?
    If you don’t, don’t worry about the above advice. Write what you want, how you want it, when you want it. Again, this seems obvious, but I want to make sure you understand whether this advice applies to you. I started to write “Do you care about writing success?” but then I realized everyone has their own definition of writing success, whether they realize it or not. A beloved friend, Jan, just died, and I will never again hear her read her stories at our local writing group – and you’re never likely to read them, as she was more into having fun writing than she ever was about getting her stories published. She was a success at writing without ever needing publication, or even necessarily to to finish everything she wrote. We’ll miss you, Jan, but we’ll never worry about whether you were having fun: that was obvious.
  2. Do you care about completing Nanowrimo?
    Again, I almost wrote “Do you care about succeeding at Nano” as I did in the title of this essay, but every word is a victory in National Novel Writing Month. It doesn’t really matter whether you wrote one word or a hundred thousand if Nano helped you write it. But, again, if you don’t care whether you hit that magic 50K, then don’t worry about the advice in this article.
  3. Do you care more about finishing Nanowrimo than doing the comfortable things that you’ve always done?
    This is the most important part. Some people need to wait for their muse. Some need to plan ahead. Some need to do other things that seem so important to them. Maybe they are. But given my writing style, those things don’t seem so important to me, and given my obsessive-compulsive personality, I’m not going to take on a challenge unless I intend to finish it. But maybe that’s not you: you need your outline or your muse or your whatever in your life to make writing possible. That’s OK! I know great writers like that. They don’t generally take on Nanowrimo, that’s all, as Nanowrimo doesn’t work for them.

If you think it will work for you – if you want to finish what you write, and you want to take on the Nanowrimo challenge to write 50,000 words and you want to finish it, and you are willing to do things differently in order to make that success happen – then here’s the secret:

Put completing National Novel Writing Month first.

Well, okay, yes, you gotta breathe, and you gotta eat, and don’t get fired – however. There are a lot of things that creative people do, and if you want to succeed at National Novel Writing Month, you may need to change them. For example:

  • Turn off your Internet. Frequently when writing, I hit a speedbump, go look something up, and dig into Wikipedia or TV Tropes or (no joke) find myself reading the city planning documents of a harbor community in Newfoundland to carefully craft some details that will only appear in a paragraph or two of a whole novel. That’s my process, and it’s produced a number of well-received novels of which I’m proud. During National Novel Writing Month, however, I frequently turn off the Internet on my laptop until I’ve gotten my magic 1,666 words per day.
  • Put off your Blogging. I like to blog, but it seems I don’t do a lot of it. The reason for this is that I’ve started doing Nano-like challenges three times per year – Camp Nano in April and July, plus Nano in November – and the rest of the time I focus on finishing manuscripts, editing them, or publishing other people’s manuscripts. I have dozens upon dozens of notes for blogposts written on scraps, stored in Scrivener files, even half-finished in Ecto; but during Nano, I put Nano first.
  • Research after you Write. So many times this month, a pile like the below was on my table, awaiting my perusal, only to be put back into the bookbag or tote bag after I finish my writing. There’s a problem in deep learning I’m trying to crack, and some mathematics I need to know to do it, and research for the Cinnamon Frost puzzle books; but I know from experience I can take my whole lunch break or even afternoon diving into mathematics or programming or research. During Nano,  I put the writing first. That forces me to go out into space in the story, even if sometimes I need reference when I edit the text.

  • Take Time off to Write. I am always an antisocial loner, having to force myself to go to lunch with my coworkers (rarely) or to dinner with my friends (equally rarely) or my writing peeps (less rarely, since I can excuse it to my brain as writing related). This isn’t because I don’t like the people that I like, but because I want to finish my books before I die. (I have a lot of books planned). During Nano, I’m even more jealous of my schedule, taking lunch breaks to write, sometimes bailing on group writing sessions to be alone, and, the big one, taking off Thanksgiving week to write. This year, for Night of Writing Dangerously, I got a hotel room, holed up in San Francisco after the Night, and wrote like mad. I almost finished BOT NET during this writing jag, and ended up finishing six days early because I took this time.
  • Reject your Comforting Illusions. This last one is the most dangerous advice which may not work for you or even apply to you, and it can be the hardest, but it is this: put getting the 1,666 words a day ahead of your imagination that you need to wait for your muse, or plot your story, or be in the mood, or anything else. Write crap if you have to. It counts (1 word). Write bla bla bla if you have to. It counts (3 words). 1,662 words to go. Feel that this isn’t working for you? Write “Nanowrimo isn’t working for me!” (5 words) or, even better, “National Novel Writing Month is not working for me!” (9 words). Feel this is a cheat and a sham? Write that down! (I guarantee explaining your feelings will get you  more than 9 words). Even better, write down what’s wrong with your story and why you can’t write any further and what you wish you were writing. That explanation in text will count as words … and, more importantly, will probably start turning into text. Put another way, feel free to work out your frustrations and even to outline in your manuscript. It will become true words on the next pass … and will put you ever closer to the end of your story. Once you have a path from beginning to end, believe me, you can revise it into a story that you will truly love.

So, that’s it: if you want to succeed at Nano, put Nano first. Turn off your Internet, tune back your blogging, put off your research, and take time off to write. Most importantly, throw off your comforting illusions, feel free to outline or even to vent in your manuscript, knowing that each word you write isn’t just getting you closer to success at Nanowrimo, it’s getting you closer to having a beginning-to-end path through your story … which you can then revise into a finished product.

And that’s how I succeed at Nano. Try it. It could work for you too.

-the Centaur