It’s that time of year again! Gird your loins, and pick up your pens. You’re about to embark on the ride of your lives.
You’re not supposed to take it too seriously
If you only learn one thing about NaNoWriMo, ever from anyone, learn this: it’s meant to be fun. It’s meant to be creative. It’s meant to be about stretching your wings. It is not meant to destroy your life. That’s what writing a real novel is for.
If it’s not a novel, it’s a novella
And if it’s not a novella, it’s a short story
And if it’s not a short story, it’s flash fiction
If it’s an epic narrative, you might have a problem
On the other hand, if your story goes on for a thousand pages and includes most of the cast of Cats, you might have a runaway slime mold on your hands. Not that that’s a bad thing, fictionwise.
But I hope your spouse won’t mind when it takes over your entire house.
Truly, don’t worry about the length. You’re not done when you’ve cranked out a set number of words or chapters or pages. You’re done when you’ve finished telling your story. And if you finish it and you’re still rarin’ to go, use that story as the Hook for yet another story. . .
Certain things honestly don’t count
You know how some people cheat shamelessly on those exercises in which you’re supposed to write an entire piece in one sentence, littering their ‘sentence’ with semicolons until you want to pass a federal law against gratuitous punctuational crimes?
Be aware, people.
Gratuitous repetition doesn’t count
Her hand moved slowly, slowly moved her hand across the window pane, in a long, slow motion, moving slowly across the window pane of doom.
Repetition, unless used incredibly rarely and with only the most specific intent, puts readers to sleep. And the whole point of writing a novel is. . .to keep your reader awake!
Excruciatingly dull action doesn’t count
And then I swung a left. And a right. And a left. And a right. And my foot came forward. But only a little bit. And the rail rose up in front of my eyes until it was against the sky and I was flat on my back against the steps and the porch was all around me, and I had to shift my hips to avoid him tripping over me. Then I swung another left.
Action is fast. That’s why action films are called action films. You had better be able to fly your reader through that scene at top speed, or it’s not going to read like action anymore.
Meaningless dialog doesn’t count
“Good morning. How are you?”
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“I’m fine. Did you get my email?”
“Yes, I got your email. Did you get my answer?”
“Yes, I responded.”
You know what your reader wants to know? What’s in the email.
Rambling, inspecific, cliche description doesn’t count
The dinner party was alight with gaiety and mirth, medium-sized, very attractive guests mingling with their voices murmuring in everybody’s ears, and the candles were lighting the room up.
One telling detail is better than ten details just anybody could have used. Two telling details are better than twenty. Three telling details will sketch an entire, three-dimensional image in the reader’s eye more powerfully than infinite paragraphs of nothing-special.
And once you’ve put an image into the reader’s eye, your novel will live on without any more words.
Interior dialog reiterating action and exterior dialog doesn’t count
I couldn’t believe I’d just watched them run down that slope and jump into that water. I could see them still splashing. Yes, she still wore the headdress. Yes, he was still singing “Tea for Two.” I wondered what they would do next. They really were all wet.
Interior dialog is almost always dull as ditchwater.
Give that character something to do and record them doing it.
Explanatory exposition doesn’t count
They had finished eating the dinner they’d started earlier, and he wanted to know why she’d said she’d been run out of town on rails. Could it have something to do with what she was talking about when she whispered behind her hand that time that there were knots within knots? He was filled with euphoria and also despair.
You know why you don’t have to explain to the reader what just happened? Because they were there! Unless they were asleep. In which case nothing you can say now matters.
And abstractions are exposition gone horribly wrong. Just don’t use them.
Certain other things count enormously
You know why genre fiction—‘the people’s fiction’—grew up past so-called literary fiction over the last hundred years, until it took over the entire world of fiction like the Borg?
Because people reading for entertainment rather than attitude don’t waste time. They want excitement, they want it big, and they want it now.
You can write pretty much anything so long as you give your readers that.
Straight-forward unexplained action counts
He stopped painting his toenails when the flowers fell off. Sparkly little sprinklers scattered all over the carpet, lifting and fluttering every time he’d almost caught a handful and shimmering out of his reach on the peculiarly warm breeze that blew in under the door. When she slammed in through the window, she hit the chandelier so hard it stopped the clock down the hall.
Honestly, nobody cares what happens. All they care is that it’s vivid, detailed, and unexpected. The more unexpected it is, the more potential for further plot developments.
Surprising, inexplicable dialog counts
“It wasn’t your bottle in the first place.”
“But there are eggs everywhere!”
“Besides which, bottles are outside the Law of Possession.”
“Listen, my Uncle Eunice threw up in that bottle.”
“What kind of name is Uncle Eunice?”
Characters speaking at cross-purposes drive each other crazy. And that’s how readers like them—chocked to the eyeballs on tension! When you can’t think of anything else to write, write inexplicable dialog. It will give you tons of material for up-coming scenes.
Swift, specific description counts
The stars made her ears ring. When she landed on her knees, the mud was cool and reassuring, and rising mist filled the meadow with the bitter scent of crushed acorns.
What does it mean? Who knows? But it’s clear, it’s concrete, and the reader can experience those details through their own senses. And fiction is nothing but an experience for the reader.
A single line of original, unexpected exposition is worth a thousand words
Even waxed wings couldn’t help him now.
If you don’t have a story to go with it, it doesn’t matter. The reader’s mind can conjure the story or an infinite number of stories—it’s the spark of epiphany that feeds your reader’s soul.
It doesn’t need to make sense—it just needs to be exciting to read
This is the big secret: readers are only interested in one page at a time. Make each one a page worth reading—load it with tactile experiences, visceral action, thought-provoking dialog—and they’ll be happy.
Keep a notebook at hand where you can record particularly exciting developments as they occur to you (he remembered crossing the Atlantic on the Ile de France in a past life! she tore out her kitchen cupboards because the gnomes were drunk and singing all night! they once got trapped on the rotating floor at the top of the Space Needle by effeminate gunmen!) and bring them back up later whenever you run out of inspiration.
Writing this novel will never get old.
It’s waaaaay easier if you plot it out ahead of time
Of course, if you want a novel you can turn into something you’ll be able to sell, you’ll need it to make sense. But that’s not hard. Just throw together a simple plot and give yourself milemarkers to aim for at regular intervals, a series of main episodes you know ahead of time will all hang together in the end.
It’s really about making friends
And when it’s all over and done with, and December first has rolled around once more, you’re going to be so tired of that manuscript you’ll probably put a match to it as your Solstice present to yourself, anyway. Either that or you’ll love it so much you sew it into your pillowcase.
Whichever one—it’ll be out of the way.
But the people you meet during NaNoWriMo, the camaraderie of comparing wordcounts, the late nights checking in with each other to make sure you’re not the only person out there teetering on the brink of word-induced madness, the congratulations and shared pain and encouragement and empathy. . .
That’s what it is.
Long after you’ve come to grips with everything you can (and did) do wrong trying to write a novel way too fast with way too little preparation, gotten over the shock, pulled yourself together, and started on your next novel—your real novel—it’s the NaNoWriMo community that’s going to make your writing life a better place to live.
NOTE: And if you need some help identifying the basic building blocks of plot—and then figuring out what the heck to do with them—I spent the month of October prepping you for this very moment. You bet!
DEVELOPMENT: 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Helplessly Addictive