Monday, October 26, 2009

Get the most from NaNoWriMo--Final Preparations

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is only a few days away--time to make a few final preparations so you can get the most from that intense 30 days.

If you've been following this blog for the last few weeks, you've changed the way you think about writing a novel, prepared your cast, developed your comprehensive concept, and built a list of tasks your hero, antagonist, and other major characters must accomplish to achieve their individual objectives in your story.

If you are just now catching up with this blog, then use the next few days to come up to speed in your preparations. 

For those who have done their homework, three tasks remain to help get the most from NaNo.

First, build your book on an index card. Not literally on a card, your BIC is a summary of what your book is about.  Taken from screenwriting (and nobody does story better than screenwriters), this technique summarizes the premise and action of your book.  What does a BIC look like? A BIC has two parts. The first part looks like this:

"When a <causal event> happens, a <type of character> must <do what?> in the the face of opposition from <your antagonist> in order to <achieve what goal?>.

What's a <causal event>?  It's when the Martians Land in "War of the Worlds."  It's the murders in mysteries, the old heart throb showing back up in romances, the bad guys taking over the town n westerns. It's the event that your main character can't ignore and that propels him or her into action.

How about <type of character>? That's your hero or heroine--an "emotionally wounded tough detective, a "kick-butt female SWAT team leader with a lonely heart," or a "gunslinger turned preacher."

And <do what?>--solve the mystery, save the town, escape the Martians, clean up the town, and so on.

<Your antagonist>--the living, breathing, human-emotion having person (or person-like thing) who wants more than anything and who take action to see your hero fail.

<to achieve what goal?>--obtain justice for a wronged person, regain the kingdom, restore peace,  and so on.

The second part of your BIC comes from your list of things your hero/heroine and antagonist(s) each must do to accomplish their goals.  After you make those lists, merge and integrate them into a series of cause-and-effect, action-and-reaction scenes.  For example, you hero does X, and in response your antagonist does Y, leading your hero to do Z. Realizing the threat, your antagonist does... and so on and so on, until the final confrontation, the moment love is declared, the moment the monster is defeated, or whatever happens in the kind of book you're writing.

Your second task is to prepare your writing space and tools.  You'll need to find the physical space and implements you need to write, whether that's a home office or a cubby, a computer or pen and paper.   Prepare those now--you want to be writing during NaNo, not looking for a place to write and kicking your teen off the PC.

Your final bit of preparation
is to look beyond November and NaNo.  At the end of 30 days of intense effort, you'll have a good-size draft that is around 50,000 words long.  Plan a few days or even a couple of weeks of recovery.  Then decide how you will finish your draft and how you will revise it to improve what you've written.  You can use the Real World Revision Process in Novelist's Boot Camp or any other revision system, but DO use a system. 

NaNo is a challenging, exciting thirty days of intense writing effort.  You'll create a better product and have a better time with some methodical preparations like those in this blog.

Happy writing and good luck!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Get the most from NaNoWriMo--Plotting De-Mystified

With about ten days before National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) begins, many aspiring "NaNo" authors will soon be chewing fingernails because they don't have one essential ingredient for their work--

A plot.

Plotting seems to be universally intimidating to aspiring authors, whether they're writing during NaNo or working on another book-length work of fiction.  NaNo organizers tell participants to wing it--no plot, no problem--and let their imaginations take them where the moment leads them.

While following your imagination as it wanders down new paths can be fun and while many authors swear by writing by the seat of their pants, our strategy is to divide and conquer the tasks in the writing process by making each task smaller, then focusing our creativity on the task in front of us.  This means we'll look at plotting as a separate activity.

So how do you plot? If you check the dictionary, you'll find that plot is both plan and a list of events. Plot is "what happens" as your hero or heroine takes action in pursuit of his or her objective and as the opponent and other opposition take action to stop them.

Since we've already defined our hero or heroine's objectives when we built our Comprehensive Concept, we know what he or she has to accomplish. So our first step in plotting is to make a detailed list of what our hero or heroine must do to accomplish that objective.  We can brainstorm, mind-map, list in chronological order, or built the list in any manner we choose.  In the end though, we must have a list that is a logical progression of things our protagonist must accomplish in order to obtain their objective. The amount of detail and kinds of things the protagonist must do are determined by genre.  For example, detectives in mysteries must not simply determine the criminal's identity, they must do those specific things that detectives do--interview witnesses, inspect the crime scene or scenes, inspect other evidence, and so on.  In Novelist's Boot Camp -- both the workshops and the book -- we call this "Doing the D's."

Our second step is to build another list--a detailed list of those actions our opponent and other opposition must take to keep the protagonist from achieving his or her objective. Again, the detail comes from the genre and from your character development of your protagonist's opponent and opposition. 

Now merge the two lists and blend them so that you have a logical sequence of action and reaction.

Put each of these action/reaction combinations into a location and time and you have a list of scenes--and you have your plot.

Let this simmer for a day or two, revise it to make the actions of each participant more bold and more daring, check it against your list of expectation for the genre and what you love about reading the kind of book you are now writing, and revise again.  You now have not only your plot, but a series of scenes you can use as writing assignments.

You have but a few days to get ready for NaNo, so best to begin building your lists today! 

Next time--final preparations.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Get the most from NaNoWriMo -- Invent your story line

With National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) just a couple of weeks away, it's time to shift your preparations into high gear. As we've discussed in previous blogs, our goal is simple--get the most from the 30 days of NaNoWriMo by writing a quality draft and writing less cr*p!

Using the Improved Writing Process found in Novelist's Boot Camp and taught in our Novelist's Boot Camp workshops, so far you've changed your way of thinking about writing a novel and adopted a Novelist's Mindset. You've listed what you love to read and what you love about those kinds of books. Then you built your novel's cast--the primary or main characters of your story.

As a side note, we have Novelist's Boot Camp workshops scheduled in Houston in October and near Cincinnati in November. It's not too late to register for either of these, but act fast as we're about filled up!

Now it's time to build your Comprehensive Concept. The Comprehensive Concept takes the idea of a "book idea" or "story idea" to the next level. There are five elements to the Comprehensive Concept, and although this blog provides them in the form of a list, the diagrams on Storytellerroad lay these elements out in the form of a circle, so you can start anywhere and move in any direction.

Your Comprehensive Concept is the keystone of your novel's foundation. Here are the elements you'll need to find for that keystone:

Find your path -- your genre, or in the case of Romance or Mystery (and several others), your sub-genre
Find your hero/heroine -- your lead character or characters
Find your opponent -- the main opposition to your lead character(s), who will work tirelessly to get them to fail
Find your macro setting -- the major time and place where your novel takes place, such as "Paris, spring of 1940," or "New York City, present day."
Find your story line-- a story line for a novel includes a hero or heroine trying to obtain a story objective (and often an emotional objective) in the face of opposition. In other words, someone doing things to get something they want with someone else trying to stop them. "A princess lives in a fair castle" isn't a story line. "A cowboy rides the range" is not a story line. " A monster terrorizes a small town" is not a story line. "A woman overcomes past abuse" is not a story line. All of these lack one thing or another -- clear human or human-like opposition, a story objective, or a hero or heroine. Of course, a story line must be genre appropriate--in mysteries murders get solved, in military thrillers the enemy gets defeated, and so on. Note that in Romances, while the "story" is about two people falling in love, the "story line" needs to have a tangible goal or story objective.

Building a strong Comprehensive Concept is hard work, but necessary to have that strong keystone on which to build your foundation. The good news is that you can play with each of the elements, asking "what if?' you changed the setting, story line, genre, and so on. This creative process will make you more creative.

Spend a few days in trial and error building your Comprehensive Concept. You'll know when it's right.

Next time, we'll move on and de-mystify that scariest of all novel-writing activities--plotting.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Get the most from NaNoWriMo -- Enlist your cast

With less than four weeks to go before the kickoff of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it's time to accelerate our preparations. Although NaNoWriMo organizers like to have participants take off writing from a standing start, we've decided we'll organize ourselves, our thinking, and our novel so that we have more fun cranking out a 50,000 word draft and avoid "writing a lot of crap," to use the NaNoWriMo organizers' words.

Our first step, based on the Improved Writing Process found in the book Novelist's Boot Camp and taught in our Novelist's Boot Camp workshops, was to change our way of thinking and adopt an Author's Mindset.  We changed how we saw writing a book-length work of fiction; came to understand that doing so way a series of steps, each building upon the previous one;  resolved to not fight fair and so set our writing goals so we could easily roll over them and so increase our enjoyment and our momentum; and finally we listed what we loved to read and what we loved about those kinds of books.

Now we'll move on to building some of the essential elements of our novel--so we don't have to create them AND try to write what happens/tell the story at the same time. We're dividing and conquering the process of writing a novel, and our next step is to enlist a cast.

Enlisting your cast simply means building a list of the major characters (cast members) in your novel.  These are characters your readers (audience) will see again and again, the ones on whom you'll spend the most time in creating and describing and the ones who'll drive the action in your work.  You may have lots of minor characters (bit players), but you'll need the below as a minimum:

A hero/heroine, also known as a protagonist.  Your novel is his or her story.  Note that in a Romance or Romantic Suspense your book is their story. In a mystery your protagonist is the detective.  In a Western or SciFi novel this is the main character, as it is in a Literary Novel, Women's fiction, or Technothriller, Suspense, Horror, Paranormal, and so on.  Can you have two--such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Sure. How about several, as in Steel Magnolias? Of course--recognizing that the more main characters you have, the more complicated you novel becomes--not just to manage or to write, but to read. 

An antagonist, also known as the villain.  This is the person (or thing/monster/alien etc) with human traits and characteristics that wants more than anything else in the world for your protagonist to fail and who works tirelessly to ensure the protagonist's demise. This is the monster in horror novels, aliens in SciFi novels, the enemy in military fiction, the criminal in mysteries, and so on. Note that these characters can be fun (a guilty pleasure) to create!

Other opposition.  Sometimes known as minions.  These are the characters who will also actively oppose your hero or heroine. There are crooked police chiefs in mysteries, rival scientists in SciFi novels, unbelievers in horror novels, and so on. More of these are better, as more opposition increases the opportunity for conflict.

A Window character.  A window character is not mandatory, but using one is a great technique.  Think a cop's partner, a heroine's best friend, Spock in Star Trek, even Wilson in the movie Cast Away.  This character must spend a lot of time with the protagonist, interact with the protagonist, and gives us a "window" to see into the protagonist's character.  Consider having a window character for your antagonist or villain as well--it makes for a much more interesting and complex character!

Your story becomes the tale of what happens--both in terms of action and in terms of emotional change--when these characters interact, each in pursuit of his or her own goal. Note that by definition the goals are in direct conflict.

We'll dig deeper into developing these characters, their interactions (your plot), setting, and so on in coming days. For now, enlist your cast and write down your main characters--the act of doing so will engage your imagination, cause you to generate details about those characters and ideas for how they interact, and put you far ahead of your NaNoWriMo contemporaries.

We'll get even father ahead next time. 

For more information, take a look at the Invention section of Novelist's Boot Camp or any of the free Novel Writing Battle Map or other free downloads on Storytellerroad.

Keep writing!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Get the Most from NaNoWriMo -- Never Fight Fair

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) presents particpants with a challenging goal: complete a 50,000 word draft in 30 days. We want you to make the best use possible of those 30 days and to create the best draft possible. NaNoWriMo organizers admit "you'll write a lot of crap." Here's our second installment in how create a higher quality draft instead of 50k words worth of--well, you know.

Key to creating a higher quality draft is developing an author's mindset (the first step in the Novelist's Boot Camp Improved Writing Process), and a key part of that mindset is the well-known military principle of "divide and conquer ,"or as we teach in our workshops "never fight fair." You and your imagination and creativity against a 50,000-words-in-month-draft-manuscript goal is fighting fair. You'll have to create characters, story line, plot, setting, action, dialog and so on as you go, and write each scene as well.  You'll come to NaNoWriMo with whatever skill you have naturally and whatever training you've developed along the way.  It will be a fair and tough fight.

Even if you break down the 50,000 word goal into daily writing goals (about 1700 words a day) or hourly writing goals (about a typed, double spaced page an hour in an eight hour day), those are still challenging goals. Remember, those are writing goals, not dreaming up characters, setting, story line, action, and so on.

But we don't want to fight fair--we want your imagination and creativity to overpower the tasks or goals. We can't make your imagination and creativity bigger in the time provided, but we can make the tasks smaller.  The first way we'll do so is by dividing the tasks in NaNoWriMo (and the tasks in creating a quality draft) into much smaller chunks.  How small? Small enough that your imagination and creativity will have no problem accomplishing them. Small enough that you'll have lots of creative power left in reserve. Small enough that you'll gloat at how easy accomplishing those goals were, and small enough that you'll grow confident in your ability to easily accomplish the next goal.

So let's begin. In the next few days, write down the following and fill in the blanks.

1. "My book is a genre" (Romance? Romantic suspense? Science Fiction novel? Work of Historical Fiction? Mystery?)
2. "The things I really enjoy when I read my book's genre are: ________________, ____________, ...)"  What is you like about the genre? The description of the time and place, the characters' complex personalities, the forensic detail of police procedurals, what? List these.
3. "in my book's genre readers expect: _________________, ______________, ..." What are readers' expectations of your genre? For example, in romances we expect happy or emotionally satisfying endings, in mysteries we expect the detective and the criminal to have a one-on-one confrontation, in Science Fiction we expect the futuristic worlds and technology to impact every scene.  List these.

What if you get stuck?  Don't re-double your efforts; make the goal smaller!

Can't decide on a genre? Make your goal smaller--eliminate one genre you don't want to write.  Then eliminate one more, then one more, and so on.  Can't list all the things you like about the genre your book will be in?  List one, then put your work away. Come back later to list another, later for one more, and so on.
Take a few days to accomplish these tasks. When you do, you'll have focused your creativity on what you want to write, have in your subconscious mind (and your conscious mind) what needs to go into that book to make it enjoyable and satisfying, set yourself up for success when we create our next building block, and accomplished your first writing goal.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Get the most from NaNoWriMo - I

National Novel Writing Month (November 1st-30th) is a great time to focus your energies to meet the NaNo goal of writing a draft of a 175-page (50,000-word) novel. Over 100,000 aspiring authors did so last year, and thousands more will do so this year too. So NaNoWriMo would seem to be the perfect time to crank out that first draft of your novel.

Except even the NaNo organizers admit “you’ll write a lot of crap." Why? It's not just because as my old friend and author of more than 40 novels Robert W. Walker says "all first drafts are crap." NaNoWriMo organizers urge you to jump in and let the momentum of the month and your free-roaming creativity take you where they will. The result will be dead ends, throwaway pages and chapters, characters who will go nowhere, and on and on. NaNoWriMo is all about the experience of drafting, and some of that experience will be crap.

I'm an avid motorcyclist and it's said that a breakdown by the side of the road is all "part of the experience." Now, I've had that experience and breakdowns by the side of the road are crap. It's a much better experience to keep on riding. It's true that those who experience the crap of a breakdown feel better after they're back on the road, but my uncle D. used to hit himself with a hammer "cause it feels good when it quits hurtin'" (it's an Indiana thing). Plus life is short--would you rather spend it by the side of the road/writing crap or riding the open road/writing a quality draft?

Don't take a wrong turn here--NaNoWriMo is a great time to focus your energies, draw strength from a group, and crank out a draft. If you're an aspiring author, I want you to and urge you to participate in NaNoWriMo--and I want you to get the most out of that 30 days of intense effort and at the end of those 30 days I want you to have a well-progressed quality draft and a sense of accomplishment that very little of that draft is crap. Of course that draft will need revision and in Novelist's Boot Camp (both the book and the workshops) we provide the Triage and 7-Step Real World Revision processes to help you methodically revise and re-write your draft. But for now and in these blogs over the next few weeks leading up to NaNoWriMo, we'll concentrate on how to get more out of NaNoWriMo--more pages, better quality, a greater sense of accomplishment, and less crap.

Begin by understanding that writing a book-length work of fiction is a process. The Novelist's Boot Camp Improved Writing Process says there are seven phases:
  1. Developing an author's mindset
  2. Invention
  3. Development
  4. Drafting
  5. Revision
  6. Editing and Proofreading
  7. Moving forward/reconstituting
The first step is to change your mind and develop and author's mindset. While Novelist's Boot Camp goes into detail, at the heart of this mind change is harnessing your creativity by focusing on each phase, completing it, and then building on your success in the next phase. NaNoWriMo asks you to combine the first four phases in one thirty-day period--which means you'll end up with a lot of crap. To have a better NaNoWriMo, we'd like you to save that 30 days of NaNoWriMo for cranking out a quality draft by progressing through the first three phases in the weeks before.

For today, that means five things:
  1. Change your mind: See writing a novel as a series of steps or phases, not an amorphous blob of mystical effort
  2. Commit to being ready: Sign up for accomplishing the first three steps (Developing an author's mindset, invention, and development) before NaNoWriMo
  3. Prepare your writing space: You'll need whatever you use to write with--computer, pen and paper, typewriter (remember those?) and so on. Put these in a place where you're comfortable and can concentrate.
  4. Firewall your writing time: This has two parts. First, find three 20-minute blocks of time each day. If you can't set aside three, set aside two. If you can't do two, do one. No email, no browsing (except this blog!), nothing but focus on your novel. Every day is best, but if you have to skip a day or two, go ahead--there is life outside of writing fiction. Second, take out your calendar and block out the time between now and NaNoWriMo start (November 1st). 1/4 of that time should be dedicated to developing an author's mindset, 1/4 to invention, and 1/2 to development. Mark up your calendar accordingly.
  5. Go public: Talk to your family about what the next few weeks look like and tell them what they need to do to support you. Work any calendar and commitment issues out now. Tell your colleagues, friends, writing group members, Facebook and MySpace friends, and everyone else you can think of what you've committed to. Get a partner or a small group together--it will make the next few weeks more fun and you'll all make more progress.
NaNoWriMo is a great opportunity to have a great experience (not crap) and make significant progress on your novel, all while enjoying being a part of a national creative endeavor. Will having Novelist's Boot Camp as a ready reference be helpful? We think so, but it's not absolutely necessary.

Next up--kicking your writing goals to the curb.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Writing as reward for writing

Like those with multiple personalities, I reserve the right to change my mind.

In both our Novelist's Boot Camp workshops and in the book Novelist's Boot Camp, we stress that email, blogging, Facebook updates, and so on can be serious diversions from doing the hard work of inventing, developing, drafting, revising and editing your novel. No matter how small your goals are -- and we also stress making those goals readily and easily achievable -- writing a book-length work of fiction is still hard work. 

It may be pleasant hard work, but it is nonetheless hard work. So previously we've stressed eliminating the distractions of blogging, Tweeting, and so on in the name of progress.

Now, I'm not saying I was mistaken; I am simply saying I have reconsidered my position in the light of new information.

If you have a book-length project, you're number one writing priority must be that project, otherwise you will have that book as a project forever. At the same time, the more you challenge yourself to write in different forms, the better your writing becomes. In the same way that I once taught poetry to creative writing students as a vehicle to write better scenes for their novels, blogging pushes you to write tighter, and a Tweet or Facebook update forces you to get to the point in a hard-limited number of characters.

Practicing what I'm preaching, you can find Tweets on the writing life, the motorcycling life, the corporate communications life, and life in general at\toddwrites, along with a Novelist's Boot Camp page on MySpace and Facebook. If you're interested in what the Novelist's Boot Camp author and presenter does for a day job, you can find a profile on LinkedIn. You're welcome to follow or "friend," as the case may be.

But the novel still comes first. I enjoy social media and have found that Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter are fun, they drive me to write more, and they help counteract the sense of isolation that comes from spending hours at a keyboard. Every now and then I have the privilege of helping someone make a connection, find a resource, or just exchanging pleasantries with friends. Some are writers, some bikers, some professional communicators, and some just friends. I like that and I think you will too. 

The social networks are addictive, of course. To help myself keep focus, I've taken to putting my work in my PC's startup folder so that I begin the day not by sorting through email but by making progress on my writing goals. I don't even open my browser until those goals are achieved--well, most days I don't (here's another rule--you get to be human)!

So write your novel--invent it, develop it, draft it, revise, edit, and proofread it--but also enjoy the wealth of opportunities present on the web and elsewhere to write.

Writing as a reward for writing--writers will understand.