Lessons from #NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo 2019 winner's badgeSo I managed to write 50,000 words in November. See that shiny NaNoWriMo winner’s badge? Yeah, I earned that. Yeah. I did. Me. Winner. [thumps chest]

I won NaNo once previously, in 2014 when I was drafting a novel called Vanishing, Inc. that still isn’t quite done yet because I’ve been revising it since 2015. sigh Anyway, I was proud of myself then, but this NaNo feels even more satisfying, because it was so much harder. Some days it felt like I was doing nothing more than spewing verbal vomit all over my screen, solely because I wanted to get those damn 50,000 words (Which I did. Me. Winner. Thumps chest.) Sure, some days my muse showed up, and the words flowed like a mountain stream after a thunderstorm. Most days, though, my muse was holed up in her crappy, roach-infested apartment, swigging tequila and passing out on the bathroom floor instead of showing up for work like a responsible adult. My muse has issues. And therefore so did I, all through November.

I can’t say I enjoyed NaNo this year, because, truth be told, I didn’t. Most mornings I faced my screen and keyboard with a sense of mild despair. I’d looked forward to writing this novel for years, and it Just. Wouldn’t. Come. But each day I dutifully assumed the position and start typing. Sometimes I felt better after writing, but a lot of times I left my office more discouraged than I was when I started, because I was convinced that my muse had deserted me–the drunken floozy—and left me with only the Demon of Suckitude for company. I couldn’t think of character names. I couldn’t think of strong verbs. My vocabulary had been reduced to that of a baboon on ‘ludes.

But a funny thing happened as I went along. I still fought for every word some days, but other days I’d read a bit of what I’d already written and think, “Ya know, that’s not too bad for a baboon on ‘ludes.” And I’d write with a little less angst and a little more hope that I wasn’t a huge failure permanently possessed by the Demon of Suckitude.

So I learned some valuable lessons last month, the most significant of which were:

  • Just keep writing. Let the words suck. You can always revise later. I’d heard this advice, even given this advice, but I’d never needed it more than I did last month. And I took that advice. And it worked.
  • Show up every day, even you really don’t feel like it, even when your muse (the drunken floozy) can’t be bothered. Put your butt in the chair and keep it there till you’ve met your goal for the day. Sometimes the words will come, and sometimes they won’t, but you likely won’t know which will be the case beforehand. On several days, I woke up literally dreading the morning’s writing, but once I got going, the words flowed, and I had fun. Your mood is not an accurate gauge of whether you’ll have a productive writing session, so just sit down and write.
  • Don’t assume your work sucks just because you think it does. Your mood may be coloring your view of your work. Just write, even when you feel like you’re wasting time and electrons. You may be pleasantly surprised later.

I know these lessons are common advice in the writing community, but this year, for the first time, I learned the value of actually following that advice. It worked. I wrote 50,000 words, at least some of which didn’t suck.

Me. Winner. (thumps chest)


#NaNoInspo: Write Badly

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeMy November post for the Insecure Writers Support Group Blog Hop is all about writing badly.


Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. — Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird.

A quick Google search on “Anne Lamott shitty first draft,” reveals that lots of bloggers have written about this quote and the importance of writing badly. Now I could do the responsible thing, and find another topic, or I could just carry on anyway, because I really want to write about writing badly.

Guess what I’m going to do?

One of the most valuable writing lessons I’ve learned in the 5+ years of my fiction writing “career” is the value of the shitty first draft. Or, more politely: the value of writing badly.

Pointless digression #1: Can it really be called a career if I’ve never been paid for it? I don’t want to contemplate that too closely, so I’m going to move on to…

Turning off your inner editor (or how to tell that a**hole to shut the f*** up)

I’m writing this post on November 1, also known as the first day of #NaNoWriMo. For the first time since 2014, I’m doing NaNo as it’s “supposed” to be done, i.e. I’m trying to write 50,000 words of a brand spanking new novel. I’ve spent the last 4 years or so editing my first NaNo novel, i.e. being a perfectionist. Fix this plot hole, delete that redundancy, spend 20 minutes trying to find a stronger verb for a sentence I’ll edit out 10 minutes later… you get the idea. My overly-aggressive inner editor has been having his nitpicky way with me for quite awhile. And now that I’m trying to write something new, I’m having trouble getting him to shut up.

Pointless digression #2: I picture my inner editor as Stripe from Gremlins (if you’re under 40, Google it or visit the Wikipedia entry. I’m not going to post a picture and risk being sued out of existence by the MPAA just to save you clacking a few keys, ya lazy bum.) Editor-Stripe looms over my desk, gnashing his many, pointy teeth at every digression, weak verb, or passage of rambling dialogue I create.

When I first sat down this morning to start writing the novel I’ve been outlining for 3 weeks, I struggled. It took me about a half hour to write maybe 200 words. Why? Because I kept trying to make them good. I’d frown at my monitor, type a few words, frown some more, take a swig of Diet Coke in the vain hope that caffeine+aspartame=inspiration, and type a few more words. It took me the better part of an hour to figure out my problem and give myself permission to write crap. I went to a write-in this afternoon and cranked out > 3,000 words in a little over 2 hours.

Why you should write badly

Admittedly, most of those 3,000 words are crap. But that’s OK, and here’s why:

  1. I can make them better later. I can take Stripe’s shackles off and let him loose on my steaming pile o’ prose (this is what normal writers call, “revising”), and it’ll get better. Gradually. Iteratively. And with much gnashing of teeth (Stripe’s and mine).
  2. I have to write the crap to get to the good stuff. Writing crap is my way of feeling my way through my story, getting deep into my characters, and exploring various blind alleys and winding paths to see which ones lead to creative gold. I have an outline, yes, but until I actually write a first draft, my characters are abstract ideas. They take their first breaths as living, flesh-and-bone people when I spew out a bunch of verbal diarrhea in a blank Scrivener window. Poor things. Isn’t that a helluva way to enter the world?
  3. And the very best reason: Sometimes—only sometimes—there’s gold in that thar crap. The words I think are terrible, just page filler to pump up my NaNo word count, turn out to be actually good. My writing teacher says that’s because when we give ourselves permission to write without editing, we tap into our subconscious in ways we can’t when we’re trying not to suck.

So my words of inspiration for you this National Novel Writing Month, are these: Give yourself permission to write crap. To write badly. To write so badly that you inadvertently summon the Demon of Suckitude, who will spend the entire month perched on your shoulder, whispering adverbs in your ear.

Pointless digression #3: And now I’m picturing the Demon of Suckitude in a cage match with Editor-Stripe. Send help.

How to write badly

Anyway, if you doubt me, try it for yourself. Try making yourself just write. No editing. No making frowny-faces at your monitor while you try to cudgel some brilliance out of your under-caffeinated brain. Just write. Let the words flow, and put in placeholders for stuff you aren’t ready to write yet, such as:

    • Stuff you need to research. Example: [research history of 18th century couches and enter description here]
    • Plot holes you could drive a C130 through. Example: [explain what the heck Stripe is doing in my living room]
    • Pieces of scenes you need to figure out. Example: [explain exactly how Stripe goes about shredding the 18th century couch]
    • Descriptions you haven’t figured out yet or aren’t in the mood to write. Example: [describe the Demon of Suckitude’s hairstyle and genitalia]

You can use your writing software’s comment feature for this, but I like to put my placeholders in the text in square brackets, so I don’t have to take my hands off the keyboard to grab the mouse and navigate to the menu that contains the comment feature. I can also find them easily later, because I don’t normally have square brackets in my writing for any other reason. And, bonus! If the comments are in the text, they’ll be included in my NaNo word count when I validate at the end of the month.

You’re welcome.

Wanna see some other great IWSG posts? Check out the list of participants
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#nanoprep: Creating characters

I’m up to my eyeballs in #nanoprep, otherwise known as preparing for NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is a worldwide phenomenon in which hundreds of thousands of people commit to writing 50,000 words in November. Much caffeine is consumed, much angst ensues, and many fingers ache from pounding on many keyboards. I’ve done NaNo a few times and “won” (wrote 50K words) the first time, in 2014. This is the first time since then that I’ve started a brand-new novel for NaNo.

I have an outline done, and now I’m working on character sketches. One of the lessons I learned from writing my first novel is that I could avoid some rewriting and a lot of inconsistencies if I went deeper into my characters before I started writing. In this post, I’ll share with you a few of the most helpful tools I’ve found for creating detailed character sketches and, more importantly, figuring out what makes your character tick and how your character will behave in a variety of situations.

Book recommendation for creating characters

I started with a book I found in my library: The Writer’s Digest Sourcebook for Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon (Writers Digest, 1996). This book is mostly a character thesaurus containing lists of traits people can have, divided into the following sections: Face and Body; Personality/Identity; Facial Expressions, Body and Vocal Language; Dress; Dialects and Foreign Speech; Given Names and Surnames from Around the World; and Character Homes. It also includes a detailed and super-useful Character Questionnaire, which I have adapted for creating my character sketches. I’m not going to reproduce it here (copyright is a thing to be respected), but it includes details about the character’s personality, style of dress, occupational history, physical characteristics, family background, ethnicity, goals and needs, quirks, health, hobbies, and a whole lot more.

I just finished using it, with a few adaptations, to flesh out my main character. Thinking through all those aspects of my character gave me much deeper insights into who she is and even gave me some ideas for additional scenes.

Blog posts on character traits

I also found some excellent blog posts to help me fill out my character sketch. I have a hard time creating good action beats for my characters, ones that actually characterize rather than just make the character fidget awkwardly during emotional moments (hmm,that’s what I do during emotional moments. Like author, like character, I guess).

Another tip for creating characters–Google it!

As I filled out my character sketch, I had to answer questions like, What does my character wear? And What’s her hairstyle? I have a bad habit of failing to dress my characters or giving them hairstyles (perhaps I should write stories in which everyone is naked and bald), but I want to do better this time. The trouble is, I know bupkis about fashion or hair (I mean, I wear clothes and have hair, but if you know me IRL, you’ll understand). So I figured out enough about my character’s psychology to know that she needs a simple, businesslike hairstyle and wears dressy casual clothes when she isn’t at work. So I Googled “short professional hairstyles for women” (or something like that) and “dressy casual clothes for women” (or something like that) and found some articles and pictures to help me out. Now my MC will look like Vanessa Hudgins and need to take a second job to afford her wardrobe.

I hope that the extra effort I’m putting into creating characters will help me avoid many instances of furrowed brows, tapping fingers, raised eyebrows, and other boring, overused action beats. We’ll see in a few days (*gasp*), when I stop planning and start writing.

Are you participating in NaNo this year? If so, and you’d like a NaNo buddy, feel free to add me (NaNo ID: janetcrum – yeah, I know, how original). Have any favorite tips and tricks for creating characters? Or favorite character mannerisms? Share ‘em in the comments!