NaNoWriMo Week 1: Next month you write your novel

Sunday is November 1st, and that means across the world thousands of people will rush from the starting line, typing at the speed of story to get their 50,000 word novel done during NaNoWriMo. If you've ever wanted to write a novel, you should join them. It's a crazy, exhilarating kind of fun. In fact, we made a little tool to help you. Subscribe to the Twitter account @nanocount, and every day we'll give you a target word count guaranteed to get you over the finish line.

I've participated in NaNoWriMo seven times, and finished five of those. The first time was in 2003, and that experience showed me that I was capable of being a writer. It was a knowledge only earned from the doing, like a vital warmth that flushes the skin, then penetrates down to your core as you work through the month. It taught me, in the way that only writing can, how to be a novelist.

It also changed my experience of reading. I'm convinced that every engaged reader who has even the slightest desire should write a novel. Even if she has no serious intent to become a writer; even if the book never leaves the (probably virtual) drawer. Undertaking the process will give her such a rich understanding of what it takes to craft a work, that novels will seem, if anything, more miraculous than they do to her now.

Writing 50,000 is done in smaller chunks every day. A reasonably fast typist can turn out 1,700 words or so (what I recommend) in a few hours, working straight. If you are capable of doing that, you can set a good pace and finish the month in good form.

Work at the same time of day (some do better in the morning, some do better at night), if you can, and turn off the internet when you do. If you need to research something during your writing, use an old writer's trick and type TK in the text. Those two letters don't appear together in our language naturally, so they're easy to search and find later. Write something like "Of course, James, every schoolchild knows the Magna Carta was written in TK", and then come back to it later. Only after you've gotten your word count in, and a bit extra for luck.

Trust your subconscious and name your characters with the first thing that pops into your head. You can always change it later, so don't get hung up on picking names instead of actually writing words.

When you're done writing for the day, turn your internet back on and login to NaNoWriMo to enter your word count. Claim your credit for a job well done — that feeling of watching that number grow is a kind of pride that is hard to explain until you experience it.

What if you feel like you don't know anything about writing and are intimidated to start? I know that feeling. I'm going to cover a bit of writing theory 101, and then I'm going to give you some practical tips.

I used to attend a lot of writing classes. I was frustrated by them. Imagine a woodworking class where the instructor rolls in a pristine Colonial era highboy and says: "What you see in front of you is the most beautiful, simple, and expressive piece of woodworking and craftsmanship ever created. I would like you to start trying to build something this exciting. Here's some wood, and some tools. See how you do and we'll critique your work next week." And then off you go learning how to join wood before you've ever been taught how to wield a saw.

So it is that we go to classes to read masterful pieces of writing by the world's most prominent and experienced writers, without the context of how they learned, or what their terrible first drafts are like. We can't see how hard they worked, we only see the perfect sentences, and to some, that intimidation of quality, is the death of creative output (see that now-famous Ira Glass quote to understand this better).

But stories, like woodworking, have a 101. Master crafters, like master woodworkers, know how to cheat, break, and bend guidelines, but they all started by learning about grain. I found teachers, eventually, who taught these basics to me, although many writers figure them out on their own through doing.

Here are some base fundamentals that you can follow to create a readable novel.

  1. Stories are about someone (a protagonist) who wants something and is unable to get it. You may not know what that ultimate thing is at first, but you should know what the protagonist wants right now in the story.
  2. Stories are made up of scenes. If story is a loaf of bread, scenes are the slices. In the scene, the protagonist tries to get what they want by walking a path straight towards it, and somebody else (the antagonist) opposes them and knocks them onto another path. The gap between those two paths is where the narrative tension lays: the protagonist wants to be on that other path. Now they have to both get back to the first path, and then go after what they want.
  3. Scenes should change something. They should start good and go to bad, or start bad and go to good. Don't let your characters live in a scene where nothing has happened. The writing will be flat and nobody will want to know what happens next.
  4. Imagine scenes happening in real time, not flashback (there's only one way to do flashbacks properly), and in the world of the story, imagine a scene only capturing five minutes or so of elapsed story time.
  5. Your characters should be active. They should be doing things, they should be going places. Describe their setting, and then give them action.
  6. Let one scene tell you what will happen in the next. You do not need to know where your book will go when you start to write it. Just trust that you will figure it out when you need to, and worry only if the thing you are working on right now makes sense in relation to the thing that came before it. Work the link and attach it to the previous one, and soon you have a chain.
  7. As your protagonist changes, the thing they want may change too. Dorothea, in Middlemarch, only wanted Edward Casaubon until she got him. Then she changed, and didn't want him anymore because of what she learned about herself. Let your character's desire, and your antagonist's action, drive the story.
  8. As you put scene after scene, things will build, and the path forward will feel more inevitable.
  9. You will know when you reach the end. In the case of NaNoWriMo, it will be 50,000 words after you started. You will see a moment where the walls start converging, and it just makes sense. You'll start running towards that closure, and it will be like the end of a long race, with exhilaration, and exhaustion, and excitement.
  10. You can do this. Many people have written novels. Worse writers than you have written novels. You can do this, and if you want to at all, you should.
I'm sure if you want, you can name a million exceptions to the rules above, but we are learning to pound nails and hold the saw right now. Start here, and you'll have a foundation to break apart when you have more experience.

Here's the secret of the flashback. I learned it from Maria Semple during a Hugo House class, and she learned it from a writer in LA. When you are doing a flashback, the character must first be in the moment of the scene, and then be reminded of something in the past. Maybe she smells something that evokes a memory. Go into the past, into that memory, and treat it like a scene. Stay there as long as you need, but when you return — and here's the key — no time has passed for your character. She's just come out of her daze, smelling that perfume, and that moment of memory is now gone and we are back in the moment. That memory can now inform her present, which is where the reader prefers to be.

What if you don't know where to start? Start by telling a short story that happened to you. John Irving once said that every novel of his starts as his autobiography, but then he starts lying.

What is that story about your past, about a first date, or about your (possibly literally) crazy Aunt, or the person who did you a kindness when you were in your most need? What about that angry man in public, or that broken person in need of help that you saw get that help? Or the broken person in need of help that didn't get it?

Or, what about that time you had to carry this ring to a mountain, or break an intergalactic trade hegemony, or were reporting on a Seattle City Library board meeting when the lizard people from the center of the earth came to steal our books for their nutritious glue?

Start telling that story. Start in the moment. Describe where your character is. Describe what they do more than what they think. Type like mad. You've got 1,700 words to get through on Sunday, and we're so excited to see what you dream up.