Are You Writing a Novel in November? Really?!

There are so many ways to write a novel, or jump-start yourself from a state of inertia on your novel. The one of choice this month is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, where some 300,000 writers have signed up to keep their word count honest, to keep their butts in the chair, to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month.

I have signed up before. I have tried NaNoWriMo. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really make me write a first draft. For one thing, I’m not compulsive enough to report my word count each day. (I am too busy actually writing for that!) Also, 50k words isn’t really a novel in my book, so a whole lot of editing, adding, subtracting, plumping, and excising would be required down the line. At the end of a frenzied flurry of work (if you wrote every single day of 30 (including Thanksgiving and Black Friday and the day you get that dreaded cold) you “only” need to get down 1667 words each day, about six or seven pages double-spaced, you are left with what? Months of organization. And frustration.

FullSizeRender-3Of course if you planned your November Attack ahead of time it wouldn’t end up such a pile of dreck. Maybe that’s how you’re doing it; if so, kudos to you for forethought. I confess to being a former pantser, that is, someone who writes from the seat of their pants, who doesn’t know where their novel’s plot is going, someone who wrote her first mystery not knowing who the killer was. [Note: this didn’t go well. Cue another 12 months of rewriting the book from scratch.]

I wonder how many of the NaNoWriMo crowd have outlined their novel ahead of time. This would make sense, if they did. Then you could actually write 50,000 words (if not a novel) in four weeks, by following your step by step breakdown.
Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.13.53 AMI have written out elaborate outlines, pages and pages of where I thought the story might go, sort of a short story or what they call in film, a treatment. “Might go” being the operative term, as these outlines rarely held up past the midpoint. Back in those days I knew where the novel started, the inciting incident, and how it would end, more or less. Definitely who the villain was after that first mess of a first draft. I almost always had to knock off a character at midpoint to get past that dreaded quagmire.

Now I use Scrivener, an outlining program with visual bulletin boards with note cards (you can do it yourself with real objects) and a template overlay that tells me basically where my plot points should be, where the midpoint is, keeps all my setting and character info and research in one place, and keeps me looking at the big picture of where my story is going. (I blogged about Scrivener and my love for it here.)

It’s easy, especially as a beginning writer, to get tunnel vision about your story. You fall in love with a character, with a scene, even though you have no idea what it means in the grand scheme of your story. Outlining really helps with this. You may think it takes the magic out of writing, and you may be right. It is less right-brained than the whole “the story came to me in a dream” thing (which does sometimes happen but usually goes nowhere.) But here’s the thing. You need both sides of your brain to write a good novel, the magicky-woo-woo side where deep emotional drama lives and breathes, and the cool, organized side that evaluates what level of crap you’re throwing down.

You can write a novel with only one side of your brain. But don’t expect fireworks. Just a whole bunch of rewriting.

I’m including these words of wisdom from Michael Crichton because I just read his last, posthumously published book, Pirate Latitudes. I’ve been on a pirate kick lately for some reason, and in general I find Crichton’s books fun, inventive, and well-written. But this book was found in his files after his death. It reads well, there is nothing glaringly wrong with it. But, as Entertainment Weekly said back in 2009, “If nothing else,  Pirate Latitudes is a reminder of the importance of picking an ironclad password for your computer.”

It reads like a young adult adventure novel, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m sure many 14-year-old adventurers-to-be will enjoy and have loved it. Crichton fans were thrilled when a last novel was found, no doubt, despite a sea of pirate sailing jingo like ”Mizzen top blown!”

But there is a reason Crichton never released it. And it probably starts with “re” and ends with “write.”

Where Do You Turn for Inspiration?

It’s an interesting question, especially on a day when a blog post is due and the author is feeling brain dead.

A mushroom that looks just like my brain feels
A mushroom that looks just like my brain feels

Photographs? The great outdoors? Sure, there’s plenty to inspire here. But sometimes, I turn to a different place: Facebook

Facebook? Seriously?

Okay. I know. I admit. I complain about Facebook as an evil time suck. A place where writers, who are at the keyboard anyway, can go waste time, read cartoons, get redirected to The Onion. Get marketed to. Amused. And asked for sympathy as beloved pets cross the rainbow bridge.

But in its own whacky, time-wasting way, it can be a fun, kind, amusing, supportive community to belong to, assuming you have the right kind of friends.

I guess that I do, because once I asked for advice about a piece of evidence to drop at a crime scene, and got a zillion replies, including one from the Attorney General. Oh yes. Facebook can be a crime writer’s dream. FB is where one goes to view the pages of local folks who’ve been arrested. To see the comments behind the meager stories that the police spokesmen are willing to share. To get the inside gossip, the neighbors and relatives views. So yes. I spend/waste some time there.

But inspiration? Well, one of the things FB is best at is asking questions and getting a wide variety of random answers. Recently, I asked about “adult coloring books.” The number of replies I got was staggering. Yes. It’s true, a couple of the guys asked what I meant by adult. I left that to their obviously already fertile and active imaginations. Lots of other people said it was a great tool for relaxing and meditation. There was enough material in those responses for a good short story. Possibly for a cozy mystery series.

Writers can’t be snobs—we know that inspiration can come from anywhere. Stuck? Go ahead and ask that question on Facebook. For example, today I am feeling practically brain dead. It’s a beautiful fall day outside, but I’m in here, overwhelmed by a to do list and I have this blog post to write. So I turn to my FB friends. What shall I write about,?

From the back of my closet
From the back of my closet

And being friends—they answer. Write about food porn. Write about Halloween. One friend says, “Well, you already cleaned your desk. Now write about what’s in the back of your clothes closet?” Is anyone truly interested in stretchy leopard high heeled boots and a black leather pencil skirt? Maybe those guys who like “adult” comic books?

Another writer suggests writing about daylight savings time. A hot topic. Let’s plunge ourselves into darkness even earlier. Or I could research the origins, and why we still do it, and how people feel. Is there a story here? Perhaps. Someone is early to an event because she forgot to “fall back,” and sees something she’s not supposed to see?

One friend gave me a whole list of blog topics: Persistence, dealing with rejection, how to …., why I write. All hard topics on a day when I’m brain dead, but they can be filed away for the future. Another writer, also on the topic of the writer’s life, suggests that I blog about influences. I’m filing that one away for another day, but the ideas are already bubbling up.

Also on the topic of Halloween…there is the suggestion to blog about leftover Halloween thoughts (damage, the potential to commit a crime on

This is NOT a cat picture. Exactly.
This is NOT a cat picture. Exactly.

a night filled with spooky characters and mischief) and of course the upcoming pumpkin shortage. Is there a crime story there, perhaps? Two determined matrons battling over the last can of pumpkin and the mayhem that ensues?

Then, two subjects that blend together perfectly: “Use cat pictures” and “What’s on your unbucket list—the things you hope you’ll never have to do.”

Well. For this I have an answer: Using cat pictures because I’m feeling brain dead is definitely on my unbucket

list. Now I can move on to making the rest of that list.

So, friends out there in the digital universe, where do you find inspiration when you’re feeling brain dead? Curious writers want to know.