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National Novel Writing Month

We believe in ambitious acts of the imagination.

  • July 31, 2014 8:40 am

    Battling Clichés & Tired, Old Tropes: Going Home Again

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    It’s an age-old writers’ question: What do I do about clichés and well-worn tropes? This month, we’ve asked authors about the clichés and tropes they find themselves falling back on, and how they fix, invert, or embrace them. Today, Kristyn Kusek Lewis, author of the forthcoming Save Me, examines the problem of using a tired trope:

    CLICHÉThe visit back to the main character’s childhood home

    You can’t go home again, or so the old saying goes. And when it comes to overused tropes, it may in fact be true. Sending your character down memory lane and straight up the front steps (or dirt road, or apartment steps) to his or her childhood home is a device that writers love and for good reason.

    Even the most well-adjusted of us know that a trip home is fraught with emotion and ripe for examination, which may explain why entire novels have been written on the premise of a homecoming. There are the tricky family ties, the threats of running into the people who knew you when, the memories—argh, the memories—that seem to lurk in every room of the house that you were raised in…

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  • July 30, 2014 8:30 am

    Camp Pep: Four Ways to Finish

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    Hey Campers,

    In April, around this same time of the month, I offered you a no-nonsense, no-metaphors pep talk. The idea was to stop messing around and get that writing done, no matter where you were in the process.

    What I didn’t include in that letter was exactly how to make it happen—the concrete steps you can take over the next two days to hit your word-count goal and rejoice like whoa.

    I baited some NaNoWriMo counselors with bug juice, and here are a few tips we came up with:

    1. Be a marathoner.

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  • July 29, 2014 8:40 am

    "Write an entire monologue with your main character if you have to. Spend a chapter just exploring the life story of an antagonist. They don’t have to be scenes in chronological order. They don’t even have to end up in your book. But they will help you to keep going.

    Because you must keep going. Just a little more. You are stubborn. You are exhausted. You are determined. You are a Writer."

    marielubooks, on making it through the dark swamp.

  • July 28, 2014 8:45 am

    Ask An Author: “When planning a trilogy, is it necessary to have everything laid out?”

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    Each week, a new author will serve as your Camp Counselor, answering your writing questions. Kat Zhang, our final counselor, is author of the Young Adult series, The Hybrid Chronicles, and is a frequent participant of NaNoWriMo.

    When planning a trilogy/series, is it necessary to have everything laid out? — Anonymous

    Very few things about the writing process can really be called “necessary”. Only “helpful” to varying degrees, based on your own process. That being said, having the basic plot of a trilogy/series laid out beforehand can be very helpful, and will probably save you a lot of heartache later when you realize while writing book three that you really need your hero to secretly talk with bees in order to defeat the Big Bad. Unfortunately, you never brought that up in books one and two and you either have to come up with a different ending (if books one and two are already published, and can’t be changed) or you have to go back and rip up a lot of stuff in order to make talking-to-bees a possibility.

    Of course, this sort of goes back to to the whole “plotter versus pantser” thing. Some people outline meticulously before ever writing. Other people are much more go-with-the-flow. Both can work. Just know that a trilogy can be an unwieldy thing if there’s too little planning involved at the start!

    If the question was meant more in the vein of “Will my agent and publisher expect a summary of books two and three when they sign me for the trilogy,” then the answer is “Yes, they will”, but generally, they won’t expect anything too detailed, and everyone will understand that things do change.

    Official word-count validation has begun! Make sure to claim your win (and some awesome winner goodies) by following these steps.

  • July 25, 2014 8:41 am

    Ask An Author: “How do you use foreshadowing?”

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    Each week, a new author will serve as your Camp Counselor, answering your writing questions. Kat Zhang, our final counselor, is author of the Young Adult series, The Hybrid Chronicles, and is a frequent participant of NaNoWriMo.

    How do you use foreshadowing? — Anonymous

    When I think of foreshadowing, I think of it as a way of dropping hints for the reader. For example, if the showdown between your Hero and the Big Bad happens in an old warehouse, and just as the Big Bad is about to kill the hero, he falls through the floor, that’s rather sudden. You could try to “soften” that unexpected shock by having characters chat casually (a few chapters before the showdown) about how that warehouse was recently condemned for having rot in the floors, or a termite problem. That way, when the Big Bad falls through the floor, fewer people will say, “Really? That’s convenient.” 

    You can also use foreshadowing to cause tension. If the main character’s little brother accidentally hurts himself badly with a hunting knife, that itself causes a lot of conflict and stress. And you can start raising that tension scenes before the injury actually takes place by having the main character and his mom argue about how the main character is always leaving his hunting knife lying around, and how that isn’t safe. The reader is practically waiting for something bad to happen, which can make the actual accident all the more unfortunate.

    Official word-count validation has begun! Make sure to claim your win (and some awesome winner goodies) by following these steps.

  • July 24, 2014 8:47 am

    Battling Clichés & Tired, Old Tropes: Foreigners as Food

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    It’s an age-old writers’ question: What do I do about clichés and well-worn tropes? This month, we’ve asked authors about the clichés and tropes they find themselves falling back on, and how they fix, invert, or embrace them. Today, Mitali Perkins, author and editor of , discusses the problem of using food as a descriptor:

    CLICHÉ: Using food to describe a character’s skin color or race

    Have you noticed how writers sometimes describe the physical appearances of non-white characters? A default strategy is to use food-related metaphors and similes. Does your Chinese character have almond-shaped eyes? Does your Nigerian love interest have skin like dark chocolate or espresso? If so, you may have fallen into the dreaded “Foreigner as Food” trope. (If all your characters are white, you’ve probably managed to avoid this particular trap, but consider asking if your setting and plot truly demands that sort of cast—but wait, that’s not my beef here. Even though my skin is the color of a well-done burger.) 

    I have no idea why we default to food when we describe the skin, eyes, and hair of people who aren’t white. And believe me, white writers are not the only ones who do this without thinking. It affects all of us who grew up reading fiction mostly featuring white characters. Maybe we have good subconscious intentions. The edible stuff we use to describe nonwhite appearances typically is familiar and tasty—maybe we’re trying to help our readers feel closer to marginalized characters. Now they are neither strange nor foreign! They are yummy!

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  • July 23, 2014 8:32 am

    Ask an Author: “How do you keep the middle of a novel from sagging?”

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    Each week, a new author will serve as your Camp Counselor, answering your writing questions. Kat Zhang, our final counselor, is author of the Young Adult series, the Hybrid Chronicles, and is a frequent participant of NaNoWriMo. 

    How do you keep the middle of the novel from sagging or slowing down? — Anonymous

    Generally, part of a novel seems “slow” when the characters aren’t actively trying to reach their goal. The middle of a book tends to suffer from this problem the most. That’s because the beginning of a book naturally involves the characters setting off on their journey toward their goal, and the end of a book typically involves them facing the Big Bad or whatever—the final resolution of their goal. 

    Sometimes, characters stop “doing stuff” in the middle, and that’s why the pacing flags. I put “doing stuff” in quotes because the characters can’t just be doing anything. If they’re not doing things that actively move them toward their goal, and aren’t involved in some kind of conflict, then we can still have pacing problems. Think about it this way: if your book is about the main character trying to win a horse race, then the beginning is her deciding to enter the race, and the end is her actually racing. But the middle? That’s her training. And too much training can slow the pacing down, especially if it’s pretty repetitive stuff. 

    This is where a subplot can come in handy. In our previous example, the main plot objective (wanting to win the horse race) is in a bit of a lull conflict-wise because your character may need months of training, and it’s no longer exciting. So, what can act as a storyline that contributes to the larger plot, but adds conflict and excitement to the middle?

    A very common subplot to use here is a romantic one. Maybe she falls in love with a guy who uses the same stables, but feels torn because she ought to be spending her time training, not hanging out with him. Now there’s immediate conflict and tension again, and that keeps the pacing up.

    Not interested in a romance? Maybe she finds out someone is trying to sabotage her training, and needs to figure out who it is before she or her horse gets seriously injured. Now there’s a mystery subplot. You could have both the romantic and the mystery subplot! But be careful, because too many subplots can get unwieldy, and clutter up your story. It’s all a balancing act.

    Remember, you can officially “win” Camp NaNoWriMo’s July session starting July 25. Find out more here.

  • July 22, 2014 9:16 am

    "Being published is not a necessary validation or a path everyone wants to take with their work. Writing—and finishing—a novel is a great thing in itself, whether or not the book is published, or becomes widely-read or not."

    — Garth Nix, on the best ways to create.

  • July 21, 2014 8:50 am

    Ask An Author: “How do you write a character’s inner dialogue?”

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    Each week, a new author will serve as your Camp Counselor, answering your writing questions. Heather Mackey, our third counselor, is author of the middle-grade fantasy Dreamwood:

    How can you write a character’s inner dialogue? How do you format it? — kiwithewitch

    Drat, she thought tearfully, these NaNoWriMo questions are going to expose me as a fraud!

    My book didn’t have a ton of interior dialogue, but I noticed when it came back from copyedit all such passages were in italic. When you’re directly transcribing the thoughts of a character, put those thoughts in italic. (Use quotes only for dialogue that’s spoken aloud.)

    But formatting is the easy part. How should you best use it? I think the answer is: sparingly. Interior dialogue—at least of the direct sort in my example—can become a crutch. And italics are annoying. Really, if my character is worried about people thinking she’s a fraud, you, the reader, should be able to detect that simply from her body language, her actions, or something she says to someone else. Dramatize it, don’t think it.

    Now, in first person point of view or in close third, you’re often in a character’s thoughts. So you may find yourself writing stuff like this:

    She looked out the window. Would anyone take her advice?

    This needs neither italics nor quotes. You’re so close to the character, you’re naturally reporting what’s going on in their head, and it’s a lot easier to read. In fact, with some writers, you’re reading mainly interior thought with very little action.

    Still, I think as a general rule of thumb you want externalize inner thought and emotion as much as possible, particularly if you’re writing in an action-oriented genre.

    Ask yourself:

    • Can I show this another way?
    • Is it necessary?
    • How does the passage read without it?

    In the end, how much you use interior dialogue has to be a matter of personal style, genre, and what your aims are for your book. Look at the authors you admire in the genre you’re working in and study how they use this tool. 

    Next week, we have our final Camp Counselor, Kat Zhang, author of the Hybrid Chronicles, a young adult series. Ask her your questions here!

  • July 18, 2014 8:50 am

    Ask An Author: “How do you juggle writing and editing with day-to-day activities?”

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    Each week, a new author will serve as your Camp Counselor, answering your writing questions. Heather Mackey, our third counselor, is author of the middle-grade fantasy Dreamwood:

    Outside of Camp, how do you write and edit along with the rest of your day-to-day life activities? It’s a balancing act for everyone, but what works for you specifically? — awriterinspired

    I’ve been struggling with how to be productive for a long time, and I feel miserable when I don’t get much done. So misery avoidance has led me to figure out what times of days and magic spells are necessary for each activity. It’s all about knowing your circadian rhythms and gaming your biology. I know I work creatively best in the morning before I eat lunch. I know dark chocolate will help me focus after 9 pm.

    I have a day job and two kids. You might think this would mean I can’t get any noveling done, but it’s just forced me to be disciplined. I try to be really clear about what I’m trying to do with my time. I think ahead to my next block of time and set my intention: Tonight I’m going to work on this scene or revise this chapter. I find it’s hardest when I sit down and feel like there’s a bunch of different stuff I could do but I haven’t made a clear decision. That’s when I look up and realize I just spent the last hour reading through a hundred online comments about LeBron James’s decision to go back to Cleveland.

    To get stuff done you want to figure out three things:

    When you’re best at each activity: Drafting brand new scenes, editing, and social networking all take different parts of your brain and are all sensitive to time of day, food you eat, music you listen to, exposure to media, your emotional state, etc.

    How much time you need: If I’ve got half an hour or less, I’ll try to spend that on business, networking, and social media. If I’ve got an hour or more I’ll try to write or edit (depending on what’s highest priority). Thinking in time blocks also helps you know when to step away and go do other parts of your life.

    How to convince yourself you can get it done in the time you have: This is the hardest one. I have plenty of weekend days that go like this: Wake up at 6:30, realize son needs to leave for a soccer game at 8. But I wanted to get some writing done. Despair. It doesn’t have to be that way! If you look at the above schedule you see that really I have about 45 minutes to an hour of morning writing time. If I just go into it with the right attitude, I can get something done. Prove to yourself that you can do it, and this will get easier.

    Good luck!

    Next week, we have our final Camp Counselor, Kat Zhang, author of the Hybrid Chronicles, a young adult series. Ask her your questions here!

  • July 17, 2014 8:50 am

    Battling Clichés & Tired, Old Tropes: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

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    It’s an age-old writers’ question: What do I do about clichés and well-worn tropes? This month, we’ve asked authors about the clichés and tropes they find themselves falling back on, and how they fix, invert, or embrace them. Today, Teri Brown, author of the YA series Born of Illusion, discusses how a cliché can work by executing it correctly:

    CLICHÉCharacters describing themselves through a mirror

    How many have you heard the term, ants in his pants? Or fit as a fiddle? Or maybe you’ve watched a movie, (or a dozen), where the estranged father is a con artist or where the killer is apparently dead, but then rises one last time?

    The upside with clichés and tropes is that they are instantly recognizable by the reader. The downside is that they are instantly recognizable to the reader. Clichés and tropes tend to make your writing as flat as a pancake. Ahem.

    Many authors are guilty of these tropes, especially in the first drafts. My editor sent back a manuscript with the words, “Lots of arching of eyebrows here, can we use something else? Please?” But one of the most common tropes for new (and some experienced!), authors is the old looking-into-the-mirror-to-describe-oneself trope. I think the problem with this trope isn’t so much in the use, but in the execution. Most people don’t stare into the mirror and describe themselves in detail, so to have characters do this jars the reader from the story, which is something you don’t want. An example of this would be:

    She looked in the mirror as she brushed her chestnut colored hair, wishing for the umpteenth time that it wasn’t so curly. However, the color did enhance her porcelain complexion and the cerulean blue of her almond shaped eyes. 

    No one wants to read that.

    I actually used this trope twice in Born of Illusion and it was left as is.  Judge for yourself whether you think they were used successfully or not.

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  • July 16, 2014 8:45 am

    Ask An Author: “Should I write scenes sequentially, or in any order?”

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    Each week, a new author will serve as your Camp Counselor, answering your writing questions. Heather Mackey, our third counselor, is author of the middle-grade fantasy Dreamwood (and married to NaNoWriMo executive director, Grant Faulkner!).

    Is it better/easier to write your story sequentially or in pieces as ideas come to you regardless of the chronology of the events? — raven chasing

    This is such a trick question, campers! I think it really depends on you and your story. Like the eternal pantsing versus plotting debate, there are pros and cons for each side.

    Personally, I think it’s easier to write sequentially. I don’t like to start writing writing until I have a sense of where my beginning is. If I have my beginning I can usually see the other story milestones out there like distant mountain peaks. You want your beginning to give a sense of who your character is and then throw them off balance. Your beginning tells you your end. And it gives you a sense of what needs to happen in the middle to hinder and help your character along the way.

    If you have a strong beginning, I think it’s ideal to write from one milestone to the next. It’s the same way your reader is going to progress through your story. Plus, I find it easier to set goals and award myself gold stars if I’m writing in sequence.

    But sometimes you just don’t have enough information to write sequentially. Or sometimes it just feels super boring. You know there’s a really cool scene near the end, but you’re stuck in all this middle. Go ahead and write the milestone scenes, the scenes you know you need, then go in and backfill. You may discover you didn’t need those boring scenes after all.

    Even though I just said I prefer to write sequentially, I’m actually working on a project that (sigh) is proceeding less linearly. I’m writing down scenes as they come, and I’m all over the place.

    Aside from the strong possibility I might be wandering in the fiction wilderness for years, the downside of writing out of sequence is that somehow I’ve got to keep track of all these pieces and eventually wrestle them into shape. Some people list their scenes down on index cards and shuffle them around until they find the right order. I’ve been using a tool like Scrivener to manage all my scraps. My hope is that I’ll get enough down this way that I’ll be able to take my super rough draft and smooth it out—in sequence, of course.

    Next week, we have our final Camp Counselor, Kat Zhang, author of the Hybrid Chronicles, a young adult series. Ask her your questions here!