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National Novel Writing Month

We believe in ambitious acts of the imagination.

  • 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.

    Read More

  • 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!

  • July 15, 2014 8:45 am

    "My job today is to remind you that novel writing is not essay writing, it is not memo writing, and it is not about staying on point. It is just fine—even good—if at this point you have no idea what the point of your book is.

    The Page is All We Get. What shows up on the page? Well, that is your writing. The full-blown perfectly-whole concept you may have in your head? Is just thought. Obligatory prose does not serve the fiction writer. Being a good student is not the goal here."

    — Aimee Bender, on the perils of dutiful writing.

  • July 14, 2014 9:00 am

    Ask An Author: How do you start editing your story?

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    Each week, a new author will serve as your Camp Counselor, answering your writing questions. Liz Coley, our second counselor, has been a member of the NaNoWriMo community since 2006. In 2013, her NaNo-novel, Pretty Girl-13, was published by HarperCollins.

    How do you start editing your story? Is there an actual process or is it much simpler than it seems? — sn03flake12 

    As a veteran November Wrimo, I went to Camp NaNo last July and came home with 266 Yesterdays, a manuscript that has been on submission with editors for some months now. Here’s how I went from raw to ready:

    I’m a slightly naughty Wrimo; I start the revision process as I am laying down my 1,667 words per day. Usually I get my first 300-400 words of the daily quota by going back over yesterday’s sparse prose and adding action to dialogue, description to setting, and verve to verbs. I take out all the boring “he turned”/”she looked up” filler tags and write real stuff. I expand on what’s on the page, letting the subconscious mind of the pantser-I-am ponder where I’m heading next. That means that at the end of the month, I emerge with a foundation draft employing pretty decent use of words. The next question is—how’s ‘The Story’?

    I used to rely entirely on my writers’ group (long-distance writing friends) and my trusted first readers for feedback. You might think that polishing prose first and then analyzing story is bassackwards, and I admit, it might be, but it’s my process. I don’t show anything I think is poorly written to first readers. In the case of 266 Yesterdays, I had my agent answer The Story question for me. At the risk of seriously derailing myself, I sent her the rough-polished first ten chapters mid-July. Fortunately, she loved the characters and the way the plot was headed.

    As I chugged along, I made post-it notes on issues to fix or revisit—like “Why didn’t he just tell her?” or “Is that friendship busted for good” or “Don’t forget to plant hints about this earlier.” I promised myself I’d finish revising in August.

    First, I hit all my sticky-note points and then did two full re-reads to polish:

    • for consistency,
    • for clarity,
    • for the unique voice of the narrator, and
    • for colorful turns of phrase.

    A final read-thru focused on super-proofreading. On August 31, I sent my agent a submission-ready manuscript. That’s the fastest I’ve ever created a novel, but setting a hard deadline for revision laser-focused my efforts.

    Check out my NaNo post "Four Questions to Ask About Each Draft" for more details, and thanks for listening.

    Next week’s Camp Counselor is Heather Mackey, author of the upcoming middle-grade fantasy Dreamwood. Ask her your questions here!

  • July 11, 2014 8:50 am

    Ask An Author: “How do you deal with transitions in your writing?”

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    Each week, a new author will serve as your Camp Counselor, answering your writing questions. Liz Coley, our second counselor, has been a member of the NaNoWriMo community since 2006. In 2013, her 2009 NaNo-novel, Pretty Girl-13, was published by HarperCollins.

    How do you deal with transitions in your writing? (Transitions from thoughts and memories to present events, small time lapses, abrupt changes without using the word “suddenly” 100 times in your novel, and so on.) — Anonymous

    Hi Campers! I’m the first one awake at “camp” this morning as the family snoozes on. In fact, that’s usually the case on vacation, and it has led me to some wonderful, but solitary adventures. The most memorable was shelling on Sanibel Island as dawn broke, and I set off in bare feet…

    I’ve just opened this post with a handy time-jumping technique.

    1. There’s a specific detail about what’s happening now,
    2. followed by a generality,
    3. which pivots and leads us back in time to another specific.

    The visual of dawn along the seashore anchors the recollection in “scene mode” (as opposed to “thought mode”) immediately. Did you notice the verb shift tense or did it slip stealthily under your radar?

    Read More

  • July 10, 2014 8:50 am

    Battling Clichés & Tired, Old Tropes: Hate-at-First-Sight Love Stories

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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, Susan Dennard, author of the Something Strange and Deadly series, asks you to keep three things in mind when writing this type of romance:

    CLICHÉ: Hate-at-first-sight-then-fall-in-love romances

    Confession: I’m a huge fan of the hate-at-first-sight-then-fall-in-love romances, so it always saddens me to hear people calling them a trope or a cliché. I mean, as the saying goes: “There are no new stories, only new ways of telling them.”

    And therein lies the problem—the reason why I think hate-at-first-sight romances can so easily annoy rather than excite: we aren’t finding new ways of telling that tried-and-true story. We’re falling back on an old formula without actually studying what’s underneath.

    In fact, I would even go so far as to say that we aren’t telling real hate-at-first-sight love stories at all. Let me explain.

    Read More

  • July 9, 2014 8:50 am

    Ask An Author: “Do supporting characters need to be developed?”

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    Each week, a new author will serve as your Camp Counselor, answering your writing questions. Liz Coley, our second counselor, has been a member of the NaNoWriMo community since 2006. In 2013, her 2009 NaNo-novel, Pretty Girl-13, was published by HarperCollins.

    As opposed to the main character, do supporting characters need to be developed even when they don’t necessarily do as much? — Anonymous

    One of my first writing conference teachers told a roomful of aspirants the “terrifying” tale of being informed by his editor, full and polished manuscript in hand, that two of his supporting characters were indistinguishable and played such similar roles that they must be combined into one. Tolkien could have had this problem with Pippin and Merry but didn’t. The hobbit cousins had personalities and story arcs that separated them.

    On the page, your main character will have the deepest back story, the greatest stakes, the most prominent plot points. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of your fellowship should be mere “spear-holders,” as they say in opera. If you can figure out who they are off the page, minor characters will speak with distinct voices, act purposefully (as opposed to conveniently or randomly), and take on specific roles in scenes, which means to some extent they need to have their own back story, goals, and even challenges.

    Especially in the NaNoWriMo process, minor characters can blossom under your fingertips to provide major subplots. Cameo appearance characters may live as few as a couple sentences, but if they aren’t more than window dressing, why bother with them? You may not know their eye and hair color, name, age, or mother’s maiden name, but they can serve as foils, provide parallels, add comedy, or create local color.

    It’s not necessary to apply a character inventory questionnaire. I’ve got two tricks for drawing out minor characters.

    1. Totally trippy sounding—interview them with a pad and paper in hand. Ask them specific questions out loud and all sorts of interesting stuff comes bubbling out of the back of your mind. Write down their answers.

    2. Write a short “autobiography” of the six most important things that ever happened to them from first person perspective. That’s fodder for great vignettes as well as giving you more insight into their motivations, skills and talents, strengths and weaknesses, fears and hopes.

    You may have heard it said that every person is the hero of his or her own story, even the villain. With minor characters, try to offer the reader a glimpse of this perspective.

    Next week’s Camp Counselor is Heather Mackey, author of the upcoming middle-grade fantasy DreamwoodAsk her your questions here!

  • July 8, 2014 8:51 am

    "There are only two important elements to a great novel. The first is an interesting character. A character that you thoroughly know and feel will go a long way toward attracting a readership.

    The second element is an interesting problem."

    — Walter Dean Myers, with advice for a young writer.