National Novel Writing Month, November, helps writers resist endless rewriting by supporting them in a mad rush to write 50,000 words, more than half the length of most novels. The majority of participants around the world fall short of the word count, but producing even a few thousand words may help a writer develop the habit of writing.
Last week I gave a NaNoWriMo group some tips on getting off to a fast start on November 1.
One of the best ways I know to write fast is to pre-write, to think about what you’re going to write before you face the blank screen. That works before you begin the first chapter and each day thereafter.
How much you plan any novel’s major elements— characters, plot, setting—before you write depends on whether you’re primarily a planner or a pantser. The extreme planners prepare long outlines, extensive character sketches, and detailed setting descriptions. Extreme pantsers start writing with a fragment—an image, a bit of dialog, a personality quirk. Most of us fall somewhere between those extremes. We have to find our own balance.
People plan in various ways. I don’t know of anyone who uses those Roman numeral outlines I learned in grade school. Some common ways: write a short or long synopsis, make a storyboard with sticky notes, put major plot points on a spreadsheet, write stream-of-consciousness notes on the theme or the plot, go through the 12-step hero’s journey.
I tend to let characters and plot simmer over weeks while I’m working on other things. As the idea comes to a boil, I sketch and name characters and draft a 300- to 400-word summary that specifies where the story starts, anticipates high points in the middle, and roughs out of the ending. I make brief notes on upcoming scenes as I write.
Characters drive every novel, and creating the main characters (three to six generally) takes time. So do the peripheral characters (a half dozen to dozen generally), but most can wait. You need to know a lot about the most important character, the protagonist, from the beginning.
For one thing, usually the protagonist is the narrator, either speaking in first person or in a tight third, meaning the reader sees what’s happening through that person’s eyes. If possible, choose your point of view before you write. If needed, change that point of view.
So how do you get to know your protagonist and other characters? You can find suggestions online for writing character profiles or forms to fill out that cover appearance, character traits, etc. The form works fine for minor characters. It also gives you an easily accessed record of such forgettable information as age and hair color.
Some writers collect and paste up photos of people who look like their characters and of the places where they live or go.
At a minimum, decide the traits that govern the main characters’ behavior and determine the role they play in the plot. Your characters direct your plot by how they respond to whatever is happening. And the plot often directs changes in characters’ behavior.
If you don’t already know a lot about your character, ask some simple questions.Introverted or extroverted? Empathetic or mean? Selfish or generous? Loyal or opportunistic? How do the other characters—the sidekick, the love interest, the antagonist—relate to the protagonist?
Remember that almost no one is all good or all bad.
For the protagonist particularly, you need to know the flawsas well as the strengths. What goal or fear is driving that person? What internal conflicts guide their actions in external conflicts?
Learn whatever you need to know to see that person walk into a room, hear them speak, understand how they react in social situations and in a crisis. As you write, you’ll learn more and more about your protagonist—much of which will never appear on the page.
I enjoy creating characters. I like writing a series because in each book you peel back more of the onion and nourish change in ongoing characters. Some writers get their kicks by turning people they know into characters. A lot of mystery writers kill off former bosses.
Naming your characters can take a surprisingly long time, so name as many as you can before you start writing. For me, naming the main characters is very important. The name makes them real, tells me who they are.
I thought a long time before naming the three women in my Show Me mystery series. The protagonist is a former CIA agent who almost dies during a special mission and has to return to her hometown. I called her Phoenix because she has to rise from the ashes of her old life. Also, Phoenix is a distinctive name, one readers remember.
You can look at books of baby names for ideas and original meanings, and you can go online to find the most popular names in the year your character was born. I watch names at the end of movies and TV shows for interesting ones, particularly last names.
One reason naming characters takes time is that you have to make the names distinctive so your readers can tell them apart. Have the names begin with different letters and vary the numbers of syllables. I usually have one character with a two-word name, one known by initials, and one by a nickname.
The other big element is plot. When you’re trying to complete half a book in a month, you need at least a vague idea of the beginning, the middle, and the end. At an absolute minimum know the precipitating incident—where the story starts and why. Otherwise you’ll waste a lot of wondering what comes next. A common error is putting too much backstory and description in the first chapter.
Setting, and I’d include time in this, is usually fairly simple to plan broadly. In some books, setting is insignificant background. In others, it functions as a character. Will you use a real place or one you make up? Will you need to do research? Study maps, walk the area, read its history.
Research can be a major time consumer. Just because you’re writing fiction doesn’t mean you don’t have to get your facts right. Readers know everything.
The amount of research for a book varies widely. Historical novels are research heavy. I spent maybe a fourth of my time over four months studying the New Madrid earthquakes, the region, and concurrent history and culture before I came up with plot and characters. I spent not quite half my time over four months writing and editing Thunder Beneath My Feet. While I was writing, I often had to take time to find a specific fact, such as what songs people were singing in 1811.
If you’re stuck on a detail, note what’s missing and move on. That applies to other things. You can do use Jane Doe or Elmer Fudd for a minor character’s name, give only the vaguest description of a room or street. You may even want to write a one-paragraph summary of a difficult scene and move on to one that’s clearer in your head. Or write only the dialogue. Or write only the action Just note what’s missing.
You have to keep going. One of the purposes of the month is to make you write fast without editing yourself. You’re going to have months to cut all that verbal garbage, insert what’s needed, and polish your language.
What’s you’re going to be writing is a rough draft. You’re also developing the habit of writing. Concentrate on those and worry about the other things later.