Felix Schlater wrote to tell me he’s heading into the month of torture and mania that is National Novel Writing Month. I’ve never done NaNoWrMo, though it’s always sounded like fun. He wanted to know if I had any advice on book writing.
When you’re getting started or blocked the whole process can feel like some kind of dark secret. A black magic that requires just the right set of spells. When I go to author readings, inevitably there’s someone in the audience that asks how so-and-so does it. Use a typewriter or a computer? At night or in the morning? There’s no one right way to write, obviously, and everybody has got their own style. I’m co-writing a book with my friend David Naimon, and just last night we compared our radically different approaches to writing — but we’re both producing at an equal rate.
Differences aside, I feel like I’ve got a pretty useful bag of tricks for flat-out composing. Here they are, I hope Felix (or you) finds them useful:
- Write first thing in the morning. I used to hate this advice — early bird gets the worm, blah blah blah. But I kept seeing writer interviews in which the writer talked about writing in the dark every morning. Finally, a couple of years ago I forced myself to become a morning person, and now I can’t speak for it highly enough. I try to get up every morning at 5:30. Make your pot of coffee at night and set it up on a timer. If you have a pet, your pet will quickly acclimate to the schedule and help you keep it (my cat starts nagging me if I don’t get up now). It’ll be dark, everyone will be sleeping, and you own the world. I can usually get in 250 to 1000 words before 7am, when the house wakes up. The rest of the day feels like a free ride after that. You’re going to need to be writing closer to 1700 words a day to make your 50k goal in November, if you’re doing NaNoWrMo, so you might have this as your first shift.
- Edit the previous day’s work first. It’s hard as hell to sit in front of a blank piece of paper and start from scratch. Going over your previous day’s work gives you sort of a running start. Imagine it as the run along the diving board before you dive into the deep end. It gets you up to speed on where the narrative is going, and allows you to tighten as you go.
- Write on paper or use a typewriter. Computers are demons of distraction, and worse, they allow you to edit as you compose. Forget about editing — when you’re composing, sprint forward. If you use a pen and paper it’s much harder to worry about what you’ve written and there are no other distractions.
- Write only the good stuff. The worst thing in the world is to be faced with a scene you can’t figure out how to start, or one that seems too daunting to write. After being blocked, many times I’ve found the scene I was struggling with doesn’t belong in the book. If it feels really hard, or you feel like you’ve got something that you feel obligated to write in order to make something else happen, then alas, it’s probably junk. Write the stuff that seems fun. I don’t mean funny, just work that you’re not fighting against. In my experience, nine times out of ten work that I’ve fought with bitterly gets thrown out.
- Write out of order. I usually have a sense of future scenes in a book. If you get stuck on the scene you’re on, write something that happens way down the road. Write the ending! You’ll probably need to edit those scenes later on – but the writing of them can also inform scenes earlier in the book.
- Keep a tally of your word count. Post it up on the wall and mark each day down. After a while it’ll begin to feel less like marking your prison-stay off on the the cell wall and more like money in the bank. As a bonus, add a note on how that day went — that way you might spot trends. (How *did* I write 5000 words in one day?)
- Take long walks with a voice recorder. You can get a decent digital recorder for about $30-$40 (or use your phone if it has the capability, though you have to guard against distraction there). I’ve found that just setting out with the book in mind and spending 45 minutes on the road can allow you to create quite a lot of work over time. Sometimes it’s just ideas, sometimes it’s actual writing. Also, you feel like a bit of a detective walking about and taking notes to yourself. Record everything, commentary about passers-by, rants, speak the character’s voices, build the world you’re writing in — just like the composing sprint, you want as much material as you can.
- Transcribe. If you’ve used a voice recorder or used pen & pencil you’ve got bonus material. This always feels like free money. Start off your writing schedule by simply typing in what you’ve previously done. It allows for a quick edit as you put it in, and will also give you that vital ramp into the mindset of the story (the diving board again).
- Edit ruthlessly. I hate to be adding this in, since you’re mostly concerned with getting it on paper. This comes later. If you’re doing a sprint, like NaNoWrMo requires, then you’re going to be adding in a ton of cruft. If you really like it, but it doesn’t fit, set it aside for another book. I just finished a novel of 145k words, and dumped at least 50k words from it. Before it’s over, I’ll probably be chopping out more. There are an endless supply of words in the world, the trick is using the right ones.
Good luck at NaNoWrMo everybody – let me know how it goes.