Toolkit for writing fiction

It’s midnight on November 1st and, even though it’s in the middle of the week and you have to go to work tomorrow, you stayed up to write your first sixteen hundred word quota for NaNoWriMo.

You’ve thought out a dozen characters in your mind and you have a protagonist who is a thinly-veined version of you–except better looking and has a better love life. You have a list of scenes that you can’t wait to pound out on the keyboard.

You are ready to go as your fingers tremble over the keyboard. The grandfather clock in the hallway strikes twelve bongs. Finally, NaNoWriMo is here.

And you can’ t think of a freaking thing to write.

Grab a tool from your fiction writing toolkit

Okay, your creativity may or may not dry up at some point during National Novel Writing Monster–I mean Month–but if it does, use one of these tools to see if you can fix the writer’s block:

  • Action-start with a verb, whether it’s a physical or mental action, and build your sentence around it.
  • Dialogue-try to use action and dialogue as much as possible. Can you believe some people skip narrative summary and just read the dialogue?
  • Interior monologue-if you have a particularly introspective character, show the “conversation” inside her or his head.
  • Interior emotion-take a moment to show the reader what your character is feeling on the inside. This is especially effective if the character is acting one way on the outside, but feeling the opposite on the inside. Same with interior monologue.
  • Description-A sentence or two of description is just right. Too much spice ruins the dish.
  • Flashback-something in your story may cause the character to have a memory pop up. Combine this with figurative language, and it fits smoothly in your story. For example here’s a flashback in the form of a metaphor: “The perfume she wore reminded John of the fragrance of jasmine in the air of his grandmother’s backyard where he lived during the summers as a boy.”
  • Narrative Summary-This is the “tell” of “show don’t tell.” Telling gets demonized, but it’s actually important. It’s not all bad; sometimes it’s necessary. Most of the time, a story could be three-fourths show and one-fourth tell. Just my opinion.  Use it along with the other tools in your toolkit and you’ll be fine. Here’s a good article on narrative summary.

Mix it up, baby

So, if you get blocked during NaNoWriMo, pick up the appropriate tool and use it. If you’re not sure which one to use, go “eeny-meeny, miney-moe” and pick one at random and see what happens. It might just be the writing enema you need.

Oops, sorry, didn’t mean to switch from the toolkit metaphor.

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Making a scene

One thing I find helpful for NaNoWriMo is making an informal list of scenes. The key is to not get married to this list; just use it as a jumping point. I usually end up moving the order of the scenes around.

Here are some things to keep in mind when thinking of scenes:

  • Think of a scene in fiction like you would a scene in a movie.
  • Think of a scene as incident with a beginning, middle and ending.
  • Your list can be just one word per scene or several sentences. It’s up to you.
  • The writer can use one setting or several for a scene.
  • Conflict is the main ingredient for the scene.
  • From which character does the point-of-view for the scene need to be written?
  • Personally, I find it helpful to write the entire story in scenes for the first draft. I say “scenes” as opposed to “chapters.”
  • It might be helpful to ignore dividing up your first draft into chapters; write in scenes and then divide the draft up into chapters for the second draft.
  • Split a scene in half when something critical or surprising happens and make this a chapter break.
  • When writing, don’t feel like you have to write in chronological order; skip around. Maybe on a certain day you won’t feel like writing that steamy sex scene. Save it for later. Wink.
  • You can list your scenes in whatever way works for you: index cards; Excel spreadsheet; napkin from Charlie’s Diner; maybe you just want to keep it all in your head.
  • You might want to hold off on listing your scenes until you have at least your main characters thought out. As you make a list, you’ll probably keep coming up with more characters you’ll need to get the story done.

Now is the time to start making a list of scenes. I don’t know about you, but that’s when I start you get really excited about NaNoWriMo; the story begins to unfold right before you.

My first NaNoWriMo region meeting

When I walked into Mulligan’s Pub and Grill and went upstairs to meet other NaNoWriMo participants in my region, I thought,”Oh, crap, I’m the oldest one here.”

I sat down at one of the few seats available at the long tables that had been pushed together. Looking to my left, I saw six teenage girls sitting there. I was sure they were thinking, “Man, who’s the old guy?” They were, however, much more charitable than I, because they smiled and talked with me, sharing their story ideas with enthusiasm. I later found out that only half of them were teenagers; the other half of them were twenty-somethings who looked young for their age.

On my right sat Andrea with whom I worked with several years ago at the college I teach at in the evenings. We are Facebook friends, but really never really communicate via social networking. It was great to reconnect with her.

Coincidentally, the regional liaison for NaNoWriMo in the Louisville area where I live is a woman named Jessica who works on my floor at my day job. She and the other regional liaison did great job with the meeting.

Another person at the meeting was Allison, a published author. About four years ago, she was my server at Red Lobster. We talked about writing for a few minutes and she encouraged me to “friend” her on Facebook, so I did. Apparently she quit her job at Red Lobster and pursued her masters. She has also had two books published since then. Allison and I have actually had several conversations over the years–via instant messaging on Facebook–about topics like Aspergers and such. She even initiated some of the conversations. Still, I had a feeling that she didn’t really know who in the milky way I was, so i reintroduced myself to her at the meeting.  She wrote about it on her Facebook status:

“Ok how wild is this. So four years and a half years ago when I came to Kentucky I worked as a waitress at Red Lobster while writing Calico. I left when we moved to Bedford and my book was published. Fast forward to now, I meet this guy on Facebook who is part of the NaNoWriMo group in Louisville. We become friends and he asked me today if I was going to be at the party. I said yes. So while I’m there he comes up and introduces himself to me. He tells me I was his waitress at Red Lobster and he was glad we reconnected! Wild that he remembered me, huh?”

So she thinks we became Facebook friends through the Louisville NaNoWriMo page, but actually became Facebook friends independent of that. Not that it matters; sounds like she is incredibly busy.

Many of the other people in attendance were the Bohemian types that can be found in the Highlands of Louisville. Jessica asked everyone in the room to tell what they were going to write about. Lots of Science Fiction. Lots of historical fiction. Some fan fiction. I even met a few people. One woman is a full time student with a daughter.

So my first NaNoWriMo meeting had a lot of interesting people in attendance. I wish them all good luck.

What I’m doing to get ready for NaNoWriMo, part deux

I thought of a few more items aspiring NaNoWriMo participants can do to prepare for November:

  • Go to your local NaNoWriMo group get-togethers. Of course, writing is a solitary practice, but you can maybe sit in a coffee shop with others pounding away on their stories. Regions also have before and after parties.  Just go here to find your region.
  • Find an accountability partner. It could be someone else doing NaNoWriMo or even someone who isn’t, but their purpose is to check on you every few days and make you feel guilty if you get behind.
  • Writing exercises. Do short fiction writing exercises up until November 1st to whet your appetite. These sessions should have nothing to do with the actual story you will be writing. Just Google fiction writing prompts and see what you can find.
  • Don’t prepare at all. I like to have a sketchy outline of the story and at least a short personality description of each major character. Over-preparation works for some, but the act of discovery while writing is 95% of the fun. Or you may the the spontaneous type of person who wants to sit down on November 1st with zero preparation at all and make it up as you go along. Nothing wrong with that either.

Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen are just two well-known published novels that started as NaNoWriMo endeavors. How’s that for inspiration?

What I’m doing to get ready for NaNoWriMo

Tell me if I’m wrong, but getting ready for National Novel Writing Month can include anything except the actual writing itself. I admit that I am itching to get started, so in the meantime, I am doing the following before November 1st:

  • Creating characters: I have an Excel spreadsheet with columns for their names, goals, hangups,age, physical descriptions and more. I even Googled the meaning of their names to match their purpose in the story.
  • Listing scenes: I always make a list of scenes. I know how the story begins and ends, but what about in between? As I think about my story while sitting in traffic or on the treadmill, I’ll daydream possible scenes. I make a list of them, but don’t worry too much about the exact order. I have discovered that I will move them around as I write. And when I actually start the writing, I can skip around. Who says I have to write in the chronological order of the scenes?
  • Reading: I’m reading a Jim Butcher book because his Dresden series is the kind of stuff I like to write. I may emulate his writing style at first, but I hope to develop into my own style as the story progresses. Reading one of his novels right before NaNoWriMo begins may or may not get his way with words into my subconscious.
  • Handwriting Scenes: Okay, if you’re really itching to write, but afraid to start writing anything else right before NaNoWriMo starts then here is an exercise to whet your appetite. Pick a favorite scene from the novel of your favorite author. Take a pen and notebook and write out the scene by hand. It sounds silly, but it’s a great way to get an author’s writing style into your subconscious. As you write, you’ll notice things: the author’s word choice; how he or she plays with sentence structure; the connotation of words.
  • Reading a book on writing fiction: There are so many, but Stephen King’s On Writing will motivate you.

Good luck with NaNoWriMo. If you want a copy of the Excel spreadsheet I use to plan my novels, email me and I’ll reply with an attachment.