Advice from a Caterpillar

Hello, author. A brief introduction should be in order. I’m Mr. Caterpillar, and I first tried this NaNoWriMo thing in 2008. I had been aware of the event since many years prior to that, but 2008 was when I finally tried in earnest to do what I had been pretending to do since I was in single digits of age. Using an electronic typewriter, and a lot of encouragement, I would put up to one single paragraph on a sheet of paper and consider that a “page” of writing. After ten “pages” or so, I had written a “book”. The rest of the page was left open for illustrations. I was usually the star of this story, and various friendly talking caterpillars of different shapes and sizes were something I felt the need to include every time.

It was absolutely terrible and derivative stuff, pinching from any number of things, from music videos to videogames, movies to television commercials. And after a few of these, I was eventually able to write an entire double spaced page of material, calling this a “chapter”, and realizing that the back of the page always had space for the requisite illustration.

I have brought up just the sort of embarrassing thing that might lead you to question why I am fit to give you advice. You are most likely out to compose a work of far greater word count, and hopefully better quality—though quality can be left for later, not being of the essence in NaNoWriMo tradition. Personally, I hate giving advice because I never had an easy time taking advice as a younger man. So, what I offer are thoughts to take or leave, the key thought circling back to quality.

Don’t worry about quality right now.

It’s simpler to say than to execute, because I have already failed at that several times this November despite my past experience and successes. It’s my fault I have taken other manuscripts to the next level, it’s my fault I have dealt with beta readers, and it’s therefore my fault that I pause after a chapter and imagine fierce emails with some sentences in caps lock. You can avoid this fate, or at least not feel like it is such a big deal right now. I would never have passed 50K in every NaNoWriMo since 2008, nor performed readings of edited NaNo novel material on several outings to favourable reviews, if I let that understandable fear get in the way. Learn by composing, when you can, and learn a lot by composing a lot; now is the time.

You might find it natural to imagine readers without much effort, because many people write to be read. We both know that right now, those readers are as real as the talking caterpillars I used to draw with pencil crayons. In NaNoWriMo, the traditional focus is quantity, and the only certain reader is also the author. If you have set for yourself different goals than the traditional ones, then I absolutely respect your choice. If, as I am this year, you simply desire to crank out at least fifty thousand words or greater, then my advice is to listen less to those imaginary readers of the future, and more to those imaginary characters who would love for you to tell their story.

Unless you’re writing a story about imaginary future readers, in which case, you have just broken my brain.

Sincerely, Mr. Caterpillar

The last 10 years

Today’s goal is to learn more about your setting with an eye towards things that specifically influence your story. The idea is that elements from the history you create today will be implemented in your novel and might help give it a better shape and you some more knowledge on the locale.

So grab a pen and paper and write about what’s happened in your chosen setting over the last ten years. Depending on your story, this setting could be as large as a world or as small as a single nobleman’s house. What’s important is that you find a character who was old enough to be fully aware and have knowledge of the world during the last ten years, and get them to explain the history to you in as much detail as possible.

If you’re writing in this world, write about the last ten years of your main character’s life. Focus on what events in their setting influenced and changed their lives and tie this piece into the history as much as possible. If you’re still not fully settled in your locale yet, today’s also a good day to research everything you can, because on Monday we’ll be talking about creating an outline and on Thursday it will be time to start your novel.

No matter which version of this exercise you do, write in as much detail as possible and make sure you write at least 1, 000 words. It’s good practice for Nanowrimo, should get you into the zone, and 1K is enough that you might even make it a little bit past ten years, giving your setting and thus your novel more depth.

If you get stuck, ask your characters questions. Be as general or specific as you need to be. Here are some sample questions:

  • Was there a war in your country in the last ten years?
  • Have there been any local natural disasters in the last ten years?
  • How were people’s attitudes different ten years ago?
  • What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened in this town/city/country in the last ten years?

Now get cracking–and please tell me a bit about what you’ve discovered in the comments below.

Thoughts on preparing for Nanowrimo from participant LadyofPangaea

Hi there. I’m Jen, a fellow blogger and a friend of Dianna. I’m here because she asked me to do a guest blog on preparing for the awesome madness that is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or NaNo as I will be referring to it from here on out). So, here it is!

NaNo is a cauldron of opposing forces. It is thrilling yet daunting; exciting yet terrifying; liberating yet maddening. It is all of these things and more, and it is for this reason, it is important that you leave the starting gate prepared. It is impossible to be prepared for everything, and I am not here to tell you it is going to be easy; I’m just here to tell you what I have experienced.

First off, you need an idea. It doesn’t have to be a good idea, but you need something to start with. Let this idea simmer for a bit and allow all the flavours to seep out. Allow it to flourish and take you to the places it needs to go to stay alive. Get to know this idea, because this idea is going to (hopefully) stay with you for 30 days (or more). Next you need a main character. Like I stated with the idea, it doesn’t have to be a good main character at first, just a starting point. A name will do. So will a gender. Let this character speak to you, let him or her take you to their brightest and darkest places; let them tell you what their story is. And you need to listen to this person, because, like your idea, this character is going to be with you for a whole month (or longer should you choose to continue past November). I find it easier to write when I let my characters guide me because they know their world better than I do; after all, they live in that world. That being said, it’s a good thing to start with what you know. Even big-time writers do it. Stephen King sets many of his novels in Bangor, Maine. Why? Bangor is a city he knows well – or at least he should since he lives there. There is nothing wrong with placing your novel in your hometown or a neighbouring city. Is there a city you visit frequently? Place your novel there. This same reasoning can go for your characters, too. Does your main character have an older brother? What about an older sister? Do you? Then feel free to base that older sibling on your own. There is nothing wrong with it. And once the novel has been started, thrust your character into a situation they don’t want to be in. Does your character always have to be in control? Throw him into a situation where he doesn’t have it anymore. Is your character a follower? Toss her into a situation where she has to become a leader. Most importantly, have fun with your main character; again, you’re with them for a month.

Okay, so now you’ve established your idea, your character and, hopefully, your setting. Now, you need a plot. This is the time to brainstorm and jot down everything that comes to your head. Everything. Even if it seems really silly or stupid, because in writing, there is no such thing as a stupid idea. Why? Because that so called, “stupid idea” could be the idea that sells your story. Once you have brainstormed the heck out your idea, it’s time to make sense of it all. Take as much time as you need on this; after all you are writing this story, and you have to like what you’re writing. As long as you like what you’re putting down on paper, you’re set. Don’t worry about what everyone else thinks.

Everyone else. Ah, this brings me to a very important part of partaking in NaNo: finding people to support your quest. This can be harder than it seems. But, don’t let that scare you, because within your home region you will find hundreds of people who are just as insane as you are and taking on this remarkable challenge. For me, the Toronto Region has been my saving grace. My mom doesn’t quite understand the whole idea of NaNo, so I cling to my group of local writers. They are the people who cheer me on and congratulate me on an updated word count; and they are the people, to whom, I return the favour. Don’t be afraid to bounce your ideas off of someone else; a lot of good can come out of that. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S Lewis bounced ideas off of each other all the time, and they more than likely influenced each other in their writing. To me, that’s awesome. And once NaNo officially starts, attend some local write-in sessions and physically surround yourself with your fellow writers. If that doesn’t work for you, that’s okay. We all have our own ways of writing; what works for one doesn’t always work for another.

Oh, and there’s one more thing. THIS IS NOT A COMPETITION. This is probably the most important thing to remember going in to and coming out of this. Last year was my first NaNo, and I did not hit 50,000 words. In fact, I missed it by a landslide. I only managed to squeak out 18,000 words, but it was 18,000 more words than I’d had a month ago. NaNo is not about winning or losing. No. NaNo is simply about writing. It’s about getting your wonderful story from the file folders in your brain onto the page. If you make it to 50,000, awesome! If you don’t make it to 50,000, awesome! You will still have more words than you did the previous month and you have done something amazing. You have told a story. It may not be finished, but you are telling a story. You’re telling your story. And that is the most important part of NaNo. Storytelling.

So, what this all boils down to is a few basic points.

1) Surround yourself with supportive people whether those people are home based or internet based. Any and all help you receive will be very helpful.
2) Return the support you have been given from your fellow writers. They need it just as much as you do.
3) There is no such thing as a stupid idea.
4) Your main character is going to be your best friend for 30 days. Have fun with them.
5) Your characters know the world they are in better than you do. Let them direct you.
6) Start with what you know and go on from there.
7) NaNoWriMo is not a competition. It is merely a challenge to write. The only person you are competing against is yourself.
8) You are writing your story on your terms. Your story is important.

To those who have decided to participate:
Congratulations on your winning idea, and good luck! To those of you who are still contemplating partaking: The choice is yours to make and I hope my experience will help in your mission should you choose to accept it.

To everyone: Keep writing and have fun!

Bio: I am an aspiring writer and hail from Toronto. I have been telling stories since I was five and writing since I was eight. Writing is my escape from the chaotic world we live in. In November 2008 I started a Trilogy simply titled: Pangaea. I am hoping to publish it in the next few years. When I am not working on my Trilogy, I am working retail in a local mall. I recently started blogging about anything and everything that inspires me. You can check it out here: http://the-writingonthe-wall.blogspot.ca

You can also check out my NaNo profile here: http://nanowrimo.org/participants/ladyofpangaea

5 Important considerations when planning your Nanowrimo novel

Antique typewriter isolated on white
If you, like me, are currently working with only the most basic novel concept, there are some important things to consider as you flesh out your story. These are important things to consider before diving into your novel, whether it’s for Nanowrimo or not.

Asking yourself these questions can really save you a world of pain during November and beyond it.

1. How exciting is this story? You need to be excited about your story. A novel is a commitment. You’re going to devote at least a significant chunk of next month to writing this thing, and if you plan to someday publish you’re going to have to spend months, possibly years editing it.

Frankly, you won’t get all the way through November with a story that doesn’t excite you, and even if you do, will it really excite readers? You need to be able to sustain your excitement for at least 50, 000 words and so do any potential readers.

If you’re in the lucky position of having several ideas to choose from, go with the one that excites you most. You want to have fun this November, and you don’t want to get halfway through the month and hate your novel. I’ve been there, it sucks. Choose the idea that you’ll enjoy writing the most.

2. How hard is writing this story going to be? Some stories are harder to write than others. If you’re writing in a historical setting and you’re not a history buff, you’ll need to do a lot of research to accurately portray the era you’re writing in. Of course you can supplement details after Nanowrimo, but either way you’ll have to do the work.

Other stories are hard to write because of subject matter or genre, and if you’re trying Nanowrimo for the first time, working on a difficult story can be a way to set yourself up for failure. Remember that while you want to challenge yourself, you don’t want to be tearing your hair out halfway through.

Of course, some people use Nanowrimo as a chance for catharsis and have an easier time writing about the heavy stuff, and if that’s your preference, all the power to you. The kind of story I write changes every year, and I’m sure in the years to come that will change even more drastically.

3. Will this story actually fill 50, 000 words? Grab a pen and piece of paper right now and write down all the scenes you’ve envisioned for your novel so far. How long do you think it will take to get through these scenes? My stories have occasionally fallen far short of their goal and I’ve had to add incredible amounts of padding, but if you already know your word count goal when you start planning, you can aim to fill the space.

Now is a good time to think about subplots, both because they can add thousands upon thousands of words, and because it’s always good to have several layers in your novel. Subplots also make great distractions when your main plot is frustrating to write, so you’ll want a couple to get you through the rough times.

Ideally subplots connect and in some way shape the main plot, while containing their own little story. You don’t want to artificially insert subplots to make them longer, so take the time to think about what might naturally emerge in your setting with the characters you have.

4. Who has the most interesting story? Even if all you have is a basic story concept, who has the most interesting point of view on that story? If it’s a political story set in a historical era, who’s point of view is more interesting to you, the servants or the politicians? If all you’ve decided is that you want to involve dragons, do you actually want to tell a story from the dragon’s mind, or will your narrator be human observing the dragon?

With a semi-solid story idea, you can create characters based on need. You can figure out professions based on the time period your novel’s set in. Most stories set in historical periods will require servants, nobles, blacksmiths and guards, whether they be knights or not.

If all you have is characters, then you need to figure out which one has the most interesting story and start digging into that. A strong character who’s planted themselves in your mind is there for a reason, and you’ll always find a story worth telling if you explore that character’s mind enough.

5. What do I want people to feel when they walk away? This is the tone of your book, and knowing that can help you in several ways. Once you know the tone you can read similar books to inspire you and create plot points to help emphasize the mood of your story. It can be a guiding force that helps you through the times when writing is hard and your story doesn’t make sense.

I believe that a good story conveys one emotion properly, but a great story conveys every emotion at different times. If you can accomplish the latter, that’s amazing, but if you had to pick just one thing for your reader to feel, what would it be?

Consider what makes you feel that way, and research what evokes that emotion in other people. Huge plots can emerge from just one scene if you follow them to their conclusion.

When you make a point of answering these questions early on during your planning process, you can then decide how your planning time is best used. These answers are really instructions for your planning process: beef your story up—or possibly pare it down—and make sure it’s going to give everyone, including you, the message you intend.