Hey guys! I have a secret. I write really fast. It’s my superpower. I signed up to participate in the Nanowrimo challenge this month and joined hundreds of thousands of other writers working on their writing projects. My goal had been to write a full manuscript over the month of November. I finished November 19, with a completed manuscript of 71,000 words.
Crazy, right? It’s also a lot of work and a lot of preparation. And something I believe anyone can do, with the right mindset and planning. Here’s how I did it:
I began Nanowrimo with a 10,000+ word outline. I am what is known as a plotter. I make sure I know every aspect of my story I want to include, and where, before I get started. Apparently, some people feel this isn’t “real” writing, that a true writer can just sit down and spin magic with their pen without any forethought. If this is you, I tip my hat. You’re also a unicorn because most of us are going to write ourselves into corners, get entirely caught up in unnecessary tangents, or get sunk into a mire of a soggy middle.
Editor Ellen Brock has done an excellent breakdown of the different types of writers, you can watch that here. As she said in the video, if you are a methodological plotter, your output tends to be much higher.
Before I start a manuscript, it is planned to the micro-level. Everything is broken down: the story structure, the structure of each scene as well as the character wound and arc components.
Sound overwhelming? It’s a lot. But there are awesome tools that are available out there to get you started. For brilliant insight into designing your story structure, I recommend: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, by Jessica Brody. This has truly changed my writing, my stories, and has drastically improved the length of time it takes to write the first draft. The book describes essentially the formula you need to write an engaging story. If you hate the idea of a “formula,” don’t think of it like that. This is the blueprint that every story (worth reading) follows from since stories have been written down, and probably long before that. I highly recommend it as a tool for every author.
Once I have my overall structure of what happens when, I break down every scene. A scene has to fulfill a very specific function in order to pass muster, and that is to drive the plot forward. There must be conflict or a dilemma, and by the end of the scene, the characters should be in a different state than when the scene began (preferably a worse one). Check out the “Snowflake Method” for a brilliantly simple way to write great scenes.
If you go into writing your first draft with an outline that has every scene broken down into its components, there is a far less chance you’re going to get stuck with writer’s block. You know where things are going, now you’re only job is to get there.
I know some people feel that a rigid structure kills creativity, but I could not disagree more. As I follow my scene outlines, I don’t have to think too hard about what comes next, and I can get into a writing groove where some of my most creative work happens. Ideas pop into my head and I’m able to flow with it; it’s an extraordinary process but I’m only able to get there if I am supported by a formal structured outline beforehand. That gives me the space to weave within the plan and create these cool sweet moments that hadn’t come to me when I was outlining. Outlining is like pre-editing. Writing and editing are very different processes, and different elements are going to come to you while writing. It’s incredible when you’re able to just go with it. My most creative, insightful moments in my books come to me when I’m speed writing.
Before you begin writing your manuscript, especially when you plan on speed writing within a time frame (like during Nanowrimo), it’s best to plan out your life beforehand so you’re not going to be distracted during your writing. Obviously, life happens and you can’t foresee everything. But some things are pretty easy to handle.
Groceries: I make up a meal plan for the month of November beforehand, as well as grocery lists for every week. That way I’m not distracted wondering what on earth I’m making for dinner that night or having to take time away from writing to run to the grocery store mid-week in a panic.
Appointments: Clear your schedule as much as possible. Any non-essential appointments can be moved to a later time, or to a time when you know you won’t be writing anyway. For instance, I work on my blog and other creative projects on Thursdays, so I try to book appointments then, as I’m not as worried about being pulled away from my writing just when I’m getting into the flow.
Calendar: I think it’s a great idea to create an elaborate calendar of when you are planning to write and how much. Write down your planned word count for each day, and stick to it (or surpass it!) I think it’s best to give yourself some wiggle room. If you want to write 50,000 words in 4 weeks, write out a schedule that will get you to 50,000 words in 3 weeks. Because: life happens. There will be days when you aren’t able to get your word count, so plan that in.
Editing and writing are different processes. You can’t do both at the same time: they use different parts of the brain. If you are stopping to edit, you are automatically taking yourself out of your writing flow and that’s going to slow things down, way down. You might also miss out on creative ideas that could come to you if you stay in the flow.
Your first draft is going to be terrible. It’s supposed to be. Don’t stress, now’s not the time to make it pretty. Scrawling everything out on the page, making sure every thought you’ve had somehow ends up there, that’s the important thing. Only after the fact can you sit back and get a macro look at what’s going to work and what needs to be cut.
If you spend days crafting a gorgeous passage, it’s going to be that much harder on you when you realize that passage has to be removed! Quick and dirty, my friends, is how you do it.
Writing tips I ignore when I’m working on my first draft:
Not adding dialogue tags. Dialogue tags EVERYWHERE. It’s not great writing, but we’re going for clarity here. I need to know who’s saying what, so that when I’m editing I can work out how to do it without tags. Also, I use all the terrible verbs – everyone exclaims, shouts, growls, snarls, whines. Like a director, I know what I want my characters to do when the time comes.
Cutting crappy scenes: There will be scenes that drag and aren’t working. You’ll know even as you’re writing that the scene will need to be reworked or even cut out. That sucks, but now’s not the time to worry about it. Write through the pain, and move on to the next scene.
Don’t show character choreography: A big thing in my first draft I know I’m going to cut out even as I write it is the movement of my characters from one place to another. Ie.: he walked to her side; she went up to the counter. It’s not good writing, but I need it in my first draft. It gives me the sense of space as I tell myself the story as well as where the characters physically are in the scene. This initial choreography will be edited out, but it allows me to realistically convey movement through space later without giving the reader a play-by-play.
Square brackets: whenever you need to add a note to yourself or know something is going to need more work and you’re itching to edit, put a note to yourself directly into your manuscript within square brackets. That way, you’ll write down the necessary information so you don’t forget, but you also won’t slow down the writing process – it’s all about momentum, and not losing it! Square brackets are used because presumably, you aren’t using square brackets in the story part of your manuscript – so it’s easy to just run a search for all your square brackets to find the notes that don’t belong. You won’t accidentally leave a “note to self” in your manuscript that way.
Jerk Brain Wandering
Your brain is going to want to wander all over the place, and it will fight against you as you force yourself to get through another 1000 words. When these thoughts pop up, the things you absolutely must engage with right away, jot down a reminder of those things and move on, telling yourself you will 100% get to that when you’ve reached your goal.
When you have reached your chosen word count, go back and look at that list. How many things do you still need to look at? Bet it’s not very much, but now’s your chance! I have notes on my phone for: book lists I have to add to my tbr, gift ideas, Christmas cookies I want to bake, when does the next season of The Witcher come out? It’s fun and rewarding to get to this list after the fact, and I feel like a champion for pushing through.
Bonus tip: Always stop writing mid-chapter, mid-action, mid-dialogue. It is so much easier to jump back in when you’ve already served up what happens next.
So important to take care of yourself. If you, like me, have terrible posture when you’re writing, make sure you schedule in breaks to stretch, at least every hour. Getting up and walking around, grabbing another cup of coffee, can help avoid problems that come later if you’re not caring for yourself. Because I have significant shoulder problems, I also make sure I’ve booked an appointment with my physio to work out any crunchy bits as I go.
When you are wholly focused on a project, it can be hard to remember to give your body good nourishing fuel. I work out a list of healthy snacks and make sure my fridge and pantry are stocked with those things. That way, when a craving pops up, I can quickly grab something on that list, and get back to work!
I love yoga for its therapeutic benefits. My go-to yoga channel of choice is Yoga With Adriene – Adriene Mishler is an amazing yogi and her practices can be done by anyone of any experience level. I make sure every day I’m writing for a significant period of time, I also schedule a yoga session at the end to help rinse out any of the physical or mental kinks that might have come up during the day. Most of her videos are free on YouTube. Check out her Yoga for Writers practice – this one is for you!
Of course, the major reward of completing a novel is just that: a completed novel. It is really hard to do, and if you have a manuscript (a finished manuscript!) sitting on your desk or in your computer: congratulations. You just did something awesome. Don’t you dare start to disparage the work that you did. I already told you it’s supposed to be terrible. But it’s done. Now you get to shape it into something awesome.
But, if the book itself isn’t enough, it’s great to plan out some fun rewards to get you through those crunch times. Write a list of everything you want to do when your manuscript is done. Make those rewards as luxurious as possible, whether it’s treating yourself to a sweet treat, or getting a pedicure. My treat the day after a manuscript is finished is a day in bed, reading. Just thinking about it makes me want to write faster.
Sometimes, though, you might feel that finishing your novel is somewhat … anticlimatic. When I typed in the final word of my novel, my exact thought was: oh shit, I have to get groceries before picking the kids up from school. No one cheered me or showered me with flower petals, though I certainly would have liked that.
Just like running a marathon, when it’s all over you might feel a bit deflated. What now? Your brain might start to panic, because it has been working so hard for so long it’s not ready to just stop. Take it easy on yourself. Go over your list of motivation rewards and pick a good one to focus on. You deserve it.
Are you doing Nanawrimo? Let me know how it’s going in the comments. And if you’re looking for some sweet treats as a reward, look no further. My newsletter comes out every month, with exclusive recipes as well as book recommendations. Sign up for a little self-care here!