Writing Process Insights From NaNoWriMo

We’re just about halfway through December, and I am still working on finishing up the first draft of the novel I was working on for NaNoWriMo. I’m down to the final two chapters, and I’m dragging my feet about finishing them. Seemed like a good time to recap what I learned from this year’s NaNoWriMo.

I’m breaking this post into three parts. Part one includes the new things I tried to incorporate into my writing process in November that worked better than I thought they would. Part two is the stuff that did not work as well as I thought it would. And part three are the things I have carried over into December.

Things I tried this month that worked better than I expected

  • At least one sprint “first thing” in the morning — This was possibly the one thing that worked best for me and made me the most productive. By “first thing” I don’t mean that I got up at 5am to write. I’m not naturally a morning writer, and the 5am writers’ club has never really worked for me, even when I worked full time. I can exercise early in the morning, but it takes a while for my brain to wake up. This month, I decided to let myself wake up at a normal time for me. I ate my breakfast and drank my tea like I usually do. But instead of letting the morning get away from me, I tried to get into my office to write at least one sprint by 9am. I didn’t always succeed, but the days that I did, it was so much better. At some point, I realized that the longer I wait to write during the day the harder it is for me to sit my butt down and get it done. The resistance builds to the point where I start to think “meh, I’ll just do more tomorrow.” But if I write for even just thirty minutes right after breakfast, even if I ignore my project for the rest of the day, it’s so much easier to go back to it in the evening and finish my sprints. I have no idea why this works, but it does, and it’s become my new thing.
  • Alarm on my phone — I set an alarm for weekdays at 9am to remind me to get my butt out to my office and get to work. This allowed me to relax a bit more while I ate breakfast, checked my email, read, or listened to a podcast. I knew I could rely on my alarm to remind me to get to work (more so than a calendar reminder, which did NOT work).
  • Reprioritizing my “to-do” list — This goes along with writing “first thing” in the morning. Normally, I have all these little tasks that fill up my to-do list that I think are only going to take a few minutes and end up taking an hour or more. Since I like the satisfaction of checking things off my list, I do them first, even though I know I shouldn’t. Giving myself permission to basically ignore all that until December (or at least until I got my writing done for the day) was magic. All of a sudden I was doing what was important to me first instead of doing a bunch of admin stuff that was not time sensitive. And, I still got the satisfaction of checking things off my list because of the next two items.
  • Sprint log — I have never used one of these before, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to use it, but I thought I’d give it a try. It turns out that I found it super motivating to have a place to jot down my word count after each sprint! I don’t even care what the number was. Just the act of being able to write it down (and color in the box on my sprint summary log), gave me that boost of “yay! I did a thing! Let’s do it again!”
  • Word count progress chart — When I set this up, I thought maybe this was overkill, but I ended up really liking the visual progress tracker aspect of being able to color in boxes for each 1k words written. The stuff in the middle was a little redundant and unnecessary, but the progress chart was really helpful.
  • Limiting social media and other online distractions — I do this by using the digital health controls on my phone and allowing myself only five minutes (each) on Instagram and Twitter. Those are the only two social apps on my phone. I don’t log into any social apps on the computer in my office. Limiting the amount of time I could spend on an app made it so that I knew I could check it whenever, but I couldn’t get lost in the infinite scroll. Once my five minutes were up, they were gone for the day and it was time to get to work.

Things I tried that didn’t really work for me

  • Scheduling time to write on Google calendar — I thought this was going to help, but I didn’t even look at these time blocks once during the month. This method of time management just does not work for me.
  • Having consistent rules about what distractions were allowed and when they were allowed — I had this idea that I was going to outlaw all social media and gaming until after my writing was done for the day. That didn’t really work. I found that I was much more productive when I allowed myself to play some MtG Arena, or watch a YouTube video (or three), or even watch a full episode of a serial between writing sprints. Sure it delayed how long it took me to get my writing done for the day, but it also made it so that I never really felt like my creative well was going dry. This refueling became especially important on some of those days leading up to 50k when I only had to do two thirty minute writing sprints, but I was already pretty drained from writing so much in such a short amount of time. Honestly, this is the least burnt out I’ve felt after a NaNoWriMo, and I think that flexing this rule is why.
  • Crockpot meals — This one surprised me. I love crockpot meals. But unless the recipe was just “dump these four ingredients into the crockpot and turn it on,” preparing a crockpot meal used up valuable morning hours just to free up less valuable pre-dinner hours. Since getting out to my office and getting at least one sprint in turned out to be the most important thing I needed to do each day in order to get my writing done, I realized it was a lot easier to pick recipes that allowed me to do all the cooking in the evening.
  • Any cooking that required a lot of steps or prep — This one I underestimated. I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal, but we have this one recipe that we eat all the time, and it’s pretty easy to prepare, but it involves a LOT of vegetable prep time. I had already purchased the veggies and they were going to rot if I didn’t use them, so I went ahead with my meal plan. But, after that first week, I decided that this recipe is not for NaNoWriMo, or at least not for days when I need to get a LOT of writing done.

What I’m doing for December (since I’m still finishing this draft)

I’m still using my spreadsheet to manage and tweak my daily word count goals, but I’ve combined what I think were the most useful and motivating parts of my various trackers into one layout. I’ve got the progress bar on the outside like last time, but this time I moved the daily word count and sprint tracker to the inside. The calendar is a Midori blank calendar sticker. The little unicorn sticker is from Procrastiplanner. The little arrows were supposed to mark reward milestones, but I decided not to do rewards this month. Each day, I’m putting my daily word count above the little line in the calendar box, and putting stars for sprints below the line. One star is equal to one sprint, or thirty minutes of writing.

I’m still using the sprint log to jot down when I’m writing and how many words I wrote in my thirty minute sprints. It’s become a bit less important now that I’m really only trying to get two sprints in per day instead of three or more like I was doing during NaNoWriMo. For that reason, I’m not sure if I’ll keep using this outside of periods like NaNoWriMo where I’m making a focused push to fast draft a first draft.

As you can see from the picture, I’ve changed quite a bit of the pre-printed tracker from Sarra Cannon’s NaNoWriMo Prep workbook. I’ve adapted it to fit better with what I actually want to track. Specifically, what time did I start the sprint, how many words did I write, and what’s my new total word count. If I decide to use a sprint tracker again, I’ll probably just make my own and either draw it directly into my notebook or make something that will fit the page better when I paste it in. That way I don’t have to keep cutting out headers and Frankensteining together the cut up bits of the original tracker.

I have big writing plans for next year that include a lot more fast drafting, but I’ll talk about that more when I do a post on 2022 goals. So we’ll see how much of this new process stuff sticks in the New Year. In the meantime, let me know in the comments how your NaNoWriMo went. Did you learn anything new about what does and doesn’t work for your writing process?

A NaNoWriMo Victory

Well, I did it! I wrote 50k words and got my NaNoWriMo win! Hooray!

The only problem is, the novel isn’t done yet. I did expect this. But, remember how I started writing this novel before November? Well, I thought I would be closer to the end after writing another 50k, and I am not. I’m still firmly in the “bad guys close in” territory of the novel (about 70% done). After reassessing my outline this evening, I think I have about 25k words left to write. So, I will be continuing with my daily writing until I reach “the end.”

I definitely learned some things about what’s currently working for my writing process and what’s not. So I’ll probably do a recap on that at some point. But for now I just wanted to say, YAY! and celebrate. 🙂

If you are writing, I hope it is going well for you. If you’re not, I hope you have something excellent to read or watch. I’ve read a couple of books this month, and I’m hoping to read at least one more before the month is over. But, I’ll tell you all about that in my reading recap post.

Wishing you a happy Thanksgiving, if you celebrate, and happy reading!

A NaNoWriMo Personal Record

It’s day 11 and I’ve already written over 30k words this month. Consider me shocked.

I was pretty sure this was a new record for me. So I went back to previous years’ graphs to check.

I participated in NaNoWriMo on and off between 2007 and 2013. I “won” that first year (2007), then didn’t finish the month with 50k words again until 2013.

From 2013 onward, I participated and “won” every year except last year. Last year I only wrote just over 7k total in the whole month. Last year was rough. In fact, the past twenty months or so have been rough. So, let’s just ignore last year’s NaNoWriMo anomaly and focus on 2013-2019.

I decided to have a look at my word count graphs to see if it really was a PR. I also wanted to know 1) if I’ve ever been this far ahead before, and 2) how many days it usually takes me to hit 30k words.

Here’s what the graphs look like:

2015 (EotF)
2018 (DotF)

In case it’s not obvious from those images, I’m almost never ahead. I’m always more or less struggling to just keep up with par.

To illustrate that point further, par has you hitting 30k words on the 18th of November. Here’s when I hit 30k in previous NaNoWriMos:

  • 2013 = 21 November
  • 2014 = 22 November
  • 2015 = 19 November
  • 2016 = 18 November
  • 2017 = 19 November
  • 2018 = 18 November
  • 2019 = 21 November
  • 2020 = never…
  • 2021 = 11 November !!!!!!

This is totally the post that someone writes just before their amazing writing streak takes a nose dive off a cliff. So, let’s hope that I didn’t just jinx myself by sharing this. Instead, I’m just going to be excited that I’m finally writing something new again, and that it’s fun, and I’m loving it.

Now I’m going to go celebrate by doing a Crimson Vow draft on MtG Arena. Then, tomorrow, I get to watch Red Notice on Netflix (after I write another 2k words…)!

Random Thoughts on Caffeinated Writing

While getting ready to write yesterday, I debated making myself an espresso. It’s something I usually only do about once a week, but I did it almost every day during the first week of NaNoWriMo. And that first week looked like this:

Ignore the last dot. That’s today, and I haven’t logged any words, yet.

There’s this podcast I listen to where one of the questions that the host always asks the person she’s interviewing is “What thing in your life effects your writing in a surprising way?” After this week, I am beginning to think that, for me, that appears to be espresso.

Usually, I’m a tea person. Irish breakfast in the morning and green tea after that, on most days. I don’t really like the taste of coffee, but I do enjoy an occasional cappuccino if I happen by a good coffee shop. I refuse to buy tea in a coffee shop because it’s almost always overpriced and disappointing.

Since coffee is usually a “treat,” I’ve never really been that interested in making myself fancy espresso drinks at home, so I don’t have a fancy espresso maker. Instead, for the occasional homemade espresso shot, I have this thing called a Rok that uses pressure to make steam. It’s quiet and not fussy and basically all I need to make one shot of espresso. This thing came in really handy during the first year of the pandemic when most coffee shops were closed, and I was only going into public places for essential shopping.

I was still only using it about once a week. Then, for some reason, during the first week of NaNoWriMo, I started making myself a mid-morning espresso shot every day. Usually after my first writing sprint of the day. After several days of that, I skipped a day. My motivation that day was a little lower, and my writing sprints didn’t go as well. I still hit my word count goal, but it was harder. I chalked it up to the fact I’d been writing hard for several days in a row. It was bound to catch up to me, eventually.

Then I had another good writing day where I enjoyed a mid-morning espresso, and by the weekend I was considering a new theory. Maybe the extra motivation was coming from the espresso? I mean, I’ve always thought of espresso as my “extrovert juice.” Back when I was working in a corporate job and had back to back meetings where I had to present things, I would almost always grab an espresso or a cappuccino in the morning before my meetings started. Maybe it had a similar effect on my writing?

I have another week of big daily word count goals ahead of me, so I will continue to experiment with this theory and report back. 🙂

NaNoWriMo Update With BuJo Word Count Tracker

It is day four of NaNoWriMo, and so far the month is off to a great start. I decided to work on completing the first draft of a project that I had already written over 11k words on. I guess that makes me a NaNo Rebel this year. But, my first drafts are always at least 60k words. So I think this starting early strategy is going to be a really good thing for me. Instead of reaching the end of the month (and of the challenge) but not getting to write “the end” on my draft, this year I may actually hit 50k words written in the month AND get to the end.

I promised in one of my NaNo Prep posts to post an update with photos of the final version of my bullet journal word count tracker. So, let me show you how that turned out and how I’m using it.

The progress bar around the outside shows my progress toward the 50k word goal. I marked each 10k milestone with a sparkle star to remind me that reaching that point qualifies me for one of my rewards. The boxes inside that progress bar (one for each day of the month) are divided in half. I debated what I wanted to put in those. I ultimately decided to go ahead with putting the total words written that day on the top and the total words in the project on the bottom. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it that way because my total words in the project are not going to align with that 50k progress bar (because I started early). But, I decided that didn’t matter since I’m keeping track of the math in my spreadsheet. I didn’t need to do it here, too.

I also created a rewards plan, and a more detailed word count log on a separate spread.

I struggled to come up with rewards and ended up with a mix of new movies / shows I want to watch and fun stuff I want to purchase. I’m rewarding myself for hitting my daily word count with Magic the Gathering Arena, YouTube, and re-watches of favorite movies and/or shows. But there are several new movies and shows coming out in November and December that I’m really looking forward to watching. So, I decided to use those for three of the goals. The release timing worked out to have two movies as rewards for 10k and 30k, while saving the big Wheel of Time series watch until after I’m totally done with NaNoWriMo).

I filled in the other two slots with minor purchases of fun and frivolous stuff. I went with $20 as my wish list spending limit because it’s the reward for hitting 20k words. And I decided on four stickers for the 40k word reward so it would be like one for every 10k words. Neither of these are things I would probably just buy anyway because neither of them are things I really need. I mean, I already have a TON of stickers. But it would be nice to get some new ones for my 2022 BuJo and for my 2022 writing goals planner, which I will probably start setting up in December.

I just hit the 10k words milestone this morning, so technically, I could go watch that movie now. But I’m going to wait until I after I do a few more sprints and hit my daily word count goal.

Speaking of sprints, I added a sprint tracker to my word count log so that I could mark off progress throughout the day. I’m keeping track of my actual word count per sprint on a loose sheet of paper. I may decide to glue that into my planner at some point, but for now I’m keeping it separate. I decided that my daily minimum was going to be three thirty minute sprints. I would need more than that for the first two weeks in order to hit my reverse word count goals. But, if I was really just not feeling it after three thirty minute sprints, I was going to let myself call it a day.

The first two days were great. Day three was a little tough, and today got off to a little bit of a rough start. But, very little of the that had to do with the writing. Plus, once I got going, hitting that 10k milestone gave me a boost of added motivation. Also, I’m in the middle of a big dialogue scene with lots of conflict, and I’m building to this twist that I am really excited about, so that all helps.

If you’re also participating in NaNoWriMo, I hope your writing is also going well! I’ll try to post another update mid-month. In the meantime, happy writing and/or reading!

NaNoWriMo Prep: Manage Your Time

What’s this? A second week dedicated to planning? Sounds right to me. After all, half the battle is finding the time to get the words on the page. Even when you are absolutely not in the mood to write. Probably especially then.

As a reminder, the schedule for NaNoWriMo prep is as follows:

  1. Develop a Story Idea (September 12-18) — Click Here to Read This Post
  2. Create Complex Characters (September 19-25) — Click Here to Read This Post
  3. Construct a Detailed Plot or Outline (September 26 – October 2) — Click Here to Read This Post
  4. Build a Strong World (October 3-7) — Click Here to Read This Post
  5. Organize Your Life for Writing! (October 10-16) — Click Here to Read This Post
  6. Find and Manage Your Time (October 18-24) <— You Are Here

Last week I talked a little about how I try to identify all the tasks and projects that might distract or derail me from my writing. Once I’ve rescheduled, canceled, or delegated everything that I possibly can, it’s time to sit down with my calendar and figure out when exactly I’m going to get my writing done.

For the first part of this exercise, I used a printout of the calendar from Sarra Cannon’s Preptober workbook to create an overview of the month. This way, I can quickly see which days it is going to be challenging to find time to write, and which days I may be able to squeeze in some extra writing time.

In general, I’m adding only the big, out of the ordinary events to this calendar. I’m assuming that, unless otherwise noted, I just have my usual daily schedule to work around. The first thing I add are my conflicts, anything I couldn’t cancel or reschedule when I was organizing my time for November. Then I add my write-ins. Those may end up being my only dedicated writing time for the day (if it’s an already busy day), or they could represent possible extra writing time, if I also have time to fit in my usual writing sprints on my own.

Once I finish my calendar overview, I transfer those notes over to my word count spreadsheet. You can see a sample of what that looks like here and make a copy of the sheet for yourself to use, if you like. In the sample, I added my write-ins over in the “notes” column in green, and I added conflicts like Thanksgiving in red. On my actual spreadsheet there are more items, but the sample gives you an idea of what I’m doing.

Next, it’s time to do some math and figure out my daily word count goal. But first, let’s pause to talk about word count goals for a minute. Word count is not always the best measure of progress on a project, and it can be really demotivating to hear how many words others can write in a day when you are struggling to even get any writing done. However, when your goal is to “banish the inner editor” and get words (ideas) onto the page so that you can finish the whole draft before going back to make everything better, I think word count is a pretty good metric.

But if you find watching your word count to be completely demotivating, then time working on a project can be a good alternative. Pages or chapters written is another method. Marking milestones by acts or other major plot beats can be a good option. I use and like all these. The key is that you have a good idea of what conversion rate to use (words per page on average, words per hour on average, etc.) so that you have some idea if you’re on track to hitting your goal.

I’m using word count for my daily NaNoWriMo goal, but I’m also doing a conversion on that daily goal so I can estimate how many hours I need to set aside for writing each day. This is where the spreadsheet (or a calculator) really comes in handy.

There are two main strategies for establishing your NaNoWriMo daily word count goal. The first is what I like to call the “peanut butter” method, where you take the word count goal and divide by the total number of writing days to come up with a daily average that you spread evenly across the month (like peanut butter on bread, assuming you’re not allergic to either of those things). This is the traditional 1667 words per day NaNoWriMo target.

The other method tries to capitalize on the fact that you have the most motivation at the start of the month (and probably also the least number of schedule conflicts, if you celebrate the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving). This method is called “reverse NaNoWriMo.” I didn’t invent it, but I think it’s brilliant. Since I stumbled across it on the internet, it’s been what I try to do most years when I participate in NaNoWriMo.

You’ll find both the traditional “peanut butter” method and the “reverse NaNoWriMo” method in my spreadsheet. I’ve also added a third set of columns which is what I use when I customize my word count goal for each day. I use the custom column to adjust my daily goal for the days where I have conflicts that are going to restrict my writing time. That’s why I put all those events in the “notes” column.

Because of how my schedule is shaping up this year, I am planning on starting with the “reverse NaNoWriMo” word count goals to capitalize on that early motivation. Then when my holiday guests arrive, I’m planning on shifting down to a word count goal that is more like what I can reliably write in one thirty minute sprint. This is where that conversation rate stuff comes in handy.

It’s all well and good to know how many words you want to write in a day. But how long is it going to take you to write those words, on average? My conversion rate is based on how many words I can usually write in one thirty minute sprint. For me, that is somewhere between 300 and 500 words. So I like to use 400 as an average word count estimate for one sprint. There’s a spot in my spreadsheet where I plug in my average words per sprint, and it will calculate how many sprints I need each day to hit that day’s word count goal.

Let’s take the first day of November as an example because that’s the day when I am scheduled to write the most words (my goal = 3335 words). My spreadsheet says that is going to take me about 8.3 sprints (or just over 4 hours). I know I have a write-in that evening, and we usually get in about two and a half sprints during that write-in. That leaves another 6 sprints (3 hours of writing, not counting breaks) I need to find time for earlier in the day. If I can’t find time in my schedule, then I need to adjust my word count target to something more realistic.

This year, I’m actually scheduling writing sprint blocks on my Google calendar so that I know how many hours I need to be writing each day in order to hit that day’s word count goal. Normally, I don’t bother to block out chunks of writing time. I just keep track of my word count goal and squeeze in writing time between other activities after doing a lot of procrastinating. You can guess how well that works.

I’ll probably end up moving those writing blocks around as needed, but I think that having the one or two hour blocks of time sitting there on my schedule will be a good reminder that, even if I put off writing, I’m still going to need at least an hour to write 1000 words. So, it’s probably better to get it done early because I’m not going to find more time in the day.

Once I have all this figured out, I may be feeling slightly overwhelmed. So, it’s time to get out my notebook and pens and draw myself a motivational tracker for my bullet journal. Spreadsheets are good for math, but coloring in progress in my notebook is much more satisfying that plugging numbers into a spreadsheet.

As you can see in the picture, I was going to the word count tracker from Sarra Cannon’s Preptober workbook. I printed it out and cut it to paste into my bullet journal and everything. But the daily word count goals in that tracker were already printed on each day. So I ended up drawing my own tracker in my bullet journal, modeled after the one from the workbook. I still need to spruce it up a bit and add milestone markers and daily word count goals, but I’ll save the final version for a future post.

And that’s it. Can you believe it? This is the last of my NaNoWriMo prep posts. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. I know I’ve enjoyed writing them.

If there’s more writing-related content that you’d like me to post about, let me know in the comments. Otherwise, see you back here again next week when it’s time to set up my reading journal for November! Until then, happy writing!

NaNoWriMo Prep: Organize Your Life

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’m a total planner geek. So, bust out your bullet journal or planner and let’s make our NaNo Prep checklist!

As a reminder, the schedule for NaNoWriMo prep is as follows:

  1. Develop a Story Idea (September 12-18) — Click Here to Read This Post
  2. Create Complex Characters (September 19-25) — Click Here to Read This Post
  3. Construct a Detailed Plot or Outline (September 26 – October 2) — Click Here to Read This Post
  4. Build a Strong World (October 3-7) — Click Here to Read This Post
  5. Organize Your Life for Writing! (October 10-16) <— You Are Here
  6. Find and Manage Your Time (October 18-24)

When it comes time to get organized for writing, I start by making a series of lists.

For the first list, I turn to a fresh, blank page in my bullet journal and title it something like “Task/Project Brain Dump.” Then I make a list of all the chores and tasks and other administrative stuff that I know I’m going to have to deal with between now and the end of November. These are things like planning meals, grocery shopping, paying bills, feeding my sourdough starter, cleaning the house, and finishing all the various home improvement projects that are currently important but not urgent but may become urgent before the end of November.

I try to capture everything I can think of in that one place. Sometimes this means going and checking my email for things I’ve snoozed that are going to pop up with a reminder (subscriptions to renew or cancel, emails I need to reply to, events I said I’d schedule and need to follow up on, etc.). One thing I know from experience that always comes up and causes a huge distraction and potential time suck during November is holiday gift planning. So that goes on the list as well.

Once I have my list, I start going through it to see what can be done early (now) and what can be delayed until after November. For example, I may have to wait to clean the house closer to when my guests are arriving, but I can make a meal plan and stock up on groceries now so I don’t have to go shopping as often in November. Similarly, I can come up with a plan for gift giving and/or holiday cards that does not require me spending days researching the perfect book to give each of my niblings when I should be writing. (Yes, I am the aunt who gives books for holidays and birthdays.)

The trick here is that I have to keep in mind that some tasks that I decide really need to be done later (like gift buying, because deals!), are absolutely going to take longer than I think they are going to take, and they have the potential to make me completely lose a day of writing. When the middle of November rolls around, and I’m convinced that everything I’m writing is garbage and words are hard, book browsing is going to be much more fun than book writing, and there goes my word count. This totally happens every year, so I try to keep that in mind and keep those sorts of distractions to a minimum by getting as much done early as possible.

One resource for getting organized that I used last year and am using again this year is Sarra Cannon’s excellent Preptober workbook. It has tips for meal planning as well as worksheets to help you calculate how much writing time you should plan for each day (which I’ll talk more about in next week’s post). I definitely recommend checking out this video which walks you through all of it over on her Heart Breathings YouTube channel.

In addition to my tasks and projects list, I also have a list dedicated to the NaNo Prep tasks that I want to try to complete before I start writing. This year’s list looks like this:

Strategic post-it pad placement to cover up the story-specific tasks.

The third list I make is for my writing rewards. I usually have two types of rewards. The first type is either a “you can’t do X until you get Y words written” or a “you can do Z after you’ve hit your daily word count goal” type of goal. Usually it’s a combination of the two that’s geared toward trying to trick myself into getting my words for the day written and complete as early as possible in the day. The second type is the more traditional (and usually bigger) milestone rewards which I usually assign for 10k, 25k, 40k, and 50k words written, plus “first draft done” which is usually around 60-70k for me.

For the first type of reward, I basically go into what I (who don’t have kids) think of as “parent mode” and come up with a set of daily rules to live by that encourage me to prioritize my writing. For example: “you can’t watch any YouTube videos until after you’ve written 500 words.” The key here is figuring out what carrots are going to be the sweetest (metaphorically) when it comes time to write and using those as the incentive.

In the past, I tried using reading time as an incentive, but I eventually realized that doesn’t work for me. It basically ends in me both not writing and not reading. I just find other (admin/chore) things to do that feed my need to procrastinate, then I (at best) squeeze in my word count at the last possible minute of the day and have no time left for what was supposed to be my fun reward. This may be because reading (for me) is more of a relaxing escape from the world than it is an activity that I’m going to be frustrated by not being able to do (unless I’m in the middle of a fast paced book, but those don’t last long enough to work as rewards for a 30-day writing challenge).

Instead, it seems to work better if I use things like social media, YouTube, and casual gaming as a reward because those are the things that I usually don’t want to delay until later. I want to do them when I want to do them. So, if I have to get some number of words in first, I am much more likely to stop procrastinating and make that happen. This means that my rules usually look more like:

  • No Twitter or Instagram until after I’ve met my daily word count goal. (I usually just log out of Facebook completely whenever I’m trying to focus on writing because it almost never “sparks joy” and almost always leads to pointless negative feelings and/or frustrated rage at humanity, and who has time for that, really?)
  • I can watch one YouTube video or play one Magic the Gathering Arena game for every 500 words I write, then I can watch as many videos or play as many games as I want after I’ve hit my daily word count goal.

The second type of goal (milestone rewards) are a lot harder for me. I hesitate to use buying things as a reward for writing words. Similarly, I’m reluctant to use food as a reward. That makes it really hard to come up with good milestone rewards. Usually I just make it up as I go along, or completely neglect this step of my writing prep process. But rewards are important, so I am determined to do better. Right now, I’m on the hunt for good ideas for milestone rewards. If you have any, please let me know in the comments.

All of these lists and rules are a really important part of my planning process, but my favorite part of getting organized to write is setting up my Scrivener file. If I haven’t created it already (back when I was working on plot or character, for example), then I save a new file using a Scrivener template I’ve created that aligns with the beat sheet I talked about back in the post on plotting. This file has descriptions of each beat in the notes section of each chapter. It also has target word counts for each scene/chapter that tally up to my target total word count. Once I’ve saved a copy, I load it up with all the character and world and plot stuff that I’ve been working on, copying over and organizing things based on the notes I made in my notebook.

I can easily lose hours on setting up Scrivener, but having a template with beats and word count targets already set up makes it so much faster to get going. So even if everything isn’t copied over from my notebook perfectly before the first of November, I have the bare bones of what I need to get started writing. This is good because making these lists reminded me how much more I have to do before NaNoWriMo starts. In just over two weeks! Yikes! This month is flying by, and my to-do list has just doubled in size. Time to get back to work. Happy planning!

NaNoWriMo Prep: World Building

This post has been the hardest of the bunch for me to write because I don’t really have a standard process for world-building. It just sort of happens? But I do have some great resources for you, so read on.

As a reminder, the schedule for NaNoWriMo prep is as follows:

  1. Develop a Story Idea (September 12-18) — Click Here to Read This Post
  2. Create Complex Characters (September 19-25) — Click Here to Read This Post
  3. Construct a Detailed Plot or Outline (September 26 – October 2) — Click Here to Read This Post
  4. Build a Strong World (October 3-7) <— You Are Here
  5. Organize Your Life for Writing! (October 10-16)
  6. Find and Manage Your Time (October 18-24)

Okay, so most of the time, because I write sci-fi and fantasy, my world-building starts with these questions:

  • Is this a real-world story or an invented-world (secondary-world) story?
  • If it’s a real-world story, what is/are the speculative element(s) I’m adding (magic, superpowers, futuristic tech, fantastical creatures, etc.)?
  • If it’s secondary-world, is the world primarily sci-fi (science-based) or fantasy (magic-based)?

From there I usually start with the things I know I want to have in my world, and then I ask a bunch of how and why questions to sort out the underlying details.

For example, when I started the Modern Fae series, I knew it was going to be a magic in the real world story. There was a legend I was using as a “what if” jumping off point. So I started with a “if this is true, then how what?” kind of brainstorming session. Based on the legend I was using, I knew there were going to be vengeful spirits and Fae and that the two groups were going to be at war by the time my story took place because of things that happened prior to that first book. I didn’t spend a lot of time working out the details of that beyond what was necessary to get from point A (legend set in the ~1100s) to point B (modern day). I saved the fleshing out of those details for when I eventually wrote Rogue Assassins, which is the sort-of origin story for book one in my series (Eve of the Fae).

From there I started asking questions like “what are the rules of my magic system” and “what do my real-world humans know about these magical elements?” I thought a lot about what it would take to kill or injure or even just weaken the various supernatural creatures in my story. I also had to decide if iron was going to be harmful to my Fae or not because the various legends and superstitions are not all in agreement about that.

Those were the basics, but I came up with more things I needed to sort out after I started writing. Usually, I would get to some thing that was happening in the story and get blocked. Some of those blocks were either character things I hadn’t figured out yet, but most (at least in that first draft of that first book in the series) were world things that I had to stop and consider (or research) and make a decision about. For example, there are some power dynamics between the various types of Fae in my world that become important to the plot. There is also a whole thing I had to figure out about cross-breeding between Fae and humans and other magical creatures. Like, is the off-spring of a Demon and a Fae a Demon or a Fae or some mix of both? Similarly, are the offspring of humans and Fae automatically Fae? What sort of magic do they inherit from their parents? What role do the parents play in their upbringing? How far down this world-building hole do I go before I have WAY more than I need to figure out the plot problem I’m facing?

That last one is the big question with world-building, in general. Most experienced authors and professors will tell you about the iceberg theory. The idea being that there is a sweet-spot for world-building where there is a lot of stuff that the author knows about the world that is under the surface of the story, but only a small portion of that actually goes onto the page.

For a really good explanation of this, check out Brandon Sanderson’s lecture on world-building from his BYU lectures video series on YouTube. (Note: I linked to the one I watched which is from his 2016 lecture series, but this series was updated in 2020 and you can find that full playlist here.) The first half-ish of that video talks about the iceberg theory and is more focused on the how you write world-building than how you create a world. The second half-ish (starting around 30min) gets into more of the how you build a world.

One of the things he does in that video is have his class brainstorm a list of the physical aspects of a world (geology, geography, weather, etc.) and the cultural aspects of a world (government, religion, class, education, etc.). That list is really helpful reference for what is possibly my favorite world-building exercise and the thing that I now start with when I’m building a new world.

Sometime after I started writing Eve of the Fae, I took a world-building workshop where one of the resources we studied was this world-building presentation (link is to slides) given by N. K. Jemisin. I really love her “Let’s Build a World” exercise from that presentation, and I come back to it every time I start to build out a new story world. You can hear her talk about it and actually walk you through it in her Masterclass, if you have access to that. The whole Masterclass is great, and I highly recommend checking it out if you can.

She also talks about the iceberg in the presentation slides I linked to, but her “Let’s Build a World” exercise starts with defining the geography of the world because geography is pretty much at the root of everything. She talks more about why this is the case in her Masterclass. Geography determines weather, it also determines a lot of aspects of culture. This sort of science is not my strength, so I like to brainstorm this stuff with friends and/or family who love to geek out on this type of thing. It’s a great aspect of story to brainstorm because you don’t have to explain your whole story in order for non-writer friends to be helpful.

After geography comes culture. N. K. Jemisin suggests picking three aspects of culture (this is where that whiteboard brainstorm list from Brandon Sanderson’s lecture comes in handy) to focus on. One of those three is your speculative element, or what she calls “Element X. This is what I like to think of as the “secret sauce” of my world. Once you have your two cultural things and your speculative element, you flesh those out both individually (how do they work, why), and then consider how they relate to one another. For example, if you picked education, religion and magic, how does education relate to magic and how does it effect religion?

One tip that I picked up from my world-building workshop which I love is to not only think about what your world looks like from the perspective of people who have “Element X,” but what does it look like to people who don’t? Don’t forget about the negative space. If you have people who worship a god, and you’re writing your story from the perspective of someone who believes, does everyone in that world worship that god? What happens to people who don’t believe? What is life like for them? This is a great way to define additional layers of conflict in your world and your plot, and maybe even in your characters (internal and external conflict).

And one final thing that I try to keep in mind as I write any story, as N. K. Jemisin says in her Masterclass: “If you’re trying to understand what your culture is going to be like based on the environment that it’s developing in, go and research cultures that have developed in that same environment in our own world. But you don’t want to ‘rub the serial numbers’ off an existing culture.”

I love talking about world-building, so let me know in the comments if you have any other great resources you recommend.

NaNoWriMo Prep: (Pantser Friendly) Plotting and Outlining

And now for my favorite thing to talk about… plot! But don’t worry. I am not a pure “plotter” in the sense that, as many times as I’ve tried, I never managed to have my stories fully outlined before I start writing. I’m really more of a “plantser,” if I’m being honest with myself. So this will be a “pantser” friendly post, I promise.

As a reminder, the schedule for NaNoWriMo prep is as follows:

  1. Develop a Story Idea (September 12-18) — Click Here to Read This Post
  2. Create Complex Characters (September 19-25) — Click Here to Read This Post
  3. Construct a Detailed Plot or Outline (September 26 – October 2) <— You Are Here
  4. Build a Strong World (October 3-7)
  5. Organize Your Life for Writing! (October 10-16)
  6. Find and Manage Your Time (October 18-24)

Now on to plotting…

I hinted at this in my previous post on character, but in case you missed it: I love plot. It’s possibly my favorite aspect of a story. That’s right. I said it. As a reader, and as a writer, I appreciate plot more than character. I mean, characters are fun, but if a story doesn’t have a plot, or if that plot is full of holes, I’m out.

Part of me blames my mom for this. She has been a Days of Our Lives fan since before I was born. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to watch the spicy parts, but she let me watch the rest. And when it was over she would point out all the bits of foreshadowing and talk about what she expected was going to happen in the next episodes. She was rarely wrong. Maybe that means Days (and other soaps like it) are really predictable? Or maybe my mom is just really good? Or maybe it’s a little bit of both? Regardless, it got me thinking and talking about plot at a really young age.

Another early influence for my love of plot came from all the mysteries I read (and had read to me) as a kid. My dad was a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. When it was his turn to read aloud, we usually got a mystery from one of his two big volumes of Sherlock Holmes mysteries. I also read a lot of John Bellairs (author of The House With A Clock in its Walls) mysteries. And what is a mystery without a solid plot? Right?

Most genre novels (except romance) rely heavily on plot. This is probably why I write (and read) mostly genre fiction. But I wasn’t just born knowing how to write a solid plot. Reading and discussing plots gave me good instincts, but I learned how to put that to work in a novel by studying craft books like Save the Cat Writes a Novel and Romancing the Beat. Then I use beat sheets to help me “outline” scenes and to keep me on track when I’m writing.

A beat sheet is a spreadsheet that takes a desired story structure and a target total wordcount and does all the math for you to figure out how many words (plus or minus) you should have in each “beat” of the story in order for your pacing to feel right. Pacing is the gut feel part of plot. In my experience, if the pacing of a book feels off, then there is probably a plot problem.

When I first started getting serious about writing novels, I found this beat sheet from author Jami Gold. I put it into Google Sheets and used that for many years, creating a copy for every new novel I started writing. Then, after I read Save the Cat Writes a Novel and Romancing the Beat, I took that beat sheet and morphed it into a new version that I used for setting up my Scrivener template (more on that when we get to the “Organizing Your Life” blog post).

I use this template to sketch out a rough idea of what goes where. I take all the story idea brainstorming I did and start slotting it into scenes. If you’re not a Scrivener fan, you can do this in a notebook or on notecards or by making a bullet point list in a word doc. Whatever works for you. As you can see in my beat sheet template, I usually divide my project into twenty “scenes” (or chapters) to start. If my target word count is 70k words (a typical length for my lean first drafts), then I expect each of those scenes will average about 3500 words.

When I’m done transferring my brainstorming into my Scrivener template, I usually find that I still have a lot of gaps (blank scenes between two things that I know I want to happen in the story). I mostly ignore those and assume that I’ll figure it out after I’ve started writing, unless there are a lot of gaps at the very beginning of the story (in act one, for example).

I also sometimes end up with ideas from my brainstorming that I know I want to happen but that I’m not sure where to put based on the story structure. All of those ideas end up on a “scene ideas” list to slot in later. That list is one of the first places I revisit when I get stuck after I start writing.

Before I start writing, I try to make sure I know the following at a minimum:

  • Where the story starts — The set up and the intro to the main characters for sure, but also the “meet cute,” if I have one, and the inciting incident. Ideally, I want most of act one figured out, even if the “Debate” beat is still a little fuzzy.
  • Where the story ends — What is the ideal end state for my characters and my plot? Did they defeat the villain / solve the mystery? Did everyone survive? Is there a happily ever after or a happy for now ending? I may not know exactly what those “Finale” and “Final Image” beats look like, but I have a general idea of what needs to happen there.
  • The key things that definitely need to happen in order to get from point A (the beginning) to point B (the desired end state) — This could be a bullet list organized by act, or by beat (ex: the main character needs to learn how to use their magic, so I need a training montage, and that probably goes somewhere in the “Fun and Games” beat)

Mostly, I’m using logic at this point in the plotting stage. If this has to happen, then what needs to happen before that? And for a long time, that was it. I’d get my logic figured out and get to writing. Then I read Story Genius, and now I also try to make scene cards for each scene instead of just making a list. This way I can make sure that my plot isn’t running away without my characters. I also find they’re really helpful for getting me unstuck. But, I usually don’t fill those in until after I start writing.

The thing is, as much as I love organizing my plot points, pretty much all of this can also be done after you write. I have totally taken a story that wasn’t working and retroactively applied Story Genius scene cards to it in order to figure out why and make changes. You end up cutting more scenes (and having to write new ones) that way, but you can still have a solid plot and be a discovery writer. This is the way I do it (most of the time) because the idea of writing stuff I don’t need makes me itchy, but I also know that I do not have the patience to complete a full outline before I started drafting.

Let me know in the comments if you’re a plotter, pantser, or plantser, and/or if the beat sheets I shared help you with your NaNo prep. Since today is the last day of September, my September reading wrap-up and October reading journal set-up are coming soon. Maybe this weekend. Then, next week we talk about another favorite of mine, world-building! Until then, happy Preptober!

NaNoWriMo Prep: Creating Complex Characters

Characters are the life blood of any story. Most readers will tell you that they’ll forgive a few plot holes and less than amazing world building if you give them characters that just leap off the page and into their heart. So creating complex, compelling characters is kind of critical. No pressure, right?

As a reminder, the schedule for NaNoWriMo prep is as follows:

  1. Develop a Story Idea (September 12-18) — Click Here to Read Last Week’s Post
  2. Create Complex Characters (September 19-25) <— You Are Here
  3. Construct a Detailed Plot or Outline (September 26 – October 2)
  4. Build a Strong World (October 3-7)
  5. Organize Your Life for Writing! (October 10-16)
  6. Find and Manage Your Time (October 18-24)

Now, let’s talk about characters.

When I first started writing, world-building and plot seemed to come much easier to me than characters. I felt like character was my weak spot. So, I searched out the people who do character best — romance writers — and started learning.

The way I see it, romance books are all about the characters. The plot and the world are really secondary. If the reader doesn’t love the characters, they are not going to care how cool the small town is, or how fantastic the magic is, or how bizarre the aliens are. And the reader is not going to care if those characters achieve any of their goals, let alone their happily ever after.

This is why I decided that if anyone could teach me the secret to creating compelling characters, it would be romance writers. As an added bonus, I found out that the romance community is generally a pretty welcoming bunch of folks who are happy to share their knowledge with newbies, even (or especially) ones who don’t have a degree in English literature.

I started attending romance writing conferences and workshops. I entered contests, and eventually I joined a local romance writer group. I took notes, collected character building templates, and basically absorbed as much as I possibly could about how to write compelling characters.

Luckily for me, it turned out that the secret was NOT in creating that basic character bio stat sheet. I am terrible at keeping track of (or even sometimes describing) things like my characters’ eye color and hair color and favorite food, etc.

The secret is that a main character has to want something. The romance writers taught me about GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict). Specifically, what does the character want? Why do they want it? And what’s standing in their way?

My favorite example from these character workshops is Disney. Think about your favorite Disney princess film. (Tangled. It’s Tangled, right? That’s the correct answer.) Did you ever notice that every Disney princess has an “I Want” song? They’ve got a dream.

Vladimir from Tangled makes his little ceramic unicorns kiss
Even though I love Tangled, this concept is probably best illustrated by The Little Mermaid and her song about wanting to be where the people are

But there’s more to GMC than having a dream. Just when I thought I had this nailed, the workshop instructors threw in an essential curve ball. It’s not only about the character’s external GMC. There’s also an internal need or flaw that needs to be reckoned with before the character can achieve their goal. This can be conscious or unconscious. Some people describe it as the “lie the character tells themselves” or their misbelief about the world (or themselves).

It’s been a while, so I can’t remember which one of those many romance writing workshops this came from, but after learning about GMC, I started filling in a grid like this for each of the main characters in my novel:

External story goal:
Why now?
External obstacles:
Internal need:
What holds the character back?

That helped a lot, but I still hadn’t quite made the connection between characters and plot. That didn’t happen until I read Story Genius by Lisa Cron. After reading Story Genius, a whole bunch of puzzle pieces about story craft just sort of clicked into place in my head. I think the thing that did it was this idea of “the third rail” in the story. It’s sort of the “why do we care” aspect of story. It forces you to think about why what’s happening on the page (the plot) matters to the character. Everything that happens gets tied back to the characters’ internal and external conflict.

L. Penelope has a downloadable Story Genius scene card template on her website, which is what I use, but I’ll talk more about that next week in my post about plot. If you struggle with character, and you have time to read one craft book before NaNoWriMo starts, I highly recommend checking out Story Genius and implementing scene cards in your NaNo prep.

Back to character creation, even though I usually start by free writing and brainstorming in a notebook, once things start to come together I create a character sheet in Scrivener for each of the main characters in my book. However, I usually end up deleting the pre-populated prompts on Scrivener’s character bio sheets. I start my character bios by copying over any relevant notes from my notebook. Then I add my GMC grid at the top of the sheet. I also write down any other important details that I need to remember as I’m writing (ex: things I’ve said about that character in previous books that is now cannon and should not be contradicted).

Last, but certainly not least, comes the fun part. Because I struggle with character descriptions, I like to find photos of celebrities who look similar enough to how I picture the character in my head that they can stand in as an avatar. Then I add a few photos to my character sheet. That process takes a lot longer than you might expect because I don’t pay that much attention to celebrities. So I struggle to remember the names of actors and actresses or other performers. That makes coming up with search terms difficult. If you’re a pro at coming up with images for your characters, please tell me your tips and tricks!

Similarly, if you’ve learned something creating compelling characters that you want to share, let me know in the comments. I’m always looking to learn new things. As an example, I’m currently reading about a concept called “universal fantasies” and how that relates to both plot and character. I’m still learning, but maybe I’ll talk more about that in next week’s post.