tips & tricks
As November looms, so thousands of writers worldwide start to prepare for the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). A month when they will throw themselves into the annual challenge of writing a fifty-thousand-word novel. That may sound impossible, but for many, they’ll achieve it. For others, they’ll take that enviable step of actually realizing their literary dream.
This year will see me undertake my fourth NaNo journey. With each year my writing has grown, and with each year, I’ve realized there are things I need to do to improve the next years’ experience. And so, as I prepare this year, I’ve separated preparation and planning, both personally, and professionally where my writing is concerned.
Angela asked me to write about my NaNo experience, so here goes.
Preparation (a personal perspective)
1. Make sure you have a creative space to work in.
It’s not always easy. Whether you live alone, or with a family, there’s always distractions. Whether it be the urge to tidy up and vacuum, or having to listen to your teenage sons’ music. As a result, if you are going to write, you need a place you can feel comfortable in.
Do you need an uncluttered workspace? Do you work best with your family around you? Do you work with chaos around you? It’s all up to the individual. I know writers’ who work in the kitchen in the midst of their family. And writers who need to escape from the chaos that’s home. Everyone is different.
If not at home, then possibly a local coffee shop, the library. You need to feel comfortable where you write to avoid distractions, and the urge to procrastinate.
2. Pre-prepare meals
As a mom of six, understandably meal-times can be a little like feeding time at the zoo. However, I’ve found that during NaNo, if I prepare meals and freeze them, it makes for a far more efficient dinner time. As a result, during October, every time I cook a meal, I make double the amount and freeze the extra for the following month (why I don’t do this all year round I don’t know!). I’ll make cauliflower cheese, lasagna, spaghetti Bolognese, shepherd’s pie, curries. I’ll prepare veg and then put it in freezer bags (I could probably buy frozen veg, but I’ve always preferred my own). I’ll have baking days, where I make muffins, potato wedges, anything that I know the family enjoy. So that when they’re hungry, they can merely take it out of the freezer and heat it up. Meaning they leave mom alone!
3. Make sure your family and friends are aware of what NaNo means to you, and them.
I’ve traditionally used a personal contract to reinforce my commitment to NaNo. I commit to my fifty-thousand-word goal, and have in the past reached as many as 125,000 words. This has only been possible by communicating with my family. They know what writing means to me. But during November, they’re aware that they don’t come into my study. They leave me to write. My husband bought me a hat, which he jokingly referred to as my writing hat. It’s become symbolic, in that if I’m wearing it, the family leave me alone to write.
Talk to your family and friends. Explain to them what NaNo is. What you intend to do. Why it means so much to you. Help them to understand why the month is important. If you’re going to commit, then you need the support of those around you. To be honest, my family become my own personal cheerleading squad. Watching as my daily tally grows. Urging me on all the way. That kind of support is invaluable to any writer.
4. Know what you want to achieve from NaNoWriMo
It’s all well and good committing to NaNoWriMo, but what do you want to achieve? Is it a novel you’ve always known you wanted to write, but never had the time? Is it your memoirs? Perhaps it’s a thesis? A collection of short stories? As you prepare for NaNo, set your goals. Know what it is you want before the month begins.
5. Buy yourself stationery.
Most people these days’ use computers, but one of the things I’ve found vital are notebooks and pens. I have small notebooks that fit in my handbag – each one labelled differently. Character notes, ideas, quotes, sources. I also have a large notebook that I use as journals and plotting diaries. I keep record of my progress, documenting how ideas evolve. How a character has changed; why I decided it needed to happen; if I decided to change a setting. All things that contribute to the evolution of my story. Not to mention picking up interesting snippets when I’m out and about.
6. Create a schedule
Identify what time of day is most effective for your writing. Are you a day writer? An early morning writer? Or do you like writing late into the night? In identifying it, you’ll be able to create a schedule for NaNo that most effectively uses your time for creativity. Do you want to just write for a couple of hours each day? Just an hour? Do you want to join a local write-in with the your local NaNo group. Research what’s available early, so that you’re not distracted during NaNo.
7. Set your goals.
Set yourself SMART goals (small, achievable, realistic targets). It might be a word count goal. I generally aim for 2,000 words a day. But I’m lucky enough to have the time to commit to having my bum in the seat far longer than many others may be able to commit.
To achieve 50,000 words in a month, then the average would be around 1650 words a day. You’ll find some days that is easy. Others will be a struggle. But they will generally average out if you’re on course for the fifty-thousand-word goal.
If you have a goal, you have something to reach for. A direction. So commit to that goal.
That’s pretty much everything as far as the preparation is concerned. I hope this helps with others planning their NaNo journey. It’s an exciting time of year, and with only a little over two weeks to go, preparation is well and truly underway for 2016’s NaNoWriMo.
Part 2: Planning to come!
Emma Lowe moved to North Canterbury from Dunedin three years ago. She promptly joined the CWG and was overwhelmed to discover not only a network of writers, but a group of people who have become close personal friends. She has been focusing on her writing ever since (at least when she’s not juggling kids and the family business). She predominantly writes romance, and is also a member of Romance Writers of New Zealand, amongst other writing organisations.
Pantsers write “by the seat of their pants”, not following a set structure but letting the story take them on a wild, sometimes chaotic, journey. It is also known as “Discovery Writing”.
Plotters plan out the novel in advance, sometimes in meticulous detail, setting out the story’s structure and following it from beginning to end.
Which of the two are you? Is one way better than another? While I would never dictate how anyone should write, it is true that each method has its pros and its cons, and also that many writers tend to fit somewhere between the two.
Here are some tips and tricks our members shared during our Monday night discussion:
- It helps to know where the story begins, and have some idea of how it will end.
- Consider your plot points to be “signposts” designed to move the plot in the right direction.
- Be flexible: if characters, or the plot, behaves in an unexpected manner, be prepared to move these signposts.
- Use the first draft of your discovery written novel to determine the structure of the second draft.
- Many writers (especially those that are also dedicated readers) will find themselves subconsciously following the traditional story structure.
What are you? A plotter? A Pantser? Or a hybrid?
Do you have any tips and tricks of your own?
Share them with us on Twitter: @chchwriters or comment here!
We are also happy to take suggestions for our Monthly themes!
Dialogue is not easy to write, and it can take practice to make it feel natural, especially if the characters are not clearly in your head, talking. So how do you go about making your dialogue less stilted? Your characters feel more real? Below you will find a few of the pitfalls that I have observed, as both a reader and a writer, and practical advice on how to make the dialogue clearer, and feel more real.
Remember, these are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Your story is your own, and how you choose to write it is entirely up to you.
The best advice on how to write better dialogue: Practice, read it aloud, then practice some more!
Note: All extracts are taken from my current WIP, Tail of Two Scions.
He said/She said
Dialogue tags are important to establish who says what but, so saying, when two characters are having a conversation, it is not necessary to establish this every line. Generally, you need to indicate it the first time either character speaks, and then can manage several back-and-forth exchanges before having to remind the reader again.
Note: it may be appropriate in your story to leave in the “he said/she said” for every line, especially if you are writing for younger readers, who may not be fully aware of the common conventions and thus become confused. Do not feel obliged to remove them.
“Care to make your report, ranger?” Riana teased.
“Trees,” Aurelia replied. “Lots of trees. A few crows.”
“Care to try again?”
“Give me a moment.” Aurelia scooped up the water flask, downing the contents in great gulps. She stiffened, drawing herself fully upright, as Simone sauntered over to them.
When more than two characters are involved, this becomes somewhat impractical to easily manage, and attribution tags will be required.
“As you know, Jim” (aka Maid and Butler)
Yes, it is a great idea to push the plot along and supply backstory or deliver clues via dialogue. However, you have to do this very carefully. Characters should NEVER have to straight out explain to each other what both characters already know.
“Remember how we met?” Riana asked. “In the hopitaly.”
Aurelia nodded. “Oh yes,” she replied. “You’d given yourself a concussion, flying on that funny glider thing. And I’d cut my hand, trying to climb the tsingy.”
“Why were you doing that again? Weren’t you showing off or something?”
“No,” Aurelia protested. “Not showing off. I was watching for Lanitra.”
Fixing this from stilted and awkward can be as simple as rearranging it to fit into context (in this case, Aurelia’s just tried one of Riana’s flying devices, with unfortunate results).
“Maybe I need to go back to the glider skeleton.” Riana sighed. “But we both remember what happened last time I tried that.”
Aurelia nodded. “A concussion,” she replied. “But if you hadn’t concussed yourself, then we’d never have met.”
“True, true,” Riana agreed. “And if you’d never gone all bravado, tried to climb the tsingy and cut your hand to pieces, we wouldn’t have been in the hopitaly together.”
“It wasn’t bravado,” Aurelia replied. “I was watching for Lanitra…”
In the latter instance, it’s still the characters telling each other what they already know, but it is integrated in a manner that feels more like gentle teasing/banter than a general info-dump. Other ways to avoid this can be: have only one character know and be training the other (teacher/student); use a mix of action and dialogue (ie: if you need to show how a machine works, have the characters fix it and discuss the process); have the two arguing about it.
Using Adverbs Excessively
Adverbs should, generally, be avoided, although there are times when they are necessary to establish the emotions of the characters via their tone of voice. They are a classic example of “tell, not show”. It is better to use an alternate verb if one is available.
But BE AWARE: overuse of said-alternates can also be extremely distracting in a story. Generally speaking, readers often overlook the word “said” and, whilst “raged” is far more concise than “said angrily”, one doesn’t want every dialogue tag to be a different verb. Also, sometimes the meanings will be different: “Raged” suggests a far more dramatic response than a simple “said angrily”, for example.
To test whether adverbs, or even verbs, are truly necessary, I remove them from the text and read the sentence asking myself: is the character’s mood/voice clear from context? Or do I need to keep it in? Does it matter if the reader interprets it differently?
There are some insane adverbs out there—J.K. Rowling is guilty of using some really extravagant ones. Generally speaking, the more syllables they contain, the more likely they are to annoy/distract the reader.
Use of non speech verbs as dialogue tags
“Smiled”, “yawned”, “sighed”, etc are not dialogue tags. Yes, you can smile as you say something, but the smiling is not what is causing the speech
Confusion about who is speaking
Describing action instead of using dialogue tags is a useful technique that can go wrong: You can avoid dialogue tags on occasion by having the character doing something instead. If this action follows on from dialogue, the reader will automatically attribute the dialogue to the named character. Be aware of this, and always use a new line if a different character is physically (rather than verbally) reacting to the previous speaker.
Roland stepped forward, head bowed submissively. “Forgive her, Royal Advisor.” He rose his head to meet Mephistopheles’s eyes. “She is young and headstrong, filled with fire and rage. We were just surprised to find you here, in this dark, dank and desolate place.”
Mephistopheles snorted. “I am entitled to wander where and how I choose.”
In the above passage, the reader should automatically attribute the speech to Roland, even though it contains no dialogue tags. When Mephistopheles reacts, it begins a new line. If it did not, the reader might become confused about who is talking.
Hiding dialogue in prose
Try to avoid burying dialogue in the middle of a paragraph of non-verbal prose. You can precede it with a sentence, or even two, if they’re short and concise, but if it is too well hidden, or there is any confusion over who might be speaking, start it on a new line, and dialogue or action tag it appropriately:
A gasp, then her eyes narrowed. Simone let her hand fall slack to her side and Aurelia turned her gaze back at the ground. “So, you are the one then.” Rancid slime dripped and oozed from Simone’s scent. “Heir to the royal dynasty.” Her lip twisted back as though she had smelled something foul.
As you can see in the above paragraph, it is unclear who is speaking. The new paragraph should begin at “So, you…”
For more useful tips and tricks on punctuating dialogue, see Shelley’s post here from 2013: