• What We Talk About When We Talk About NaNoWriMo

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in Strategies     Comments 11 comments

    The start of November brings several things to Austin: cooler temperatures (finally), discounted Halloween candy, and National Novel Writing Month. While I love the first two, my personal feelings on NaNoWriMo are mixed. On one hand, I think that us writer-ly types should strive to write as much as possible every month, not just during November. Plus, revising a book takes a lot more time than writing one, at least for me. (Maybe December, January, and February should be the Quarter of National Novel Revising Months, or QuatroNaNoReMo.)

    But I also know first-hand that NaNoWriMo can be fun and productive, whether you approach it as a one-time experience or the launching pad for a longer-term project. However, with that fun comes a lot of work. It’s a marathon. And you don’t want to lose steam (i.e., lose confidence in your story, your writing abilities, or even yourself) before the finish line.

    Below are a few of my favorite writing tips. When I follow them, I feel like I’ve written the best material I can today, which makes me hopeful about the writing I can do tomorrow. I hope you find them useful as you’re typing furiously, whether you’re trying to get your novel done this November or working on a non-NaNoWriMo writing project:


    • Conflict. My 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Bard (seriously, that was her name), taught me the first thing I remember about writing a good story. “Tell me when this gets boring,” she said before launching into a tale about a girl who lived in a lovely house with beautiful flowers outside, and had a sister and they never fought, and everything was happy and perfect and great. Soon, us students were groaning. “Okay,” she said, “then one day, the girl went to the grocery store, where she saw a mean, nasty witch waving her magic wand.” The kids stopped complaining. Her point was made. Conflict makes things interesting. Do you have enough of it in your story?


    • Ands, Buts, and Therefores. Comedy Central recently aired a great special showing the creative process behind an average episode of South Park (a show Mrs. Bard definitely would not have approved of). At one point, my hero and idol Trey Parker talks about revising the storyline as the episode gets further along in the production process. “I sort of call it the rule of replacing ‘ands’ with ‘buts’ and ‘therefores,'” he explained. Basically, he whittles and restructures the story from, as he puts it, “This happens and then this happens and then this happens” to the far more dynamic “This happens, therefore this happens, but this happens.” Think about this when you’re writing. Is something about to happen just because it’s an “and,” or because it’s a “but” or a “therefore”?


    • Less Being, More Doing. Beware of being verbs. They’re almost as boring as a story without conflict. You could write, “She was in a hurry, and she noticed her shoes were noisy.” But why would you when you could write “She walked hurriedly as the cracked soles of her cowboy boots scraped against the dry, dusty pavement”? Not only is that phrase a lot more vivid–it’s also longer, getting you ever closer to having 50,000 words written without scrimping on quality!


    • Cliches. Avoid them like the plague, even if you’re writing by the skin of your teeth. They’re dull as dishwater.


    Good luck, NaNoWriMo participants. And hang in there. The last time I participated, I took an additional month to finish my book. It was the first novel I ever wrote, and I’m still proud of it–though I’ll be a lot prouder after I revise it.


    (Editor’s Note: WBN will be hosting official NaNo write-ins Saturdays in November from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and unofficial write-ins all month during our regularly scheduled open hours. So come on in and get your NoWri on.)


    When she’s not revising her first trilogy of YA novels, hugging her rescued dogs, or playing “Rock Band” with her husband, Sarah Rodriguez Pratt writes for her blog ThatsAGirlsCar.com. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University and a Master’s in Information Studies from UT-Austin. A native Texan, she grew up in McAllen but has called Austin home for over a decade.


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    Fantastic tips, Sarah. Your mention of revision got me thinking: Do you think that most writers know how to revise? My feeling is that we toss around the word without always understanding a.) what it means, and b.) how to go about it. If that’s the case, and if writing is rewriting–which I believe it is–are we in trouble?

    David Duhr

    You’re referring, I assume, to writers who think that proofing a piece and changing a word here and there constitutes “revision?”

    They say that 90% of writing is rewriting. Are “rewriting” and “revision” interchangeable? Talk amongst yourselves.


    A friend once told me the difference between editing and revising is that the former means cutting out material, and the latter is rewriting, etc. So that’s what I’ve been going on lately. Is that how WriteByNighters refer to them? I’m not sure if I’m revising correctly, to tell you the truth. (Hell, I don’t even know if I’m writing correctly.) But every time I revise, I change at least 30% of the material. And this latest revision involves rewriting about 60-75% of my novel, because one of the two major storylines has changed dramatically. Whenever I revise, though, I… Read more »


    That’s pretty accurate. In my view, a revision is just what it sounds like: a complete re-envisioning of the piece. For a revision to really be a revision, the piece should be almost unrecognizable from its original form. Revision is always the first step; editing is the second. Editing is attention paid to line-level issues, like language and flow. As for how many revisions are necessary, it’s a great question and one that is next to impossible to answer, but I’ll give it a shot. Every writer has a different revision style, and every piece has its own unique needs.… Read more »

    David Duhr

    You really expect us to believe that you had an English teacher named Mrs. Bard? What kind of fools do you take us for?

    What this piece doesn’t touch on is whether or not you’re doing NaNo again this year. Do tell.

    Anyway, good tips. I once had an editor reject my story because she “lost interest on page 4 because I couldn’t identify the conflict.” And she was right.


    I did! I swear! Her husband, Mr. Bard, was my 8th grade history teacher. And their kid was in my classes in junior high. But fine. Don’t believe me. (sniffle)

    As for NaNoWriMo: No, I’m not doing it this year. Too much revision (too many revisions?) currently needed on my novel. But my goal is to finish the major revisions by Thanksgiving, which is almost a month from now.

    Laura Roberts

    Great tips! I will be at WBN for the write-ins on Saturdays with my novel-in-progress, Naked Montreal, and a copy of the NaNoWriMo bible, No Plot? No Problem!, in case anyone wants to sneak a peek. I always love doing NaNoWriMo, but this year I am trying to stay focused on my neglected novel, doing a mixture of writing and revising as the month progresses.


    Yes! WBN NaNoWriMo details here: https://www.writebynight.net/writing-center/events/


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