How do writers succeed at writing a novel?

I’m 30,000 words away from finishing a 50,000-word novel this month. There are 14 days left in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  And I’m insecure because I’ve succeeded and failed at writing a novel in a month.  I bragged when I “won” NaNoWriMo and remained quiet when I “lost” NaNoWriMo.

I’m determined not to fall short of my goal again.  So, I gathered NaNoWriMo advice from other writers to see how they accomplish writing a novel.

I asked four writers: Sandy Brewster, Joseph V. Carusone, Janine De Tillio Cammarata and Dan DeWitt to share their experiences with NaNoWriMo.  I asked each writer 2 questions:

  1. What has your NaNoWriMo experience been like?
  2. What writing advice would you give other writers?

Read their responses and find what inspires you to continue writing even when you’re discouraged.

4 Writers’ NaNoWriMo Experiences and Advice

 

1. Sandy Brewster—Author of the novel, Reformation.  NaNoWriMo Winner 2014 & Participant  2014-2017

What has your NaNoWriMo experience been like?

Sometime in 2013, I started attending a local writers’ group that met at my library and by NaNoWriMo in 2014, several of us decided to commit to writing our novels. 50,000 words sounded huge, but we broke it down week by week and day by day and signed up at the website. The emails from NaNoWriMo provided encouragement and in our weekly meetings, we kept each other accountable.

When the month ended, three of us had met our goal. One had 50,000 words of individual scenes that she planned to knit together with more words, one had written an additional 50,000 words on her epic historical fantasy, and I had finished my first novel, a YA science fiction book! The others who’d signed up with us had not met their full goals but were excited that they had written more than ever and established new writing habits. I went on to edit and publish, with CreateSpace, my novel, Reformation, the story of a troubled foster child who turns out to be a clone.

What writing advice would you give other writers?

I was so empowered by actually finishing a whole book, I’ve gone on to write three more, including Reunion, the sequel to Reformation. This year I am committed to adding another 10,000 words to a Christmas novel I’ve been working on. I continue to participate in NaNoWriMo each year and have two T-shirts (and many pages of writing to show for it). Wherever I am, I search out other participants to encourage and be encouraged by. My advice to other writers is to break your project down into small bites- commit to write just one chapter at a time or one page. Then establish a habit or schedule. Write every day or every week, a little bit at a time. You’d be surprised how much you can accomplish once you get started!

You can learn more about Sandy Brewster’s writing at https://www.facebook.com/flybybooks5/   Sandy Brewster’s novel Reformation is on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Reformation-Sandy-Brewster/dp/0692514902/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1510263186&sr=1-2&keywords=Sandy+Brewster+Reformation

2. Joseph V. Carusone NaNoWriMo Winner 2015 & 2016 & NaNoWriMo Participant 2015– 2017

What has your NaNoWriMo experience been like?

NaNoWriMo entered my life at the exact moment I needed it to. I first heard of NaNoWriMo in the Spring of 2015 while attending a fiction writers workshop at the New York State Writers Institute. At that time, I was six years into the struggle of writing a novel that just wasn’t working for me and that I found myself perpetually starting over without finishing in hopes of fixing what I perceived to be fatal flaws in the foundation.

What I learned through NaNoWriMo was that I had been vastly underrating the value in simply finishing the novel. Getting to the end was not only satisfying in its own right but helped me find my way through the narrative in a way that starting the novel over never could.

I’m currently in the middle of my third straight NaNoWriMo, and each year I learn something new. The first year I tried my hand at NaNoWriMo I adapted one of my own short stories into a fully fleshed out 50,000- word novel. Taking that short story – which had an intentionally vague ending – and expanding the narrative past the original ending forced me to think outside the box and look deep into the wants and needs of my characters.

My second year I wrote a novel without spending much time pre-planning (writing by the seat of my pants, as they say) and let my characters take me where they wanted to go; turns out I didn’t care too much for where they wanted to go. It was through that experience that I realized I was a planner, not a pantser. I vowed to plan, plan, plan ahead of next year’s NaNoWriMo, which leads me to this year.

What writing advice would you give other writers?

On October 1st I stopped all other writing and focused entirely on planning my 2017 NaNoWriMo project. By the time NaNoWriMo started, I already knew my basic plot through to the end, I knew the names, goals and plot roles of my main characters, and I even had a few rough ideas for important scenes. When November 1st rolled around not only did the words flow out like water, but I really enjoyed what I was writing. My advice to all NaNoWriMo participants is plan, outline and plan some more. Knowing where you want to go makes it a whole lot easier to get there.

Learn more about Joseph V. Carusone’s writing on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JosephVCarusoneAuthor  and follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/JosephVCarusone

And to see more of his advice for NaNoWriMo writers check out his post on the NaNoWriMo blog, “NaNo Trick or Treat: The Daily Progress Blog” at http://blog.nanowrimo.org/post/152116987590/nano-trick-or-treat-the-daily-progress-blog

3. Janine De Tillio Cammarata, author of Warriors Within: Book One of the Fianna Cycle, Eyes of the Goddess: Book Two of the Fianna Cycle, What Makes Them Amazing and The Puzzle Quests: Shimmer’s Eggs. NaNoWriMo Participant 2017

What has your NaNoWriMo experience been like?  

Even though I formed an account for NaNoWriMo two years ago, this is the first year that I have actively participated. I never wanted that much pressure and thought my writing would suffer.

I was wrong! The word count and badges are an incentive, but writing every day has made it easier to keep the story flowing. I don’t have to reread what I have already written because it’s fresh in my mind. Having to write a certain number of words per day quiets the editor in me who wants to review, reread, and rewrite. I don’t have time to edit and make my word count, so I choose to keep writing! My goal is to reach 50,000 words by November 30. Then take some time away from it. The excitement will be in seeing what I have created.

I enjoy updating my word count, earning badges, and supporting my writing buddies. Writing is such a solitary art, it’s refreshing to share it with others. I haven’t been able to get to a write-in, but I write during the times I know others are gathering.

NaNoWriMo is like preparing for a marathon. Practicing every day will make crossing the finish line even sweeter

What writing advice would you offer to other writers?

For NaNoWriMo, I would do a little planning before November 1. I usually write organically and let the story unfold as I go. However, there are times when I need to develop my character or setting a bit further. Even though it would happen during the writing, I’d like to have the foundation of my story developed more before starting this challenge. It prevents the need to stop and research.

My advice for NaNoWriMo or at the beginning of any project is to have a storyboard on a poster or in excel. It would consist of Themes, Characters, Setting, and Story Threads. This month, I am writing the second book in my middle grade novel called The Puzzle Quests: Saving Atlantis.

Themes: Some of the themes are water, ocean habitat, mermaids, being unique, dealing with grief, controlling what you can. Having this on a board or on an excel sheet keeps the themes active in my mind. I don’t have to revisit them or get stilted when I lose my train of thought. As new themes develop, they can be added.

Characters: For characters, I list their name, physical description, personality, conflict, and how they grow. I write out a whole character development form, but these are the five most important reminders I want right in front of me to keep writing. I also pin up photos I think the characters resemble. In The Puzzle Quests series, they are based on my two boys and their best friends, so that makes it easier.

Setting: I add in physical descriptions, names of places, especially in a fantasy setting. Sometimes a map will help as well. For the underwater worlds, I print out photos to capture the colors.

Story Threads: When writing a series, it’s important to remember what story threads continue from the previous book. Not every conflict or storyline has been concluded. I don’t want to forget that and not have it added in the next book. The story threads keep me on track.

Finally, to keep my story flowing even faster when I’m done for the day, I write a quick note about what to explore the next day. This way I can jump right in with all my tools around me.

Janine De Tillio Cammarata has always loved tales of dragons and time travel. When her children were younger, she often made up her own stories as she rocked them to sleep. Now Janine teaches creative fiction and journal writing workshops to all ages from elementary school, middle grade, high school, and adults. She is a graduate of the College of Saint Rose (’88, ’93) in English Literature with a concentration in Medieval Literature. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she is walking her dogs, riding her motorcycle, practicing yoga, and helping children battle cancer through her foundation, Nick’s Fight to be Healed. She and her family live in upstate New York with their two rescue dogs, Zoey Shadow and Dakota Kenny. To contact Janine or find out more, visit her website at www.janinedetilliocammarata.com   Her latest book is The Puzzle Quests: Shimmer’s Eggs.  You can contact her at:  

Janine Cammarata
518-466-5558
Nick’s Fight to be Healed Foundation
Highland Mountain Publishing

4. Dan DeWitt, author of the Zombie thriller Orpheus and NaNoWriMo Participant & 2 Time NaNoWriMo Winner

What has your NaNoWriMo experience been like?

I first did NaNoWriMo in 2006. I started five days late and finished by the skin of my teeth. Ultimately, I ended up unpublishing the resulting novel (a Norse-themed adventure) because I wasn’t happy with the execution. However, it definitely jumpstarted my writing career. Since then I’ve “won” two more times (including 2016), participated in but didn’t finish others, and a few years I’ve just skipped entirely.

I decided to skip 2017 because, at least for me, NaNoWriMo can have a downside. After I finished in 2016, I was so burnt out that I decided to take a little break to recharge. That little break turned into several months. For a writer, that’s not good. Still, I would recommend that any writer try it at least once and see how it fits. There are just too many success stories to write it off as coincidence.

What writing advice would you offer to other writers?

This one’s tricky because I’m absolutely the worst writer in the world when it comes to doing what writers are “supposed” to do. I don’t write every day. I don’t write at the same time, or in the same place. I don’t stare at a blinking cursor and agonize over just writing something, even if it’s bad (I think that’s the worst thing a new writer can do, to be honest). I don’t do any number of the things that writers traditionally are told to do.

I heard a quote some years ago (I want to say it was from Spider Robinson, but I’m not sure): “You’re writing, you’re just not typing yet.” That’s my approach in a nutshell. Unless my mind is otherwise occupied, it’s working on my current or future books, mapping out plot points, catching inconsistencies, etc. Doing the dishes? Yeah, but I’m also writing in my head. Mowing the lawn? Same. That way, when I sit down at my computer, the writing comes fast and easy. When that dries up, I stop.

That’s not for everybody, I know. Writing can be hard, it’s often infuriating, but I don’t believe it should be punishing. So, I guess my advice would be, “If you’re not having any fun at all, take as long a break as you need. Do something you enjoy. Let your mind wander. If your story is good, it’ll always wander back.”

Dan DeWitt’s novel Orpheus is available at Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Orpheus-Dan-DeWitt-ebook/dp/B005KDO4RM/ref=la_B005L18J4M_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1510782064&sr=1-2  You can learn more about all of his work on his Amazon Author Page at https://www.amazon.com/Dan-H-DeWitt/e/B005L18J4M

Conclusion

Whether it’s academic writing or creative writing you will be faced with challenging writing projects.  You could find it difficult to stay motivated and finish your novel, short story, poem, essay or academic paper.  You’ll experience obstacles and writer’s block, but there is a path forward.  Practice and learn from other writers.   Every writer has a unique approach and style.   Try different things and find what works best for you.

Now it’s time for me to write 30,000 words.  (November 30th is 2 weeks away.)

What NaNoWriMo advice or writing tips help you?  Share your comments below.

Photo by Rachel Lees on Unsplash