The Unknown Rules to Novel Writing

I finished NaNoWriMo in record time this year. I had written 50,000 words by November 23rd and finished my story on November 24th. I had five days to do other things at the end of the month, and one of the things I did was look back over November to figure out why my novel went so well.

The short answer is: I have no idea.

I wish I could say it was superior preparation. I did start thinking about my project in October, but I didn’t have any sort of outline. In fact, my attempts to lay out major scenes as guideposts, which worked so well for me in 2013, didn’t seem to help at all. I knew a lot of what would happen in a general way, but the scenes didn’t fit the structure I used in the past.

I wish I could say it was skill. Sure, I’ve done NaNoWriMo for 11 years in a row now, and in some ways things have gotten easier. I am better prepared for the pitfalls that can crop up, from trips and holidays, to running out of story three days into the month.

I wish I could say it was not taking any trips while writing. I wrote every day, and did not have to sleep away from home at any time. But I’ve had great success writing first drafts on the road. My second most successful November included three trips! I was away from home most of the month. And I’ve had dismal NaNoWriMos when I didn’t go anywhere physically and still struggled to get the words down.

So what happened? The muse smiled on me. That’s all I can think. The words were there, I never lacked for ideas, it was easy to get myself to sit down and write. Also, I had great fun, chuckling when my characters surprised me. I loved Ophelia’s feminist rants and laughed when the ghost told her she was “only a girl” because I knew how much that would piss her off.

While I am grateful that this draft was so easy for me to write, I keep wondering: what was the secret? Did I do something that made it go like this? Can I do it again?

The fact is, every year has been different because every first draft is different. Every novel has its own needs when it comes to the first draft. Just because something worked really well for one book doesn’t mean it will work for the next one. There is no magic formula. There are no rules.

There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are. — W. Somerset Maugham

How I wish this wasn’t true. While it may not be a universal experience, plenty of writers say that every book is a new adventure and that they have to figure out how to write a novel all over again, no matter how many novels they’ve written in the past.

Sometimes creation is easy and sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I am flooded with ideas, and the words flow out of me as a result. Other times, the ideas come in fits and spurts and the gaps in between require gritting my teeth and writing anyway. Occasionally I am possessed by a muse of fire and, burning with the need to create whatever I have envisioned, I work obsessively to get it done as soon as I can.

However it happens, the most helpful thing I can do is keep showing up. When I’m tired or uninspired or distracted by other shiny things, I can still put time in with my writing project and move it forward. Even when I write something that is all wrong, I have made progress. I have learned what is not right for my story.

There are no rules and there are no tricks. There is just doing the work. We run, we walk, we limp, we crawl. But whatever we do, we must show up and move.

NaNoWriMo: The End of the Line

November 30th is here, and around the world, those who aren’t finished yet are writing like the wind to complete their novels for National Novel Writing Month.


For those who finished early: Congratulations! There is nothing like taking on an impossible task with an intimidating deadline and hitting your goal before you needed to. You were blessed with words and ideas and creative flow and plenty of time to write.

For those who finished today: Congratulations! You did it! 50K words in 30 days! You are awesome. You were blessed with tenacity and determination (also know in some circles as stubbornness) and you beat the odds.

For those who are nowhere near finished: Congratulations! You took on this crazy challenge and did what you could. You wrote something, even if it wasn’t what you’d hoped for. You were blessed with important lessons. Maybe you learned you need to use an outline. Maybe you learned you can’t write with an outline. Maybe you learned you really aren’t actually interested in writing after all. Whatever the lesson, this insane experiment has taught you something you didn’t know about yourself. Pat yourself on the back and hold on to what you learned.

Writing After November: Building a Habit Despite the Finish Line


Many people take on the challenge of National Novel Writing Month in the hopes of building a habit of writing daily. The event seems perfect for this since success requires writing at least 1667 words a day for 30 days. Years of participating in NaNoWriMo has taught me my first reaction to having written 50,000 words under the gun is to collapse. It can be hard to do any writing for the week after I finish my novel and December is spent struggling to write regularly on whatever project I want to complete next.

Fortunately, I discovered why this is a problem in Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. The reason NaNoWriMo doesn’t build a writing habit is because it has a finish line. This gives us an excuse to stop doing something, even if we’ve been doing it successfully for days on end. Once we cross the finish line, our brain says “I’m done!” and walks off whistling. Our reason to write is gone.

Setting a finish line does indeed help some people reach a specific, one-time goal, but although it’s widely assumed to help habit formation, the reward of hitting a finish line can actually undermine habits. — Gretchen Rubin

According to Rubin, the trick to making a goal with a deadline help build a habit is to have a plan. Not just for the event but for what you will do right after the event. Having a clear idea of how you will transition from before the finish line to after it can help you carry what you have been doing forward and turn what was a deadline-fueled commitment into something that will last longer and become habit.

Ways to keep writing after you hit 50,000 words:

Know what’s next. Before the month is over, decide what you will be doing in December. Pick the project you will work on and set goals now for what you will do then. (For those new to the game, I recommend setting aside this month’s draft and letting it rest while you work on something else. You need to get some distance from what you’ve written before you try to revise it. I always wait until January at least before I read through my latest NaNoWriMo draft, and longer than that to start revising it.)

Change the short term into the long term. Instead of thinking, “I’m done when I write 50,000 words,” think “I’m done when I’ve written my 2000 words for the day.” Focus on today instead of forever. Success is meeting that daily goal, one day at a time.

If you work really well with a deadline, use it. To leverage this month’s activity into future activity, take on a new challenge when this one is done. You can keep using finish lines as long as you make sure you have another one on the horizon.

While I’ve faced this tricky transition for more than ten years now, this year is harder than usual. I crossed the 50K line on the 23rd and finished my story on the 24th. My brain has been thinking “I’m on VACATION!” since the moment I typed “The End”. But I am not letting it off the hook. I’ve decided to follow my own advice and keep writing what I can daily. Today I’m drafting blog posts and will not be done until I’ve got 2000 new words down. I am also going to add some more material to my draft to make it more complete before the month ends, 2000 words at a time.

I was lucky. The words really came pouring out this month and I want to keep them flowing. So I will keep showing up and keep writing and hope this steady effort can become a daily habit even when NaNoWriMo is over.

How about you? Do you have a plan for what to do after NaNoWriMo is over?

With NaNoWriMo, Everyone Wins


Writers participating in NaNoWriMo are heading into the home stretch. While there are eight days left for writing, I wanted to encourage everyone who signed up, no matter if they’ve written their 50,000 words already or only managed 50 words all month.

Look at you! You took on a big bad challenge and you took a swipe at it. You wrote this month, even if it wasn’t as much as you’d hoped. You probably love books and maybe you’ve always longed to be a writer. And now you are one.

You may not be as far along as you’d like. 50,000 words may seem out of your reach. But celebrate what you have done already.

To have reached this point is no small achievement:
what you’ve done already is a wonderful thing.
— C. V. Cavafy

The best news? You still have eight more days to add some words. So treat yourself to more time with your novel and celebrate every word you get written.

Plenty of people dream of writing a book.

You are actually doing it.

How is your November going?

The Secret to Being A Writer? Keep Writing!


November is halfway over and by now, many people despair of finishing their NaNoWriMo challenge. I’m here to remind you that there is no magic. There is only determination.

Over the years I’ve noticed that the most significant difference between the people who keep writing and the people who stop writing is no more and no less than this: The people who keep writing are the ones who keep writing. … There’s no magic to it, only sheer bloody-minded stubbornness. — Rachel Kadish

As I’ve been saying all month, any writing beats no writing, so make time to write a few words today.

If you are not meeting your expectations, try lowering the bar. Sometimes less can lead to more.

Whatever you do, pat yourself on the back for the things you accomplish today.

Did you write 2000 words? 20 words? or 2? It’s all good.

You deserve credit for showing up. And if you are stubborn enough to show up again tomorrow? Even better.

Keep writing and let me know how your novel is coming.

To Write More, You Must Write


One week into NaNoWriMo, and I am reminded that if I want to write more, I need to write more.

OK. That sounds crazy. William Hazlitt said it (somewhat) better:

The more a man writes, the more he can write.

My word count for the last week shows this. Not only did I write more words per session by Day 7 than I had on Day 1, but I also got faster, writing more words in less time.

True, part of the reason for this is the deadline. The founder of NaNoWriMo believes that all we need to accomplish great tasks is a deadline and, in a way, he is right. It’s much easier to stick to my daily writing when I have a word count to hit by the end of the month than when I am working on a project I plan to finish “someday”.

But the other reason I’m doing so well? The more I write, the more I can write. I’m training up. Writing every day makes it easier to write again tomorrow.

What do you think?

Important NaNoWriMo Reminders

In the whirlwind of November, when I am busy writing for NaNoWriMo*, it’s easy to forget things I’ve learned in previous years. I start asking myself questions and am too tired to remember the answers. I forget basic things I once knew. This year I’ve made a list to refer to and I’m sharing it here for those who also suffer from amnesia in November.

November is National Novel Writing Month


Why in the hell am I doing this again?

  • Because it’s fun!
  • Because this is your audacious goal, the crazy thing you do every November. Some people run marathons, cook all Julia Child’s recipes in a year, or spend months hiking the PCT. NaNoWriMo is the dare you take.
  • Because this is an opportunity to try something new. Take a risk, set a goal. See what happens.

Why am I wasting my time writing this shitty draft when I already have plenty of shitty drafts to revise?

  • You are practicing writing and story-telling.
  • You are exploring new territory and trying things out. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work out. Discovery of what doesn’t work is as important as discovering what does.
  • Writing is about process, not product. It’s the unexpected discoveries, the unfamiliar vistas, the surprising ideas that make writing so satisfying.
    To take a break from other projects and have some fun.


I’m stuck/ bored/ frustrated/ way behind on my word count/ ready to give up. What do I do now?

  • Make sure you are not trying to be someone you aren’t. Honor your process. Don’t fight who you are by trying to do something that is wrong for you. If you write best with a plan, then make a detailed outline. If plans freeze you up or make an interesting story go cold, then wing it.
  • Write to find out what you should do next. Brainstorm lists, puzzle on paper. The answers will come. (And if you are behind on your word count, there’s no law that says you can’t include these thoughts in your novel.)
  • Get some help. Visit the NaNoWriMo forums or ask for ideas from friends on Facebook. No one said you have to do this all alone.
  • Make a visual “map” of the story. Drawing can help generate ideas, even if you are only good at stick figures.
  • Blow something up. Or burn something down. Throw a disaster in and see what happens.
  • Skip to a different part of the story (forward or back) and start writing about that.
    Summarize the boring parts of your story in order to get to the good stuff.
  • Make lists instead of writing detailed descriptions. (This sounds like contradictory advice when you are trying to get your word count up, but I spend too much time writing descriptions. Instead, I just list the details I want to remember and move on.)
  • Fill your story with things you love to read about, not things you hate or think are “good” for your novel. Write Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries, not Bran Flakes.

Other things to remember:

  • You can do this.
  • No multi-tasking. Turn off the internet and the phone. Focus!
  • Pace yourself and take breaks. That day between writing sessions gives your muse valuable time to come up with new ideas.
  • Take care of yourself: rest, eat well, exercise, pamper yourself. Creative writing is hard work and racing the clock is wearing. You need to be at your best to survive.
  • Uncertainty is an unavoidable part of the creative process. Feel the fear, and do it anyway. Everything will be all right.

Did I miss anything? What do you need to remember in November?

*NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.