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Things I learned in November

Writing desk

This November I did NANOWRIMO—50,000 words in 30 days.

Friends have been trying to convince me to do it for years, but I balked at the idea. Writing 1667 words every day for 30 days sounded like hard work. I had other excuses too. I was always in the middle of another project and November is when I usually buy gifts to mail to my family who don’t live in Canada.

But I REALLY wanted to learn to write faster—and Nanowrimo seemed like the perfect mechanism for doing that. So I set aside my current middle grade writing project, delayed the gift buying (sorry family!), and dug out a book I bought with good intentions this time last year (Fast Fiction: A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First-Draft Novel in Thirty Days by Denise Jaden).

Then, on November 1, I sat my butt in the chair and opened a new Scrivener project. I decided not to worry about story structure, to just write a scene or part of a scene every day, in random order if need be. Get to know the characters, I told myself. Scary stuff! No outline, no plot, no conflict. Just a couple of characters and the idea that I would use alternating points of view.

Over the course of the month, I learned:

  1. It takes persistence—a goodly amount of it!
  2. I have to set strict rules for myself: no editing, minimal research, and most importantly, lock my inner critic in the garden shed.
  3. If I have a clear idea of where the scene is going, I can write quicker.
  4. Even though I’m an outliner, I can write by the seat of my pants if I’ve left myself no other option.
  5. First drafts don’t have to be good, they just have to be done.
  6. Making time to write means saying No to other things I want to do.
  7. I don’t enjoy writing words for the sake of meeting a word count goal. I prefer short time goals.
  8. No wine until the final 500 words of the day.
  9. Just write 100 words, and then another 100 words, and another. 100 words at a time adds up to 1667 or more.
  10. Some days are easier than others.
  11. It helps when dinner magically appears in front of you – thank you Patrick!
  12. Knowing friends are doing it too, and watching their daily word counts, is motivating – thanks Karen, Lisa, Annie, Pauline, and Aven for being there with me!

Did I make it to 50,000 in 30 days? YES! That makes me a Nanowrimo 2015 Winner!NaNo-2015-Winner-Badge-Large-Square

Did I learn to write faster? YES!

Would I do Nanowrimo again? Maybe. If I had a solid outline.

Would I recommend it to others? Yes, but only if you have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish. It’s hard work (really!) so it helps if you have a goal that’s more specific than writing 50,000 words. What’s motivating you to do it? Knowing that will help you face the page every day.

Can you read my Nanowrimo story? NO! At least not until I’ve edited it and given it some structure and rounded out the characters and figured out what the central conflict is and learned some of the genre conventions and… yeah, it needs a lot of work. For now I’m putting it aside to finish my middle grade novel.

Have you ever participated in Nanowrimo? What did you learn?

Talking about Prove It, Josh

Sono Nis Press filmed this short video of me talking about the process of writing Prove It, Josh.

Here’s the link on Youtube.

MICE and outlining

This last weekend, I went to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. There are so many great things to say about this conference it’s hard to know where to start. It’s four days (three days of conference plus a day of pre-conference workshops) surrounded by writers talking about writing. Exhausting and overwhelming, but also exhilarating and inspiring.

For me, one of the best parts is the Presenter Lunch. A presenter (author, editor, agent) sits at each table, but who sits where is a mystery until we all sit down. This year I was lucky enough to be sitting at a table with Mary Robinette Kowal, an author and professional puppeteer. She was so personable and entertaining, I decided to go to her outlining session later that afternoon, which turned out to be the best decision because it was the session I found the most valuable over the weekend. Here are my notes:


  1. Write a list of your plot events in order.
  2. Decide where the story starts – any events that occur before the start are backstory.
  3. Use chapters to control pacing and keep readers reading. Occasionally you can take the first line of one chapter and use it as the last line of the previous chapter so that the reader is forced to turn the page.
  4. Use a series of questions to keep the story moving forward. If a question has a “Yes” or “No” answer, the story stops. If a question has a “Yes, but” or “No, and” answer, the story carries on.
  5. If you’re using multiple points of view (POV), for each scene, decide which character has the most at stake. That character should be your POV character for the scene. (Although later when you look at your entire story, you might need to change scene POVs to adjust the balance if some characters have too many or not enough scenes.)
  6. Consider what type of story you’re telling, using the MICE quotient (from Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint).


  • Milieu – a story that starts and ends in a place, often with a journey such as the traditional hero’s journey
  • Idea – a story that starts with a question and ends when the question is answered
  • Character – a story that starts when a character is dissatisfied and ends when the character is satisfied, resigned, or dead
  • Event – a story that starts with an event that disrupts the status quo and ends when the status quo is reinstated

In short stories, you will probably find only one of these story types, but in longer stories, it’s common to see several types nested. The trick when you use more than one is to nest them like you would with code. The first story type to start is the last to finish. The second type to start is the second-to-last to finish.

For further reading, here’s a blogpost by another conference attendee, or you can listen to Mary herself in a Writing Excuses podcast (scroll down to beneath the sharing buttons and click the circle button with the Play icon).

And to finish up, here’s a picture of me with a couple of writing friends at the conference. Maybe I’ll see you there next year!

First drafts

Do you like writing first drafts?

Lots of people love starting a new project. They’re brimming over with ideas for fascinating characters and surprising plot twists.

But I hate them. I stare at the blank page. I write a few words and then edit the life out of them. I get to the end of a scene, and then rewrite it over and over, even though I tell other people to keep moving forward with the story (why can’t I take my own advice?) It all just feels impossible.

Today I’m pulling out a new project to work on. It’s something I started earlier in the year, but put aside, so it’s like starting over. Here I am, staring at my screen, and trying to remember how I’ve done this before. And that’s when I remember—Kaizen—One Small Step Can Change Your Life.

It’s a book a read two years ago, that suggests starting with steps that are so small and easy, you can’t not do them. If you’re trying to convince yourself to exercise, a small step might be to march on the spot in front of your TV for 5 minutes every day. For me, it means writing for 10 minutes every day. I even have the Streaks app on my iPod Touch so I can’t cheat and miss a day. 10 minutes is such a short time I have no excuse not to do it. And it’s too short a time to worry about being perfect. All that matters is writing something, anything. Surprisingly, the words add up. You wouldn’t think so, but even 10 minutes a day is enough to build some momentum and carry you forward.

So I’m tightening my seatbelt and setting my timer for 10 minutes. Want to join me?