The best thing and the worst thing about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is the relentlessness of your daily word count goal. You don’t have to write 1667 words a day, of course, but if you want to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month, you need to hit that average.
Some days that’s tough. Some days it feels well-nigh impossible. So here are 16.67 ways to juice your creative energies and string together some sentences – maybe even a scene – to get you closer to your inevitable NaNo win.
1. Take a bite. Look, your characters have to eat sometime. And what and how we eat can say something about who we are and how we live. Especially in a sci-fi, fantasy or historical fiction manuscript, what your characters eat will help define their world and invite the reader to the table.
2. Sweet dreams. Yes, dreams are absurdly overused in fiction in general as a shortcut to communicating a character’s wants and needs. However! In the deliciously sloppy first-draft world of NaNo, exploring is important. Even if the scene doesn’t make it into a finished manuscript, it might help shake something else loose—for the character or for you.
3. Dressed to the tens. Following on that point, clothes, like food, help set scenes and define worlds. Obviously in a finished book you’re probably not going to lavishly detail every single gown and glove, but if you’re looking at a fresh scene you just wrote, asking yourself what everyone involved is wearing might be a way to add a few sentences. And this month, every sentence counts.
4. Away we go. How are your characters getting from place to place? Don’t be afraid to spend a little time in a car or carriage. If two or more characters are traveling together, maybe a conversation happens on the way. Solo traveler? Maybe your buttoned-up character, in the privacy of her own Prius, likes to crank Nine Inch Nails. You may discover something that comes in handy later. If not, at least you’re keeping those fingers limber.
5. ‘Tis the season. Whether or not you’ve thought about what time of year your story takes place, mentions of weather, holidays, annual events, or other time-stamps can be helpful for your eventual reader… and round out those bare-bones scenes you’re throwing down. You’ll want to know eventually whether your character is yanking on a pair of cut-offs or zipping up her puffy parka. Might as well add that in now and put some words to it.
6. Don’t get to the point. When drafting fast, I often find myself scripting the essential parts of conversations where the action happens and then moving on. But that’s not necessarily how talking happens in the real world. You don’t need to start every phone conversation in your book with “Hello, it’s me.” “Hi. How are you?” In fact, please don’t. But ask whether your characters are actually up for these intense, brisk conversations. Is one of them actively trying notto hear what the other is saying? Might the conversation take a turn in a different direction before it comes back to why it’s there?
7. Same amount of conversation, a little more action. In those same, unnaturally effective conversations, what are your characters doing? Pacing? Staring out the window? Punching the mute button so they can chow down on a hoagie? Rounding these actions out is another technique that you can build out now and pare down later, keeping only the best.
8. Mind the gap. Some NaNo-ers work from an outline and some prefer to let the story unfold organically, but either way, you’re probably leaving something out. Go back over the order of events in your story – is there something missing that the reader should see? Does your story skip from A to C when you should put a little something in there about B? (The answer may be no. That is totally OK. But if there’s a chance that you might need to write a scene for that spot, might as well write it now! Get those words!)
9. Flash back. Not to sound like a broken record – have any of us at this point actually heard a broken record play? Note to self, get new clichés – but while too much backstory can bring a finished manuscript to a halt, it can be an absolute boon at this point in the creative process. Your character’s actions are informed by their past experiences, so if you want to write up one of those experiences as part of your NaNo manuscript, have at it!
10. Keep your darlings… and your mistakes. Please, please, please don’t edit. If you know a paragraph is too long, leave it too long. Just. Keep. Moving.
11. Pardon the interruption. You’re chugging along in a scene, writing it up, knowing what’s going to happen. That’s great! But if you’re hurting for words, consider what might happen if the action were interrupted. Doesn’t matter what you interrupt it with—a kitten, a gong, an allergic reaction to strawberries—but wrench it off the rails, and see how hard the characters work, or don’t, to wrench it back on.
12. Be prompt. Depending on how much of your plot you’ve determined in advance, you might not be looking just for words to round out the scenes you’ve decided to write – you might want something that actually helps you determine where the story’s going to go. If this is the case, there’s nothing wrong with throwing a writing prompt into your process. You may already have some prompts ready to go, and if not, a quick internet search for “writing prompts” will get you more than you’ll ever need. And when in doubt, the classic “someone enters the room with a gun” always shakes things up.
13. Let the music play. There might be music playing wherever your characters are. Write something about it. Or turn on music of your own and see what flows. You’d be amazed where that can lead.
14. Give and take, part 1. These next three ideas are “help! I need plot!” type suggestions, but if you fall into that category, here you go. 1) Give your character something she wants, but not in the way she wants it.
15. Give and take, part 2. 2) Give your character something she doesn’t want.
16. Give and take, part 3. 3) If your character has what she wants, take it away.
16.67 The final two-thirds. The last bit of idea I offer is to take all these other ideas with a grain of salt. Of course you don’t want a manuscript that goes on and on for 50,000 words in meaningless, painstaking detail about parkas, hoagies and interrupting kittens, but lacks any forward movement or meaningful characterizations. But maybe something here shakes something loose for you and helps you move forward. Another five words at a time. Ten words. A hundred words. For countless writers during NaNo, that’s how a first draft happens.
Just keep writing.