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In April 2018, I — figuratively — picked up a pen and started trying to write my first novel. I’d heard about this thing called Camp NaNoWriMo, where writers all over the world tried to write a novel in a month. I had this idea that came about from reading a massive amount of books all throughout my life, but most spectacularly from reading romance novels over the past few years. I had an idea and thought I could totally write a novel.
Big surprise – it didn’t work out super well. Looking back, I really did not know about the craft of writing, and though I had read hundreds of romance novels, there’s a vast difference between knowing what you enjoy as a pleasure reader and understanding how to plot and structure a good romance novel.
My first NaNoWriMo, I wrote 22,299 words. What happened then? I ran out of ideas for scenes and was unsure where to take my story. Is that story good? I don’t know; I haven’t read it since I put it down. Will I pick it back up again someday? I hope so.
On April 1, 2020, I picked that figurative pen back up again and started my second attempt at a novel, and I did it! Then I took part in July’s NaNoWriMo, and the big November NaNoWriMo, winning each time and writing three novels in 2020.
Here’s my advice.
What is NaNoWriMo anyway?
NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Technically, it’s the month of November, but there are also programs that run in April and July. Writers all over the world commit to a goal for the month. The default goal is 50,000 words, which is the length of a short novel. That’s 1,667 words a day.
NaNo is gamified, with a goal tracker, badges to win, and support groups. You can be involved in NaNo as little or as much as you want.
My April 2018 NaNo was pretty solitary. I sat by myself, on my boat in Australia at the time, and tried to crank out words. My setting was New York City, so I researched my scenes on Google Maps, flying by the seat of my pants as I went.
Hitting 22,299 words and not knowing where to go from there was pretty disheartening. But life moved on, and I had other things to do. But the goal of writing a novel still sat in the back of my mind.
Become a Lurker
While things percolated (so productive!) I joined some writing and self-publishing groups on Facebook and Reddit. While I had nothing productive to add, I started reading posts – a LOT!
My top recommendations for writer groups on Facebook:
Recommendations for writer groups on Reddit:
I joined local writing groups by searching “[city] writers” and started following my public library, which has writing events.
Post started popping up on my Reddit and Facebook feeds (that’s a problem for another day). I read anything that looked interesting and learned self-pub terminology, writing techniques, basically anything people were talking about.
I also began reading MORE romance, reviewing it, and trying to think critically about it. I joined reading groups, listened to podcasts, and started paying attention to trends and book structure. After reading a book I rated five-stars, I signed up for the author’s newsletter and liked them on Facebook.
There was no active thought in my mind that I would try again. It was a ‘someday’ goal: maybe when I was done with this 6-year project, or maybe when we stopped being on the move so much, I would try to write again.
Write What You Know
For my second attempt, Camp NaNoWriMo in April 2020, the world was a completely different place. My husband and I had just finished our world circumnavigation on our sailboat (that 6-year project) and the world was shutting down. We were ‘stuck’ in Antigua, with no plans.
And I thought, ‘huh. Maybe I should try NaNoWriMo again’. So I did. I started with a different book idea, following the idiom to ‘write what you know’. I wrote a story about a young woman who wanted to see the world before settling down, and she chooses the path less traveled, showing up in Panama to hitchhike through the canal and then backpack through South America. Instead of continuing on to South America, she meets a guy who invites her to take off across the Pacific.
This book was deep in the heart of a community I knew and loved. It had grand adventures I’d done before. I went through the Panama Canal on someone else’s boat as a hitchhiker, and then my own. I crossed the Pacific via sailboat twice. Writing scenes, reliving my own memories, was a piece of cake.
Find a Community
Instead of slogging through on my own this time, I joined a few of the NaNoWriMo groups. I joined my local ones and a romance-specific one.
That romance-specific one moved to a full-time Discord server after NaNoWriMo was over. Discord ended up being pretty cool, and I found some other groups through Facebook and Reddit that had Discord servers as well.
Having won a NaNoWriMo, I was feeling like I could actually be a writer! I got much more involved in fiction writing communities, learned a lot about self-publishing, but I also talked openly with other people in my life about writing a novel.
Between all these things, I found a handful of critiques partners who to read that first full manuscript. While it was great that I had easily written scenes, the scenes I wrote needed a lot of work. But as Nora Roberts said, “you can’t edit a blank page”.
Write Faster with Sprints
With writing groups comes sprinting and pomodoros. This came into my writing at a very appropriate time, because for the July 2020 NaNoWriMo, I was back in the states during Covid, packing up my boat and moving across the country back home. While I’d put in a bit of effort here and there, I didn’t truly sit down and start NaNoWriMo until July 13th.
I used pomodoros and sprints to write faster. Pomodoros are a time management method where you intensely focus for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break, and then go again.
Sprints are when you clear everything – use the bathroom, fill your water, turn off your phone – and write for a predetermined amount of time.
My Discord writing groups, and several live events on Facebook or YouTube, helped me finish my second manuscript. Discord servers can use Sprinto, a bot, to time sprinting events, and write-ins are run for two-hour pomodoros.
Books on writing faster:
Skip the Research
I don’t let myself get bogged down in editing and research while I write. I know that I’m going to dedicate months to editing my manuscript, so I’ll catch errors later – or my team of editors will. If I get stuck on a scene, can’t remember a character’s name, or need to look something up, I don’t let myself leave the manuscript. I leave a note in brackets. Some notes I’ve left myself? [charactername], [finishthisscene], [sexythingsinspanish], and [whereisthisscenegoing?].
With feedback from my critique partners, I started paying more attention to planning my novels. People like to talk about two camps of writers: pantsers or planners, but honestly, 99.99% of people are somewhere in between. Everyone’s thought about their novel. And how much can you plan before you’ve, well, completely written said novel?
With NaNoWriMo in November 2020, I did more planning than ever before. I had planned my first two novels retroactively during the editing process to help improve my manuscripts, but this time I did a lot of prep work first. I saved photos and made collages of the settings, wrote character profiles, and planned the major plot points. I still would like to get better at writing a list of scenes.
There are so many great free sources out there to learn about plot structure and character development. Here are my favorites:
- Sarra Cannon’s Heart Breathings How to Plan a Novel (free YouTube series)
- Weaving Story Threads Together (blog post)
Books on plot structure:
Books on characters:
With these great techniques I learned, I had a HUGE November. I did revisions for The Hitchhiker in Panama, rewrote The Sailor in Polynesia, and won NaNoWriMo with The Second Chance in the Mediterranean.
An 80% Slump
Just as I did with that very first, untitled NYC novel, and even with all my planning, I still hit a wall. At 80% of the way through the November 2020 NaNoWriMo project, I got stuck.
So I took a step back. I used an entire day to read through my manuscript. I found plot holes, unfinished scenes, and did some minor edits here and there. Going through the entire 40,000 words I’d hit so far gave me at least a dozen scenes to finish or write, and I had added another 2,000 words in minor edits.
Before writing The Second Chance in the Mediterranean, I started the free 30-day trial for Scrivener. I used it to compile my notes, character profiles, and setting collages. This was my planning bible and meant that I didn’t have to open another app or connect to the internet to check my notes (unlike if I kept my notes in Google Docs).
Scrivener also keeps track of your writing for the session, and in version 3.0, it will track historically your writing sessions. The outlining feature and summary cards are helpful for people who outline. I also love that I can easily move an entire section or chapter around (when I write out of order). Plus, I can also use the outline feature to see how even my chapters are.