In Truth, It’s National Novel Re-Writing Month

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Interesting WriterIt’s November, the month when countless writers toil at their new and unfinished novels in a communal effort at slinging out 50,000 words in one month. People have published novels who’ve logged NaNoWriMo time. Do not be confused about NaNo’s role, through. Nobody creates a novel in 30 days that can be published. But a hefty draft, one that can be re-written and expanded and cut back, can start from a healthy work habit you establish during this month. One of the success stories logged by Mental Floss claims the novel The Night Circus came together over two NaNo’s. That, plus weeks of editing, to be sure.

Agent Kristen Nelson has offered three pieces of advice to her prospective writers about this month-long bash-fest. Bashers are the writers who plow through their stories, throwing caution, grammar, and precision to the winds. They want to see what the last page looks like, knowing they’ll be doubling back to make their writing look like a novel. Nelson’s advice is to understand that 50,000 words in 30 days is only a start. In short, write badly, because it frees you to write because “Sometimes there is a gem of an idea that will turn into “the one” and jumpstart your career.”

Also good advice for NaNo writers:

1. Write book jacket copy first. Summarize your story’s concept with the language you see on a book’s back cover — or if it’s a real high-rent title, a dust cover. Nelson’s got a superior take on why you’re doing this.

So many writers focus on stories that don’t have a concept big enough to merit a novel. Knowing how your jacket copy could read before you jump in and write an entire novel forces you to boil your story down to its essence to see if your idea is solid. Then share your jacket copy with other writers. Ask, “Would you read this novel?” So much of success in this business depends on luck and timing. You have to have the right story at the right time for the market.

Indie-published writers shouldn’t worry about this so much, she adds. I’d beg to differ. Knowing your story well enough to tell it in a few sentences will save you months of wandering among words. It will also save the time of readers who try to enjoy your book.

2. Hitting 50,000 words in 30 days is not the measure of success. Finishing the manuscript, then revising it, is success. One of the seminal books of the NaNo phenomenon is “No Plot, No Problem.” Well, it’s not a problem while bashing the words, but making a book requires plotting. Revision creates plots.

3. You don’t have to share everything you write, so you can write crap. Here Nelson says something delicious: “Every author writes crap sometimes. Repeat after me: Even bestselling authors write crap sometimes. It’s a fact of the writing life.”

Have fun, dream big — and set aside time in December and January to make that novel worth reading.

5 Ways: Making a Scene. Making It Count.

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I advise the writers in the Workshop to always write toward a scene. It’s like the gas stations along a long highway as you drive a max-size SUV: you have to visit them often to get home.

2012FordExcursionBut while you’re writing those scenes, you should consider if they all must be used. How do you do that? One writer in the Workshop offered pages from meeting to meeting that were completely rooted in scene. I struggled to engage with those scenes because I was always wondering, “But why would that character do that?” Making up those answers took me out of the dream state that we wish to induce in our readers.

Sequel and prequel provide that context for explanations. You need room in your writing for scenes, as well as the sequel and prequel material that explains and introduces the action. So eliminating scenes is an essential skill to make room.

You eliminate these wonderful but wandering bits of drama by asking these five questions.

  1. What’s the intention and purpose of this scene?
  2. How is it related to the scene immediately beforehand, and how does it connect with the scene afterward?
  3. What is the conflict inside this scene?
  4. What’s at stake for my protagonist, my hero, in the scene?
  5. How does this scene develop my plot further?

When you know the answers for each of your scenes, you might discover one that has no clear intention, or is missing conflict, or does not put anything at stake for your protagonist. These scenes either need to follow a purpose, show conflict, or reveal compelling stakes.

Or you can remove them. Revision can be ruthless at times. It’s a great practice to know these five things about any scene you’re about to write. In that way, you save yourself the pain of cutting out something you created with love — but lacking a clear mission.

Make an art of editing

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Back in 2003 I spent a week at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, where they plied us with fancy wine, late-night movies and even the literary magazine’s signature martinis. (I always liked what the founders said about the magazine’s artful attention to design: “A literary journal doesn’t have to look like a communist manifesto.”) During the days of that summertime week we’d work, either in workshop examining manuscripts or in seminars. One of the latter was led by Susan Bell, who promised us a book would appear from her in-progress notes from The Artful Edit.

While you can’t buy The Artful Edit just yet, the notes from the New School’s faculty bio on Bell promise the book is forthcoming “in 2006” from W.W. Norton. I still put her seminar handouts up on my Editor’s Desk from Levenger. Bell talks about doing a macro edit, along with the more traditional micro edit, on your own work. The notes stand up as useful when looking at a manuscript, like our Wednesday night workshop is doing this week before responding as readers.

You can read for intention: the overarching aim of a work that guides both writer and reader. It is the central idea, the mind’s highway that runs clear and wide from first to last page — while circuitous, pebbbly paths lace around it. Check to see if the writer has created a magnificent forest, but no road into it. The intention needs work if that’s so.

You can read for motive: What do the characters want more than anything?

You can read for rhythm and tension: Does the writer develop a crisis, to draw you into the story? Does the path to the drama feel too short (schematic and false) or too long (which can kill the impact)?

You can read for structure: order and proportions of scenes. Are the scenes which reveal coming too early? Or is scene coming too late, after the you needed information to understand a character?

You can read for theme: something possible to determine even from a few chapters. Bell calls it a leitmotif, a recurrent theme throughout a composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.

Finally, you can read for continuity: coherence of tone, characters that feel consistent, an authority to the writing that flows from playing on a single field.