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NaNoWriMo Week 3: Tips from Best-Selling Authors

Did you know Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants was a NaNo project? Neither did I, at least not until earlier this week when I was desperately searching for a boost of motivation to help push my novel-writing along.


Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not believe I have the next Water for Elephants sitting in a 60 page Word document on my desktop. But the fact that a success story like Sara’s is even possible at least gives me some hope, which is something I really needed in order to survive week two.

The last seven days have been exhausting. I feel so drained – both physically and creatively. But I also know I must persevere. My eye is on that 50,000-word milestone and I must do everything in my power to reach it before midnight on December 1st.

Fortunately, I’ve had some other very valuable sources of inspiration helping guide my words along the page this week. Last Sunday I went to the WCYR luncheon to hear best-selling author Susanna Kearsely speak. Her words of encouragement, together with those of author Anne Lamott in the book I am currently reading called Bird By Bird, which provides instructions “on writing and life”, have really been exactly the support stand I’ve needed when I’m about to fall backwards (on the bed, and go to sleep).

Here is a summary of writing tips these authors have offered, which I’ve been trying to apply to my NaNo journey so far and will continue to refer back to as I approach week three:

1. “There is no ‘right’ way to write.” – Susanna Kearsely

As Susanna began her talk, she told the group she would be sharing her own writing processes and experiences. But just because something works for her doesn’t mean it will work for us, and vice versa. The key is figuring out what does work for you, and sticking to that.

2. “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” – Anne Lamott

Stop obsessing about what you’re writing and how you’re writing it. The sole purpose of the first draft is to get the words down. You may end up writing four scenes one afternoon, the first three of which are total garbage and will be edited out. But they were necessary to get you to that fourth scene – the one that is a keeper. The one that reminds you why you’re writing and what you’re writing about.

3. Whether or not you decide to outline, try following a technique to guide your plot along.

Susanna suggests the following technique: Problem > Goal > Conflict > Resolution. You have to have a person with a problem doing something interesting, she says. Follow them as they go around trying to solve it. Have a goal in mind, add conflict to create an obstacle, and then have your character either climb over the obstacle or find a detour.

Anne refers to a technique used by Alice Adams: ABDCE (Action, Background, Development, Climax, Ending). “You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, makes us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot will grow out of that.”

4. Make your character drive the story; don’t let them be driven by events.

Both Susanna and Anne suggest not to map out characters. “Knowledge of your character emerges the way a Polaroid develops: it takes time for you to know them,” says Lamott.

Kearsley explains, “I throw the characters on the page, go for a coffee, and come back to see what they’re up to.”

5. “Writing is like long distance running – focus on putting one foot in front of the other.” – Susanna Kearsely

When you feel stuck in that dreaded middle section, trying printing off the pages you’ve written so far and read them over. “You might be pleasantly surprised,” Kearsely says. This will renew your enthusiasm to keep moving forward. Remember to reward yourself for small increments along the way. And don’t be afraid to take a day off when you need it. “You have to fill the well from which the writing comes,” says Kearsely.

6. “Good writing is about telling the truth.” – Anne Lamott

“We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are,” she says. “Tell the truth and write about freedom and fight for it, however you can, and you will be richly rewarded.”