NaNoWriMo--Tips for the Young Writers (and anyone else)

A HUGE number of young writers are participating in NaNoWriMo. How do I know this? One of them lives in my house. Not to brag, but she is a really good writer. Her name is going to look so good on book covers.

So, I want to tell you other young writers the same things I told my own daughter in case your mom or dad isn't a writer:

First off, I'm proud of you for undertaking this goal. You must be serious about writing, or you wouldn't have signed up, you wouldn't have told people, and you certainly wouldn't have broadcasted it on Facebook.

Okay, I know you just want to write. You're eager to get started--the idea's already in your mind--so why bother with the preliminaries, right? Wrong. (You knew I would say this.) Even though today is November 7th, please consider this advice: Your writing needs structure. You need to build the skeleton first. Writing without an outline is like driving without a GPS (or map for you old folks, heh heh). Knowing your destination is not enough--you need to know how to get there. An outline ensures that you CAN get there, and it prevents you from taking scenic detours. An outline proves that your story can be executed.

What do you need first? Well, for some people, plot comes first ("I want to write about a monkey winning the next presidential election.") Sometimes, voice comes first. This was the case for me when I wrote Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning. I was sitting at my computer thinking--and don't be afraid to "waste" time thinking. You must allow the writer inside to explore the literary playground--I probably thought for about two weeks. (I did eat, sleep, and do those other human things necessary for living.) Anyway, one morning, I turned in my chair and I swear I could see her, a wiry tan girl, with dark hair blunt cut at her shoulders. The cypress trees and the river were behind her, and so were her friends. "When Eddie B. dared me to walk the net bridge where we'd seen an alligator and another kid got bit by a coral snake, I wasn't scared--I just didn't feel like doing it right then." That's what she said. She said a few more things and I typed them up real fast and those exact words became the first paragraph of my first book.

So, if you have plot, you need to come up with voice. If you've got voice, you must come up with a plot. For the rest of this discussion, let's call our main character Jimmy.

What is a plot? Beginning, middle, and end. Not that simple. Jimmy has to have a goal, something he can't live without--this can be simplified into changing the situation or struggling to keep it the same. He must encounter obstacles, obstacles that increase in difficulty. The obstacles must be part of the story; don't throw things in and never mention them again. There's a saying for writers: If you mention a gun in the first act, you'd better fire it by the third.

The best obstacles are other people. Their motivations can either be because they love the main character. ("Jimmy, I can't let you skateboard off Dead Boy Cliff.") or because they hate the main character ("I'm going to jump Dead Boy Cliff and show everyone I'm better than Jimmy.") Or maybe they have the same goal, they're equally as good (or bad), and their efforts, working in tandem with your main character's, make things harder. ("Sorry, Jimmy--Connor Brown just bought the last Lightning Strike Skateboard, the best skateboard in the world.") Start off with small obstacles and increase them until you reach the climax, which shouldn't happen until 3/4 of the book has passed, or 4/5 or 5/6 or you get what I mean--very close to the end.

In Jimmy's case, his goal and obstacles could look like this: His goal could be to win the Dead Boy Cliff Jump, because winning would give him the money he needs to hire a lawyer for his dad who was framed for a crime he didn't commit (wow, did you see that--we just slipped a sublayer into our story!) Obstacles: his skateboard can't handle the cliff. When his best friend offers his skateboard, they find it mysteriously broken. Jimmy's too young for a real job, and plus he needs a lot of money, fast. He starts mowing lawns, babysitting, dog-walking, but the money is too slow.

Dad's former partner, Nick, a young college dropout, sees Jimmy's determination and becomes a friend, asking Jimmy how things are going and really listening. Both Jimmy and Nick get really sick after eating at a local diner. Jimmy ends up in the emergency room, Nick by his side. After a few days in the hospital, the doctor says Jimmy is good as new and can perform the jump as planned. Mom forbids Jimmy to jump. They have a heated argument. Frustrated, Jimmy turns to Nick, who offers to lie to Mom about Jimmy's whereabouts so Jimmy can train. One day, Nick is carrying the gear, but says he forgot his cell and goes back to the car. When he returns, Jimmy gets the skateboard from him. It's his first run down Three Mile Hill and he's doing it, he's sailing! But a wheel falls off and Jimmy catapults over the board. His ankle's sprained . . . so like that, you keep increasing the obstacles.

Just so you know the end of this story, Jimmy doesn't make it to the jump--instead he wrestles against ropes and a locked door, having been kidnapped by Nick after discovering that Nick framed his father. The climax is Jimmy's dramatic struggle to get free and the denouement is having his father at home, the scene is after supper and Dad walks him out to the garage, where a brand new Lightning Strike skateboard awaits him.

Back to other nitty gritty details about NaNoWriMo and young writers. You must set a reasonable goal. Think about your school schedule, your homework load, your scheduled activities, and your responsibilities at home. Can you realistically write 1666 words a day, seven days a week? Think about it. Do not set yourself up for failure. I heard Linda Sue Park speak at a conference and she said her daily quota was two typed pages. This is a professional, well-respected author.

What daily quota will work for you? Will you work on weekends? Are there days that you can't work? Think about it and make a schedule. Oh, that sounds horrible, doesn't it? A schedule, blech. Well, writing is a job that you need to show up for. If you set up a schedule, you will be primed to write at that time because all day long, you know that writing session is in front of you. Ideas will tickle your brain, dialogue will move your lips, your fingers will itch for that keyboard. Set up a schedule and commit to it.

If you can do 50,000 words in one month, more power to you. But for the rest of us, viewing NaNoWriMo as a starting point is great idea. When I write, I want to succeed. Some days I feel I am reaching into a fog pulling words from a murky lake; other days I'm on fire and can hardly type fast enough to keep up with my brain. I can't tell you my daily goal because I feel I'll somehow jinx myself, but I will tell you my goal is both realistic and challenging and I don't leave my keyboard until I've met it.

Good luck, young writers. I believe in you.


Kim Kasch said...

So many great tips and pointers here. I've never been able to do the NanoWriMo - too many commitments in November

Charles Gramlich said...

Excellent, and luck to the other author in your house. :)

Danette Haworth said...

Kim, I know! Holiday season and all.

Charles, I will pass you good wishes to my darling author.