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Top Ten Writing Tips – NaNoWriMo Edition

These are the most helpful writing tips I have to make writing a novel simpler, if not easier. Nothing makes writing easy. A lot of you know these already, but some people are new to the whole writing-a-novel thing so I wanted to share.

  1. Outline, Outline, Outline!
  • People are really resistant to this tool which makes me shake my head. I understand it, I do, because I used to write by the seat of my pants too, but don’t count it out because it’s ‘too organized’ or ‘not as much ‘fun’ or even because you think you just don’t need it. It can be exhilarating to have zero idea of what’s going to hit the page, I absolutely feel you on that. The problem is that without at least a vague idea of beginning/middle/end the chances of you finishing the novel aren’t great. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it makes things so much more difficult. And the amount of stress involved in trying to figure out what’s going to happen is so much worse when you’re in the middle of writing. And the outline itself doesn’t need to be some massively detailed thing. I generally use an excel spreadsheet where column 1 is Chapter# and column 2 is about a paragraph on what I think will happen in that chapter. That’s it.

2.  Character “sketches” aka bios

  • Like the outline, I find this an invaluable tool. If you don’t know your character really well, then how do you know if their voice is real? How will you know their voice full stop? Stating the obvious, someone who grew up in Boston talks different than someone from Kansas, etc. And how will you know the way they react in different situations? If your main character’s a coward, he’s going to run away. But if he’s a coward only in certain circumstances (GIANT SPIDERS FROM OUTTER SPACE!!), he could still save someone’s life as long as that situation doesn’t happen. And like the outline, you don’t have to go into huge detail. I use Word for this since it’s pretty free form. Normally, I spend about a page per main character and a paragraph per secondary character.

3.  World Building

  • Yeah, this one sounds obvious but sometimes it isn’t. I’ll admit that in some of my previous books I haven’t put a lot of thought into the world itself beforehand. Generally my urban fantasy falls into that category because it’s here-and-now with magic! No world-building necessary! Boy did that mindset bite me on the ass once when I had to come up with the rules of magic after I’d finished because my editor was all, “yeah that doesn’t work.” I think world building is especially important for science fiction and straight up fantasy, but it applies across all genres. If only for the fact that when you’re a world-famous author at a con 10 years in the future, someone is going to ask you, “What did you envision as the history for your race of peaceful orcs?” They just are and we alllll know it.

4.  Put out a Do Not Disturb sign

  • And this is both physical and virtual, by the way. I’m lucky enough to live alone without people constantly coming in and disturbing/interrupting me. That doesn’t mean the distraction of facebook/twitter/“research”/anything but writing, etc. doesn’t sing its siren song to me because it does. If you have a family (congrats!) tell them that for an hour a night, you are unavailable except in dire emergency like the house is on fire or the Pats are losing a game. Everything else can wait 60 measly minutes (except small children/babies, of course; they’re rather the exception to pretty much every rule). And for the online distractions, well, if you have to unplug the router, then do it.

5.  Get For-Writing Comfortable

  • Sounds obvious, but it’s not always. For example: I can write for hours on a regular/hard kitchen chair at the table (or at a Starbuck’s table/chair) which isn’t actually all the comfortable, but my brain completely switches off once I sit in my recliner which is way more comfy. You’re in it for the brain, people, not the butt! (although if you can get the two to cooperate, more power to you)

6.  Atmosphere

  • Whether you write best in a crowded café, the silence of a library, with your headphones blaring music from 1944, or outside amidst the wonders of nature, get there if at all possible. Maybe you’ve got a lucky writing pen and a brand spankin’ new notebook and write everything longhand (hurts my hand just thinking about it!). Maybe you need to plunk yourself down in the middle of the mall food court and put on headphones so the noise drowns everything out but you’re still in the thick of life. Whatever you can do to make it easier to concentrate on the fictional world, not the real one, do it.

7.  Don’t self-edit

  • Don’t. This is a first draft and more than likely it’s going to be bad. My first drafts suck. (Almost) Everyone’s first draft always sucks. Get from Prologue/Chapter 1 to the end without editing a damn thing because if you start, you’re never going to stop. In the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar: It’s a trap! You think you’re making things better, but you’re probably not. You can’t know if something’s really going to work until you can read the whole thing and get that final big picture.

8.  Exposition! 

  • Exposition is baaad. The old ‘show, don’t tell’ thing. You could tell us: John was so angry he had to walk down the street to the store to cool off,’ but why would you? Why not go with: ‘Anger such as John had never known rose from deep within. His fists clenched with the rage and he turned sharply away from his brother and strode out of the house. It took the entire trip to the corner store for his breathing to get back to normal and his temper to approach anything close to rational.’ It’s longer, sure, but why do you care how long it is when it paints a much better picture?

9.  Passive Voice

  • Don’t do it! We’re all guilty of it, myself included, so just keep it in mind as you write. Passive voice goes around what you’re trying to say: would skate, started to sing, began to walk, etc., etc. and can also use ‘to be’ in its various forms. Or, as I recently saw online in the wonder that is the internet, if you can add, ‘by zombies.’ For example: ‘The gifts were wrapped…by zombies.’ As opposed to, ‘Lila wrapped the gifts.’

Last but most importantly:

10.  WRITE!

Do the work. You can plan and daydream and ponder and self-edit for so long that the book never actually gets finished. You have to put yourself in that chair (or whatever) and get words on (virtual) paper.


About Nancy M. Griffis

Author and screenwriter who loves scifi/action/adventure/urban fantasy genres. I have two published novels, Mind Games and Eternal Investigations, as well as a short story published for charity called "Home Fires Burning." All are available through amazon.com and barnesandnobles.com.


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Nancy at the Tim Burton exhibit in L.A.

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