Tips for NaNoWriMo Writers

337_notebook_writeAh, November. Most people think of Thanksgiving and ramping up to the Christmas holidays, but to writers it’s also the yearly marathon of National Novel Writing Month, known as NaNoWriMo.

For any of you out there poised to endure this mad dash to 50,000 words, here’s some random tips that I’ve found to be true for fiction writing. Hopefully they’ll help:

Skimp on character details. You only have to give your character about three simple descriptive characteristics, if even that. Tall. Short. Freckled. Thin. Bushy red hair. Scruffy. Thick glasses. Neat and well dressed. Everything you leave out, the reader will fill in themselves. You only create part of the picture … your reader creates the rest. Fiction writing is collaborative with the fiction reader. Give details that point them in the direction you want them to go and let them do the rest.

Get detailed only when it’s important to the story. When there’s something that is important to the plot, or important to move the story forward, that’s when you can get detailed in your descriptions of people, places, or things. If it’s something the reader needs to remember, describe it in various ways about three times throughout the story before the detail is actually needed. Don’t spring it on them like pulling a rabbit out of a magic hat — they’ll feel cheated, or surprised, or confused. You don’t want a confused reader, because that pulls the reader out of the story. You want the reader to stay immersed in the story.

Remember, an author can time travel. If you’re stuck later on in your manuscript, and you do need to “pull a rabbit out of a hat” (so to speak) remember that you, as the author, can time travel back into the story and write the necessary details in, where appropriate, that will lead up to the rabbit coming out of that hat. So don’t worry about it, pull the rabbit out if you have to, but make sure to go back and either write in the details leading up to it, or at the very least make notes at the beginning of your manuscript reminding you to go back in and add it later.

A story arc must remain consistent. Don’t start one type of story and morph it into another. Elements can be blended, but if you start a romance, it must remain a romance. If it’s sci-fi, it remains sci-fi — it doesn’t turn into fantasy. If it’s horror, it remains horror. Remember, you don’t want a confused reader, or a reader to feel cheated.

Pull from your beginning toward the end. When you get bogged down toward the end of the manuscript, and most of the time you will, simply go back in and steal or pull from elements at the begging. Refer back, or add something to flesh out what happened back there, or pull inspiration from back there. This will also help make the story more circular (the best stories end at the beginning) or at least will help make the whole story feel more well-rounded.

Don’t screw your reader. They’ll invest a lot of time out of their life to take the journey with you. Respect them. Don’t let them down. Give them a payoff so that they’re glad they spent the time with you.

When you’re all done, rewrite, rewrite again, polish, polish more, and then get an editor (or trusted readers) to comment and point out things you’ve missed.

Above all, enjoy what you’re doing! If you don’t, why do it at all?

Further reading: How To Be A Novelist »

Also: If you’re not participating, but you’d like to help the NaNoWriMo folks continue to inspire and encourage the future creators of literature, you can donate: NaNoWriMo Donations »

Open Letter to Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch

Hi Michael,

As one of your authors, I beseech you to stop this silly feud with Amazon, let go the past, and move toward the future.

Yes, Amazon urged me to write to you about this, but I’m doing it because I agree with them. Holding onto outdated business models by force is … well, completely backwards and ultimately a doomed path. Illegal collusion is not the answer. Resisting the movement to ebooks is not the answer.

Embracing change and surging forward to not only join the flow, but to lead the pack, is the answer.

As a one of your authors who has also released his ebooks independently on Amazon, I have made FAR more sales on my own than with your publishing group. Far more sales, and far more income. My independant books sell for a mere $2.99 and it’s pretty much all profit. The ebook version of my title with your publishing group sells for over $10, and the only reason anyone is buying it, is that they’ve read my other books, my $2.99 ones, and like them so much they then buy the comparatively overpriced, and less-well-received “non-independent” Hachette book.

I have not seen a penny from my book with you in years, by the way, even though I KNOW it’s selling.

But that’s beside the point. Lowering ebook prices will help, not hurt, the reading culture, just like paperback books did back in the day. Embrace that. Move forward with it. Lead the market, don’t stifle it.

And for godsake stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.

Sincerely Yours,

Jerry J. Davis
Author of “Travels”
ISBN: 0759550247

Coffee Strength

As a writer, I obsess over various things that accompany my writing process, and one of them is coffee. Strong, bold, keeps-me-awake coffee.

strong coffee

Regarding strengths, I’ve experimented a lot with how much coffee to use per cup of water, and have come to a startling conclusion: there is no such thing as coffee that is too strong.

Many people I have known through the years drink their coffee so weak you can see through it. They don’t like strong coffee because to them, they equate stronger coffee to increased bitterness. To make up for lack of flavor, they add powdered creamer and lots of sugar.

That’s very sad. They have no idea what the real taste of coffee is like.

Case in point: an ex in-law of mine used to complain about how strong a coffee I used to make, and that’s after I would make it weaker than I’d like it because I knew she didn’t like it that strong. It turned into a quandary. We both didn’t like it, because to her it was still too strong, and for me it was not strong enough.

Then one day she had a cup of the brew I made for myself and said, “Wow, that’s really strong. The weird thing is I like it.” She went on about how surprised she was, that she never likes strong coffee. She wanted to know what I did to it.

That was years ago, and only now am I learning what is going on. Coffee cannot be too strong. If you think it’s too strong, it’s not strong enough.

What I’ve found through my experiments is that coffee’s flavor changes radically with strength. Make it weak, you get a feeble coffee flavor and little bitterness. Make it somewhat strong, and you get more flavor but much more bitterness. Keep adding coffee, and then the flavor starts catching up to the bitterness until at some point it actually passes it, and the bitterness is just a little note mixed in with all that wonderful coffee flavor.

So if you think it’s too strong because it’s too bitter, you have to add MORE coffee. You can’t make it too strong because at some point the water becomes saturated and can’t hold any more. And that, my friends, is when the coffee tastes the best.

Adding more coffee beyond that will not change the flavor, but it will waste coffee. Heaven forbid you waste precious coffee!

When the coffee manufacturers say use 2 tablespoons of ground coffee per cup, they mean 6 ounce cups, not 8 ounce cups. It really is a good rule of thumb, but I’ve found about 2½ tablespoons works best for me. Any more than that and you’ve started wasting the coffee.

A lot of this depends, of course, on how you’re making the coffee. I’m basing this on using a French Press using a medium grind from a burr grinder. I put in pure water at the proper temperature and let it steep for about 5 minutes. I might add a bit of sweetener depending on the type of coffee.

But I’ll tell you this, I taste the coffee. And I love it.

(By the way, if you like the mug I used in the illustration, if you click on it you can buy it from Cafe Press.)

Burning Manuscripts

I don’t recall how many years ago, but I remember it being dark in the warehouse, about 2 in the morning, and we were sitting around a fire we’d built in a old iron drum. Three of us, all writers, all having decided we need a fresh start, sat around this fire in this old warehouse, with half the windows knocked out and a cold breeze blowing through, huddled in our jackets and drinking can after can of cheap beer.

We fed the flames with manuscript pages.

One page after another. Original pages. No backup copies anywhere.

Everything that came before tied us down. It was all part of that million words of crap anyway. Page by page I got rid of stacks of typed notes, crappy horrid stories, and at least two novel manuscripts. Good ideas, maybe, but horrendous writing.

Do I ever regret doing that? No.

The fresh start it gave my writing was worth burning all that work.

I Erased This Novel

Travels by Jerry J. Davis

That’s right. I erased it. Spent years working on it, writing three drafts of it out on paper, mind you, PAPER, and then finally got to the point where I typed it into a word processor.

As I typed the manuscript into the word processor, I threw the page I’d just finished into the trash. When the trash filled to overflowing, I threw it out. Then I’d fill it up again.

Garbage trucks came and went. Page by page, my original manuscript migrated to an anonymous landfill.

Then, one fateful afternoon, I finished typing. Done, I thought. Completed. Mission accomplished.

I knew that what I needed to do was back it up the files immediately. I put a lot of work into it, a lot of sweat and blood. The files must be protected! So, I proceeded to inexpertly do this “backup thing” and somehow in the process … I erased it.

The novel was gone. All I had left were the few pages of the last chapter, none of which at that point I had actually used. The novel, in essence, had vanished, like the soul of a loved one who’d just succumbed to eternal slumber.

I couldn’t believe it. I could not believe I’d just erased my freaking novel.

I spent about a week mourning it, and then I sat down at the word processor and thought … well, I know this story frontward and backwards by now … why don’t I just type it out again? And that’s what I did. I typed it all out, from memory, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t turn out a lot better. This time around there was no fussing and fighting with the prose, no tight wedging of things in, no forcing this or that character to do some unnatural thing for the sake of the plot. Why? Because I knew the plot already, I knew from page one EXACTLY what had to be laid out, and when. I knew the characters like they were family. I could see how they’d interact naturally, and was able to realistically portray their growth through the course of the story.

Now, I wouldn’t wish this on any writer. It was agony. But in the end it was worth it, and you know how they say things always happen for a reason.

The novel got picked up by Time-Warner and came out in print in August of 2001. I truly believe that if I had not erased the novel, and then rewritten it from scratch, it never would have sold. 

The book has gone from imprint to imprint and is now being handled by Grand Central Publishing … and you can get actual paperback copies for $2.55 on right now (the ebook version is freaking $10.99, how backward is that?).