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Use 10 Key Scenes to Win NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is November, a time when hundreds of thousands of authors make a public promise to write 50,000 words during 30 days. The contest amounts to writing just about anything in a file that grows to that size and sending it off to the NaNo website for your “certificate.” There are quotes there because nothing is mailed. Your smile and bragging rights are delivered, though.

The month isn’t about the word count for the dedicated author. It’s a rededication to your work in a public way. Most of all NaNo is about 30 days of work. If you’re aiming at 50,000 then writing every day puts the word count at about 1,700 each and every day. Every day is what NaNo is about, getting you into a flow for creating your book.

Writers dry up and falter in their every-day quest all the time. One great process to keep words flowing into the big file is to have an outline at hand. It’s like your writing to-do list. Saying the word outline makes some writers roll their eyes and sigh. Creating by the seat of your pants is one way to put 50,000 words into a file. Making it into a story keeps you coming back to the month-long task.

Dreaming up 10 Key Scenes gives the pantsers and the plotters a middle ground to make that to-do list. You imagine the 10 turning points for your novel, each represented as a scene. Write the scene and all of the juicy narrative you want to lead in and fall away from it. Space them out so you’re getting one key scene written in rough draft every 3 days. Start with any scene you want, but get them all mapped out before hand with dead-simple summary. Something like “Anna gets arrested at the march.”

The Ten-Scene method is from the great guidebook The Writer’s Little Helper. The swell graphic shows off how to set up the sequence. Five of the ten are essentials and you can do those first. James V. Smith says “every novel I’ve ever written, ever read, or ever heard about can be deconstructed into ten scenes. Plan the central story line of your novel to go ten scenes or fewer.”

NaNo was started by Chris Baty, who wrote a guidebook for the process called No Plot, No Problem. He’s not completely incorrect with his advice for these 30 days, because characters are the soul of plot. You can fill up that big file with a lot of character writing. Putting those heroes and villains of your story into action in scenes shapes them and makes them real. We all start with gusto in NaNo, but about Day Six we wonder if our story is worth all the time at the keyboard or the pages of our notebooks. The Ten Scenes are lighthouses to steer the boat of your story toward. Make yours and then get to work on sailing the course to a rough draft.

Find some support for your month, too. All over the country, there are Write-Ins where authors gather to tap away in the company of other artists. We’re having one on Saturday, November 3 at the Milwood branch of the library in Austin, starting at 1 PM. Bring your list of scenes and see where they can lead your writing.

A good Shepard for writing narration

Fifteeen years ago, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop named Lan Samantha Chang as the first female director of the program, perhaps the most prestigious writing school in the world. Much has been said about Chang, who as a 1993 grad of the program was one of the youngest writing teachers to hold the post.

Iowa has the cache of Harvard among graduate writing programs. It celebrates its 85th year this summer. “Students are always interested in finding a place and a group of people that allows them to pursue a writer’s true work, which is thinking,” Chang said in an interview. Indeed, a group of people is essential to the writing life.

While I researched book cover artists this week (all hail John Gall!) I ran across another director candidate that made that 2003 Iowa short list, novelist and short story author Jim Shepard. The summer of 2003 was the season of a couple of stops in my writing training. I  took a seminar from Shepard at the first Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, and earlier in that same trip, stayed in Iowa City while studying at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

Not to take anything away from Chang, but Shepard would have been a good choice, too. In looking over my notes from his classes, I found a day when we examined narration within a story. In using dialogue inside narration, you can

  • Minimize the dialogue’s importance
  • Move things along quicker
  • Show the reader that you’re hurrying

Shepard also told us — by way of teaching from the balls of his feet as we took apart a manuscript to see what make it work — that narrators are more sympathetic when they treat themselves with a brusque manner, “rather than those who piss and moan.”

Shepard was like that: funny in a tough way, but never mean-spirited about his advice and counsel. I consider myself lucky to have learned from him for a week. For a great book on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I recommend The Workshop, edited by Iowa grad Tom Grimes. It’s full of remembrances of the community in the workshop, as well as great stories from its graduates. To find a bit of Conroy’s legacy, dig up and enjoy The Eleventh Draft, a series of essays Conroy assigned to Iowa graduates about the craft of writing.

Learning what’s new in style through an ACES webinar

On Thursday July 28 the American Copy Editor Society is holding a 1-hour seminar on What’s New in Style. I’m an ACES member, ever since I passed through the organization’s Advanced Copy Editing Bootcamp at SMU last year. I brought a journalism degree and publications experience to the Society membership.

ACES is different from other organizations you’ll see in the world of arts and letters. You can hold a spot in the Editorial Freelancer’s Association. The EFA is a group that has a focus wider than editing. The Independent Book Publishing Association (IBPA) gathers a wide range of skills and experience to get books into the world. The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLI) is focused on authors, but it also includes a services partner membership. ALLI screens partner members before admitting them.

Only ACES is focused on copy editing. That’s why I became a member; my experience in editing professionally began in 1980, when I joined the staff of the Daily Texan as a copy editor. ACES membership runs from book publishers, to website content consultants, to daily newspapers, and monthly magazines. It will be fun to see what the ACES crew has to share about 2018 styles. Members can register for the July 28 webinar at the ACES website.

You’ll always want to hire a copy editor before submitting a book for publication. But knowing what the current styles are in English keeps your writing focused on the story. You see what’s taking place more clearly when you’re writing cleaner and more concisely.

Use NaNoWriMo to get your book to finished

Halloween will deliver more than costumes, debauched parties and tons of candy corn. On that day at midnight it’s also the start of National Novel Writing Month, a worldwide 30-day event where the goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Those are aimed to be words for a novel — although you can hijack this event to fill the pages of your memoir, since that form uses so many techniques of fiction.

You can sign up for free, and register your book in progress, at the NaNoWriMo dashboard. The roots of this event are aimed at novel writers, but the collective creativity month serves any long project. You see, memoir, creative nonfiction and novel all share the same powerful elements. Characterization. Scene. Dialogue. Setting. Metaphor. Theme. Structure. Story. Plot. Dramatic arc. Transformation.

All of the above are tools to use in telling any story. It doesn’t matter if your book’s bones have elements of fact for memoir or the long-form essay, or stand up as a fabricated tale that is, like all great ones, “based upon a true story.” The point is that the community of NaNoWriMo is at your beck and call.

Your goal is to write 50,000 words. They’re unpolished, rough-draft words. You don’t edit during NaNo. That’s work for EdiMo — not really an official event, but there should be a National Novel Editing Month for December. Don’t look for EdiMo. Just look for the delicious experience of drafting all those words without making it perfect. Pat Conroy, who wrote The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, said “Write like you are a lover. Edit like you are in charge.”

November is a month for lovers, those lovers of storytelling. You will draft faster if you have a simple list of scenes that go into your story. Plan a little in the week to come.

Sign up at the NaNoWriMo website, so you can log your writing as you go. Once you’re at 50,000 words you’re done. You upload your file to the organizers who do a blind word count on it. It’s scrambled, so it makes no sense and is secure. All they require is 50,000 words. What you get out of the month is the experience of how it feels to write, on average, about 1,700 words a day.

Writing 50,000 words makes you a winner. But getting any big chunk of writing completed in even a rough draft in a month’s time is the real victory.

7 shopping tips to buy into a writing group

Would you like to workshop your book? People call these writing groups, too. The idea is to get some other authors, all working on their books diligently, to gather in person to review and respond to the book you’re writing. Published authors swear by them. Other authors can vouch for the help which a good workshop brings to a book, too. What’s the smart way to get started in one? If you haven’t met this challenge yet, there are shopping tips that lead to a good investment. Because no matter what you spend, you’re always investing your time.

Is there a size limit? Every writer who appears at the table will bring pages for you to review. A group of eight, of course, means seven sets of pages you must read. So you’ll then shift gears six times, into somebody’s story, out and then on to the next. It’s a rare thing to be able to mark with comments on more than 3,000 words an hour. Do the math. Figure that a big group means hours and hours of reviewing. Groups work best at four writers.

Is there vetting, or an introduction? Everybody wants to be in a writing group with an author who’s got more advanced skills. Or the same level, at least. Someone’s got to be judge and jury on this, though. Personal groups form between writers who know one another already. The first writing group I joined had no vetting for skills. Or courtesy, either. The next came from a Writers’ League of Texas Advanced Fiction class. The late, great novelist Karen Stolz told us, after our eight weeks of classes, “Form up groups, you guys.” The Square Table writers were off and running for the next seven years. We ran with five writers at first, then four, then three.

How much will your group read? Can you submit 15 pages, or even 20? It can be a challenge to say something useful in response to only six pages of writing. You can critique a scene for the mechanics, or find a way to ask questions about what’s not on the page but intrigues you. A page count of 15-20 is 4,000-6,000 words. That’s a chapter, maybe two—one unit of the theme in a book.

Do you read before you meet? Very few authors can edit live, unless they’re only doing a line edit. It takes time to write comments, especially longhand. Legibility matters. A group with pre-submitted pages will give its members time to read closely and say what’s confusing, compelling, or dragging. A group which shares pages using email also gives members the means to look backward in a book to recall what a reader might have overlooked. Those prior chapters will be right at hand, on your laptop.

Is it easy to connect personally with a member? Unless you’re entering a group linked via email, it’s so much harder to strike up a relationship with another member who really shows a connection to your work. Not everybody will “grok” your creation (the Stranger in a Strange Land verb from Robert Heinlein that means “to understand something’s soul.”) Writers might be shy in person but gregarious online.

Email is essential. A group with an overwhelming need for privacy makes such connecting more work. Email is the means that professional writers use to share ideas and critique, query and trade editorial notes. A leader should make email available for every member.

How long do we meet, and where? Critique is careful work done best in a private space. A member’s home gets the job done, but only if there are no distractions there. Meeting at a bookstore worked pretty well at first for us Square Table Writers. We were only four members big so we got a table well away from store cafes (Steaming milk! Lots of music!) or Saturday’s shoppers (Mommy, I want that book!). Nobody had much more than two hours to meet, but each book got 30 minutes of airtime. We had time to talk about our books after the critiques, too.

What’s the comfort and leadership level? Critiquing is real work with genuine payoffs. This isn’t a workout at the gym. Does your host do snacks or a demi-brunch, give breaks to stretch, encourage people to get to know one another? Such things make a space and a group personal and unique. Somebody’s going to have to ask for the pages to distribute to a pre-reading group; otherwise someone forgets. A regular meeting schedule is important, too, so people can protect the time they will devote to making books better.

Yes, authors can bring their own water bottles or a venti Starbucks to a group. And whoever goes first can be determined by a lottery, tarot cards, or just whoever’s turned in pages first. Try to avoid setting your arrival time at the table as a way to choose who goes first. The Traffic Gods shouldn’t have a seat at your group.

There’s a lot to consider when finding a group to critique your book in progress. You do get back what you invest in, though. Efficient and effective groups make good use of time in meetings. That means you have more time available for writing and revising your book. Think of how much sooner that work will finish it. Finishing, after all, is at why we help one another in groups. Those outsider insights should save us time.

How to Attend Finishing School

Finishing School begins November 29 at the Workshop.

We lie about our writing. Most of us do, with the best intentions, to make up the stories about how much we’re working on our books. It becomes a story that a writer tells when they say “I’m working on my novel.” If you’re working on a book, and writing too little, it’s time to enter Finishing School.

The concept is at the heart of a new book by Danelle Morton and Cary Tennis. The book Finishing School shows us where we get in our own way about completing our works in progress. Six Emotional Pitfalls stretch out in front of us. Doubt. Shame. Yearning. Fear. Judgment. Arrogance. Not everyone feels all of them, but these are the reasons why we do not finish our work. Get a few writers together and their eyes brighten when they can be honest about pitfalls. “I’ll never be as good as Hemingway,” (Doubt) or “I never finish anything.” (Shame). Or “I get annoyed by writers’ groups, those losers.” That’s Arrogance, which is probably not your problem since you’re reading an article on being a better writer.

We struggle separately, alone with the pitfalls. There’s a way out and a way up, say Morton and Tennis. You learn to finish together, without judgment or even reading each others’ work. You make a schedule for one week, getting specific about what you’ll do. Details help. Then find a partner who does the same. You meet in person because it’s personal work. You promise to text or email them the moment you begin working. You meet seven days later and share how your plan worked. Or how it didn’t, but you’re honest now. You plan again, meet again. We become masters of Finishing because, as Cary said over Skype from Italy, “Finishing School throws into relief the conditions of our actual lives.”

We start with overly ambitious plans. We begin with little awareness of our hurdles. It feels so good at first. Later, the writing plan haunts us when we fall short. Better to make room for your real life, foresee the hurdles, plan for them. Cary and I have one thing in common. It’s not that we’re both successful advice columnists (that was Cary at Salon). We got training in the Amherst Writers & Artists practice. “I needed Finishing School for myself,” he says in his book, adding, “I had a panic attack while writing and ended up in the hospital.” Tennis built Finishing School from his AWA training so “workshop participants would crystallize their time; schedule time to work toward it with mutual support; and work steadily to get that writing finished, polished, and published.” They also add accountability without judgment by attending the school.

It’s a school you’d hope to see opened by a man who wrote advice from the heart for more than a decade. We can enter it with a group as small as two writers, artists of any kind, really. The book is powerful, the process transforming. Finishing School might not be the last school you attend. It’s a good bet it will be the most important one.

Your registration includes a copy of Cary and Danelle’s book, e-book or paperback.