Monday, September 12, 2011

Nanowrimo: Do You Know What Your Next Book Is?

Fall is my favorite season. Maybe it’s that Halloween thing, maybe it’s the “back to school” energy, maybe it’s the Santa Ana winds that were so much a part of my life growing up in Southern California that I made them a character in The Space Between, maybe it’s just that you get a jolt of ambition because it gets cooler and your brain returns to some functional temperature.

Because it’s sort of ingrained in us (whether we like it or not), that fall is the beginning of a new school year, I think fall is a good time for making resolutions. Like, about that new book you’re going to be writing for the next year or so.

Myself, I have so many books to finish right now that I can’t let myself think about any new ones until I get at least ONE more done. I’ve taken the idea of multitasking to a near-suicidal extreme. But I’m not complaining – not only do I have a job, I have my dream job.

However, given what I blog and teach about, I am aware that this is a perfect time for OTHER people to be thinking about THEIR new books. Because, you know, it’s September, but November will be here before you know it.

I’m sure many if not most here are aware that November is Nanowrimo – National Novel Writing Month. As explained at the official site here, and here and here, the goal of Nanowrimo is to bash through 50,000 words of a novel in a single month.

I could not be more supportive of this idea – it gives focus and a nice juicy competitive edge to an endeavor that can seem completely overwhelming when you’re facing it all on your own. Through peer pressure and the truly national focus on the event, Nanowrimo forces people to commit. It’s easy to get caught up in and carried along by the writing frenzy of tens of thousands – or maybe by now hundreds of thousands - of “Wrimos”. And I’ve met and heard of lots of novelists, like Carrie Ryan (The Forest of Hands and Teeth) Sara Gruen (Water For Elephants), and Lisa Daily (The Dreamgirl Academy) who started novels during Nanowrimo that went on to sell, sometimes sell big.

Nanowrimo works.

But as everyone who reads this blog knows, I’m not a big fan of sitting down and typing Chapter One at the top of a blank screen and seeing what comes out from there. It may be fine – but it may be a disaster, or something even worse than a disaster – an unfinished book. And it doesn’t have to be.

I’m always asked to do Nanowrimo “pep talks”. These are always in the month of November.

That makes no sense to me.

I mean, I’m happy to do it, but mid-November is way too late for that kind of thing. What people should be asking me, and other authors that they ask to do Nano support, is Nano PREP talks.

If you’re going to put a month aside to write 50,000 words, doesn’t it make a little more sense to have worked out the outline, or at least an overall roadmap, before November 1? I am pretty positive that in most cases far more writing, and far more professional writing, would get done in November if Wrimos took the month of October – at LEAST - to really think out some things about their story and characters, and where the whole book is going. It wouldn’t have to be the full-tilt-every-day frenzy that November will be, but even a half hour per day in October, even fifteen minutes a day, thinking about what you really want to be writing would do your potential novel worlds of good.

But you know what? Even if you never look at that prep work again, your brilliant subconscious mind will have been working on it for you for a whole month. (Cause let’s face it – we don’t do this mystical thing called writing all by ourselves, now, do we?).

So once again, I'm going to do a Nano prep series, but this year as you can see I'm starting even earlier. But I'll be gentle, just to get you all thinking at first, and hopefully get some people not just to consider Nano this year, but to give them a chance to really make something of the month.

Here's the first thing to consider:

How do you choose the next book you write? (Or the first, if it's your first?)

I know, I know, it chooses you. That’s a good answer, and sometimes it IS the answer, but it’s not the only answer. And let’s face it – just like with, well, men, sometimes the one who chooses you is NOT the one YOU should be choosing. What makes anyone think it’s any different with books?

It’s a huge commitment, to decide on a book to write. That’s a minimum of six months of your life just getting it written, not even factoring in revisions and promotion. You live in that world for a long, long time. Not only that, but if you're a professional writer, you're pretty much always going to be having to work on more than one book at a time. You're writing a minimum of one book while you're editing another and always doing promotion for a third.

So the book you choose to write is not just going to have to hold your attention for six to twelve months with its world and characters, but it's going to have to hold your attention while you're working just as hard on another or two or three other completely different projects at the same time. You're going to have to want to come back to that book after being on the road touring a completely different book and doing something that is both exhausting and almost antithetical to writing (promotion).

That's a lot to ask of a story.

So how does that decision process happen?

When on panels or at events, I have been asked, “How do you decide what book you should write?” I have not so facetiously answered: “I write the book that someone writes me a check for.”

That’s maybe a screenwriter thing to say, and I don’t mean that in a good way, but it’s true, isn’t it?

Anything that you aren’t getting a check for you’re going to have to scramble to write, steal time for – it’s just harder. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, or that it doesn’t produce great work, but it’s harder.

As a professional writer, you’re also constricted to a certain degree by your genre, and even more so by your brand. I’m not allowed to turn in a chick lit story, or a flat-out gruesome horrorfest, or probably a spy story, either. Once you’ve published you are a certain commodity.

If you are writing a series, you're even more restricted. You have a certain amount of freedom about your situation and plot but – you’re going to have to write the same characters, and if your characters live in a certain place, you’re also constricted by place. Now that I’m doing a couple of paranormal series, I am learning that every decision is easier in a way, because so many elements are already defined, but it’s also way more limiting than my standalones and I could see how it would get frustrating.

Input from your agent is key, of course - you are a team and you are shaping your career together. Your agent will steer you away from projects that are in a genre that is glutted, saving you years of work over the years, and s/he will help you make all kinds of big-pitcure decisions.

But what I’m really interested in right now is not the restrictions but the limitless possibilities. I'll get more specific next post.

How DO you decide what to write?

And even more importantly – How do you decide what to READ?

Because I have a theory that it’s actually the same answer, but we’ll see.

I'm off to Bouchercon,, the World Mystery Convention - paneling on Thursday, partying the rest of the time. I mean, you know, networking.

Happy Fall, everyone...

- Alex


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

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- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

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- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE


jim bronyaur said...

Ah yes, NaNo... looking forward to it this year actually. Last year I stepped out at the last second - I didn't feel prepared for it.

This year though, I'm going in like you have mentioned... with a solid idea and something to write about.

I don't like the blank page idea as much as you. I'll go through a notebook if I have to to get the story in place before a word appears on a typed document.

As far as deciding what to write... I go with what's ready. Like you, I'll have 3, maybe 4, projects going at the same time. Writing one. Editing one. Promotion one. And outlining one. There's always movement, because there has to be.


Dawn Kurtagich said...

Great post, as always Alex! Nanowrimo is just around the corner . . .

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jim, that full notebook sounds familiar! I can easily do 70 pages of treatment before I start on the first draft.

That's exciting that you're gearing up already. I think this is kind of the MINIMUM prep time, really.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Dawn - I know, it's scary, isn't it!

Paula Millhouse said...

Okay - I'll admit it, I'm a pantser. At least that's how my first novel, and it's sequel came out of me.
Then I stumbled onto, and bought both your Screenwriting Tips and read and actually implemented them.
I did a loose outline of a heroes' journey, and now I'm 30,000 words in and going strong.

I like the outline.
I purposefully keep it loose, but knowing it's there helps build the next scene.

I use a notebook for longhand conversations with my characters (you writers know what I mean) and I love the tools you gave me for the collage notebook.

Thank you for sharing this wonderful information with us. Your hard work is appreciated.

Maybe I'll check out NaNo this year.

Jenni Legate said...

I am just getting into the meat of Screenwriting Tips for Authors, and have to say I LOVE the ideas! I was up reading the book and taking notes early this morning and can't wait to get back to it tonight and start some index cards.

I tried Nano a few years ago and got a decent short story out of it, but maybe I will try to organize something before November this year and try again. I had no idea what I was doing then.

Thanks so much for sharing so much valuable information with us. I've been telling every writing friend I know about your books and this blog.

Hope you had fun at Boucheron & can't wait to hear about it.


Caroline said...

I can't wait to hear what you have to say on NaNo prep! I recently got Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, and it made so many things "click" for me.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Paula, sounds like you're doing just fine without Nano. I've said it a million times - whatever works!

Glad the book is helping.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jenni, thanks, I had a blast at B'Con. When I'm recovered I'll post!

I'm so glad you're getting so much out of the book. Sounds like you were ready to go for it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Caroline, that's great to hear. I really do think this is stuff we all know from years of reading and movie watching - it just helps to have it all dissected in one place.