NaNo Need-to-Knows: How to Avoid Writer’s Block When You’re a Pantser

Hey everyone! Today’s vlog post will be the last one I’ll be posting on a Friday for a while, because each post for November will be about advice and/or encouragement for that specific week of NaNoWriMo.

If you’re here for my monthly goal update post, click here.

If you would like to see links to all of the post in the NaNo Need-to-Knows Series, click here.

The script I used to record this vlog follows the video.

NaNoWriMo can be a dream and a nightmare for writers who fly by the seat of their pants as they write (henceforth referred to as pantsers, pantsing, etc.) On the plus side, NaNo seems almost designed for people who don’t want to plan, because we’re encouraged to just let go and write every step of the way.

On the negative side, if you paint yourself into a corner, it can be a disaster. In order to write 50,000 words in a month, you have to write an average of 1,667 words per single day. This might not seem too bad, but if you get stuck, the words needed to get back to par stack up really fast.

A lot of people try to prevent this by planning ahead and going into NaNoWriMo with something akin to a step-by-step guide to their book.

But we’re pantsers and that’s not what we do!

So what do we do?

We get stuck.

Often.

And this is frequently what we call writer’s block.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can “borrow” a few things from the plotters and adapt them to help us along.

The big thing I see as an advantage of plotting is that plotters know where they’re going with their book. Pantsers have this way of thinking that this is boring, but really, they’re just looking at it wrong.

See, just because we know where we’re headed doesn’t predetermine how we’re going to get there. And the getting there is really the fun part.

So it helps to go into NaNoWriMo with a few things settled in our mind. Knowing the main character(s), and their goal, conflict, and stakes is probably the best way to not get stuck.

However, if that smacks too much of plotting, you can get away with significantly less. How do I know? I’ve done (and won) NaNo by going into it knowing precisely one thing:

The climax of the story.

If I know what the big event or reveal will be at the end, I can use every scene before that point as a stepping stone to it. So if I get stuck in a scene, feeling like I don’t know where it’s going, I can then direct the scene towards progressing the in a way that brings me closer to the climactic point. And hopefully by then, I know enough about character, the goal, conflict and stakes to figure out how to make that progressive step forward. (But again, it does help to know all these before you start writing.)

Are you a plotter or a pantser? What do you have to know before starting?

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Update Day: Seriously How Is It Still So Cold?

Hey all! It’s the last Friday of the month, which means it’s time for another Update Day. For those of you who are wondering, JEN Garrett and I co-host this monthly bloghop, where we set some crazy or just crazy important goals, and then post regular updates on our progress. If you feel like you need some accountability, this is the hop for you. Just click here for more information and to join in.

How Did October Go?

Honestly, I feel a bit frustrated this month. I got a lot done, but I spent most of the time feeling like I’m just not getting into a rhythm, which meant that the million small things I needed to do just kept multiplying while the things that are important to me fell by the wayside.

So these were my goals for this month:

1) Start revising Book 3.

Nope. Mainly what happened was that I got some major freelancing jobs this month that ate up a lot of my time. Also, my momentum got broken early in October, which meant I actually just… didn’t have the mind frame needed to work on this.

2) Finish the ebook cover for The Heir’s Choice.

This neither.

3) Finish the Eden’s Son rewrite.

By the time IWSG had rolled around, I had called this book cursed because some more of its words had vanished yet again. That loss early in the month was what broke my speed, and I haven’t touched it since.

4) Market Spirits in the Water.

I did some light marketing, but not what I had wanted to do.

5) Edit and submit a short story I had written in September.

This I managed before Eden’s Son wiped the floor with me.

6) Write four more poems in October.

Nope.

Goals for November

1) Win NaNoWriMo. (My username is iceangel, if you want to buddy up.)
2) Revise Book 3
3) Rewrite Eden’s Son.
4) Market Spirits in the Water.
5) Write four more poems.
6) Finish the baby shower gift I’m making for a friend before said baby shower happens at the end of November.
7) Wrap up the two major freelance jobs I’m currently contracted to.
8) Finish posting the NaNo Need-to-Knows series.

That’s it from me for this month. How did your October go? Looking forward to November?

NaNo Need-to-Knows: Conflict and Stakes

We’re rapidly heading for the end of October and I have a lot of ground to cover, thanks to a really ill-timed internet outage. So today, I would like to talk about conflict and stakes together. (Sorry if that makes my post run long.)

If you would like to check out the rest of the NaNo Need-to-Knows series, please click here.

So why are the conflict and stakes of the story so important to me that I would focus on them for my final NaNoWriMo  preparation post?

Simply put, they (along with compelling characters) are what keeps the reader interested in reading the story. If the goal is the story’s entire point, the conflict is what makes the goal uncertain, and the stakes are what makes the reader care about the outcome.

If one is 100% certain of a story’s outcome, what’s the point of reading? This is why we get bored so quickly if there’s just not enough challenges (i.e. conflict) standing between a character and their goal. The easier it is to achieve the goal, the less interesting it becomes, because the book also becomes more predictable.

But Misha, you might say, some books are predictable simply because they fall in a certain genre. Yes and no…

A book being a romance, for example, gives you about 99% of a chance that there will be a happy ending, but then the experience of reading is more about how that happy ending occurs despite everything that stands in the characters’ way. If there’s no conflict, the end just happens, and it’s just not very satisfying to a reader.

So what is conflict? People have this nasty tendency to believe that conflict=fighting and bickering, and you can tell who those people are by seeing whose characters seem to fight all the time about things that could have been solved if they spoke to each other like normal human beings.

That’s the thing. Conflict, in the sense used when creating a story, isn’t about fighting. It’s a counterweight to the story’s goal. In other words, the antagonist and his minions is a source of conflict, but so is the main character’s fear of water if they have to swim in order to achieve their goal. The former is called external conflict, in other words, a challenge that comes from outside the main character. Then there’s also internal conflict, which comes from within the character, and usually takes the form of fear, anger, sadness, self-doubt, etc.

Ideally, you want conflict to come from both sources, because then it’s not just a rote color-by-numbers walk-through until the character meets the big bad for a boss fight. Letting at least some of the conflict come from a character’s heart and soul gives it all meaning. Which makes the reader care.

But neither the goal nor conflict matters if the reader doesn’t have a reason to care about the outcome. This is where your characterization and the stakes come in. Obviously, if the reader cares about a character, they will care about whether the character achieves their goal. But if you want the reader to care the most they can care about the outcome, you also need to give the main character some high costs to failing in their goal.

In other words, your story needs some stakes.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways you can do this. First, you can make the character’s failure affect a lot of people. This is usually in the form of “everyone dies if the character doesn’t succeed.” Which is good, but not quite the most effective way to join the stakes with your readers’ care towards a character.

No, for that, making the stakes personal is the best approach. It might sound silly, but something as relatively small as “If the character doesn’t succeed, his best friend will die.” often implies higher stakes (emotionally speaking) than “everyone dies.” The main character doesn’t know “everyone” and so the reader doesn’t either. It’s just a reason to care less.

So mix up your external and internal conflicts, and try to make even the high stakes you have feel personal, and you’ll be well on your way towards creating a kick-ass story.

Do you plan your conflict and stakes ahead of starting to write, or do you make them up as you go along?

Before you go, I just wanted to also let you know that Spirits in the Water is making its way around the bloggosphere, and we’re giving away some awesome prizes.

If you would like to see the blog tour stops, please click here.

NaNo Need-to-Knows: How to Maximize Your Chances to Win

Hey everyone! FINALLY, I have the vlog post uploaded and my internet connection back, so I’m going to have two vlog posts this week for the NaNo Need-to-Knows series. I’ll work the blog posts I had wanted to write in over this week and the next as well, because there’s a ton of information I want to share before and during NaNoWriMo.

Anyhow, here’s the video, with the script following below.

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re almost on the eve of NaNoWriMo and we have no idea about who of us will succeed and who will fail at making it to 50,000 words. But I’m specially posting this on a Monday so you’ll have a bit more than a week to follow advice if you’re so inclined. Because this week is the week you prepare.

But you’ve planned your story as far as you’re going to plan it. What more can you possibly need to do?

For right now, forget your story. This week, you need to prepare yourself for NaNoWriMo, emotionally and physically.

Here are my best suggestions and the things I’m doing right now to get ready.

1) Set your strategy.

To win NaNo, you have to write 50,000 words in a month, or an average of 1,667 per day. But if you look at your calendar, you might realize that you actually have fewer days than 30 available. So how are you going to make up for that?

Make the decision now so you don’t worry about it later.

2) Clear your schedule as far as possible.

In a perfect world, you’d be able to make everything else in November go away, but alas, we’re in the real world with its millions of distractions and drains on your time. So what you want to do here is decrease those distractions as far as possible. If you have something due in the first week of November (like say next week’s vlog post), get it done now so you don’t have to worry about it.

If you need to set a date for something and it’s possible to do so, set that date in December.

Also, let go of your TV schedule. Make sure to record the things that are important to you, so you can watch it later, but don’t put yourself in the dilemma of “But XYZ is on…”

3) Tell your friends and family.

This way, you can say, “Can’t, I’m writing my novel in a month, remember?” Which makes it easier to stand firm if someone wants you to go out. (Obviously, don’t turn into a hermit, but if you have a day’s writing quota and winning is important to you, going out might have to wait until you do have time available.)

4) Decide on your priorities and block out an available time slot dedicated to writing every day. And make sure nothing else gets booked in that time.

It’ll be helpful if you knew how fast you write, but if you need to write 2,000 words a day and you take 2 hrs in order to do so, you need to make sure that you have an average of two non-negotiable writing hours a day. Note here: average. So if you really can only do an hour on week days, make sure you have a bigger chunk of time available on weekends.

Doing this ahead of time helps in two ways. First, having a dedicated writing time helps your brain switch over to creation mode faster than trying to steal time at random. Second, you can’t win NaNo if you don’t give yourself enough time. So scheduling writing time ahead can help you ensure that you theoretically gave yourself enough time to write your daily quota of words.

5) Sort Out Your Social Networking.

If it’s important that you post regularly to wherever, schedule as much as possible ahead. If not, go on hiatus.

Yeah I can hear the horrified gasps already. But that hour that just whizzes by every day as you scroll down your Facebook feed? You could have spent it writing. You need to spend it writing.

So pull the plug for a month. (I promise you, it’s actually really nice.) Just let everyone know that it’s what you’re doing so they don’t distract you with worried calls and emails because you “vanished.”

Those are my big tips to gear up for NaNoWriMo. Do you think I missed anything? Let me know in the comments.

NaNo Need-to-Knows: The Inciting Incident

Continuing on my theme of plot-related need-to-knows for NaNoWriMo, I want to talk about the inciting incident today. What is it? And why is it so useful to know your story’s inciting incident ahead of starting to write your NaNo Novel?

You know that line in book descriptions? “Everything changes when…”

The event that changes things for the character is the inciting incident. It’s literally the event that “incites” the character to set the goal which carries the story.

And if the goal is your story’s point, the inciting incident is then the catalyst that sparks off the story in earnest.

If you think about it from the reader’s point of view, the story’s goal doesn’t exist until the inciting incident occurred. So the introduction has no direction; it’s only an introduction. Direction only happens when the character says (directly or indirectly), “This is what I want to do.” After that, the story is about whether or not that thing is achieved.

But it can’t happen if there isn’t some spark that makes the character set out on their journey in the first place.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to have the inciting incident occur as soon as possible. Some people say within the first third of your story, but I personally think that’s too long, unless your story has a slower pace. Others say you must start in medias res, and that the inciting incident has to happen in the first chapter. Which I say is too fast for most genres outside of mysteries (where the incident in question is someone dying or something being stolen) or a thriller. Personal experience says that most of my stories work best with a proper character intro, and the inciting incident occurring somewhere in the first fifth of a book. But that’s because I prefer to emphasize my character arcs. Putting the inciting incident at around 10k words in (assuming I have a 50k book) gives me time to show the readers who the characters are before the inciting incident changes things, which I feel gives those changes more of an impact.

That said, I tend to personally leave it up to the story I’m writing, for the inciting incident to happen when it’s ready to happen.

So why the spiel about where to put it, then?

Because a surprising amount of writers feel like their story is dragging half-way into the book and they can’t tell why.

Often, the reason is that they’ve written half a novel’s worth of words, but nothing’s happened yet. So it’s basically a half a novel of waffling around with no direction and no visible point. Because nothing happened to make the character decide to do something. And as such, nothing is done.

If you know what the inciting incident is supposed to be, you’ll also know if it hasn’t happened yet, and so you can make sure it does happen and soon enough to keep your story from lagging.

Do you pre-plan your inciting incidents? Do you prefer inciting incidents to happen right at the beginning, or at a later point in the story?

NaNo Need-to-Knows: Your Story’s Goal

This post is part of my ongoing-series about prepping for and surviving NaNoWriMo. Click here to find the rest of the series as it goes live.

Last week, I was talking about characterization and using a character’s motivation to set the main story goal. This week, I want to go into this goal and its close buddy, the inciting incident.

For me, this order of doing things, of exploring the character before deciding on the goal, makes sense because I’m more character-driven. If you’re plot-driven, you’re probably going to want to decide on the story goal first and then create characters that will make the story of achieving said goal interesting. Both approaches work fine, especially if you pay attention not to sacrifice your character strength for your plot, or your plot’s strength to preserve character.

But the point here is that, if you want a decent shot at finishing NaNoWriMo, your story needs a goal, and it’s going to be incredibly helpful to know what that goal will be before you start.

But What Is This Goal I Speak Of?

Let me just get this off my chest quickly: I’m not talking about those highly nebulous goals writers have for their stories, like “I want to teach children that it’s okay to dream big.” or “I want to write about homeless people.” Nor will I go into why I don’t (and probably won’t ever) agree that such an approach is a good idea for genre writing. (I’m looking at you, Mark Twain, who stuffed up a perfectly good Arthurian time-travel tale with your incessant preaching.) Really. Don’t get me started on that.

Instead, I’m talking about the goal that forms the heart of your story itself. That thing that a character sets out to do, and the reason why readers keep turning pages to find out whether that thing comes about.

In other words, the goal is the reason why a story should be read. A good example of a goal from books is Frodo’s goal of destroying the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings.

Or it can be an unstated (at least in the story itself) goal of the characters falling in love in your standard romance. Or of a character needing to move on, such as in Under the Tuscan Sun. But it’s worth noting that often these goals tend to come with another, stated goal, and often come secondary to that stated goal. In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances moves into an old, nearly decrepit house in Tuscany, and somehow needs to overcome the language and culture barrier in order to fix it up.

So why is the goal so important to me, coming second to (or maybe even standing even with) only characterization? Because the story’s goal is its entire point. And every other plot aspect to a story has the goal at its foundation.

If you approach plot by structuring according to the three-act structure, or according to beats a la Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, the goal is still the lynch pin you’re building it up around. For example, the dark night of the soul, that moment where all hope is lost and the character has to dig deeper than ever before in order to succeed… What does that hope center on? The hope that the main story goal will be achieved. And what must the character succeed at? Yep. The goal.

The inciting incident is the moment that acts as the catalyst of setting the goal and so kicks off the story after the character introduction.

The conflict in the story is anything and everything that complicates or makes the goal impossible to achieve.

The stakes of a story are the costs associated with failure to attain the goal.

And back to the three-act structure: What’s the climax of any story about? 90% of the time, it’s going to be about the last big push to try and achieve that goal. The rest of the time, it’s about a major decision about that goal, or a major failure to achieve the goal.

Even the themes and messages from your story will be rooted in either the goal itself, or in the discoveries that characters make as they go after the goal.

In other words, the goal is everywhere and it’s everything. And as soon as you have readers caring about the characters and their journey, the goal and the success or failure at achieving it forms the major question that drives the readers to keep reading. Will Frodo destroy the One Ring? Will Frances succeed in fixing the house and will she find happiness again?

Depending on the genre, setting this goal to be impossible and dangerous enough can be a major driver of a story’s tension. Take Katniss’s goal of surviving in The Hunger Games. But this also plays in with the conflict and stakes, which I will still get into.

At any rate, knowing your goal, even if you’re a pantser like me, gives you something to write towards. A point that pulls your writing forward and prevents you from waffling around too much, trying to find a direction for your story. (Although in saying this, I will admit that most of my rough drafts are focused almost exclusively on finding the goal in the first place. Yes, I’m secretly that character-driven. And that much of a pantser.)

How Does One Set the Goal?

There are a myriad of ways in which to do this, so I’ll list a few.

1) Like I mentioned in my post on characters, you can let the goal come out of your character’s motivation. Think of your character and the type of person they are. What kind of goal would they set in a given situation?

2) Write without setting the goal and hope for the best, or write a rough draft specifically to discover the goal. (Although realize that this probably will require you rewriting the entire thing once you’ve found your direction.)

3) Decide first thing what you want the goal to be and build the concept, scenarios and characters around it.

4) Look at your main character again. Decide what goal would create the most internal (and/or external) conflict for a character, push them to (or beyond) their limits, and/or provide the greatest measure of character growth.

5) If you’re going with a genre that has an inherent, unstated goal (like the happily-ever-after in romances), what goal would you like to set (and state) that will act as a nice backdrop to, and will help create conflicts for the unstated main goal? A good example of this can be found in the movie You’ve Got Mail. Two characters have been anonymously chatting online and they’re obviously made for each other. Problem is that they actually know each other in real life and hate each other because one’s goal is to put the other’s family business…out of business.

These are approaches I’ve taken to set goals in my stories, but I’m sure there are more ways that I haven’t thought of.

How do you find your story’s main goal?