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Writer-Talk Tuesday: Tips and Advice for Marathon Writing

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

November is National Novel Writing Month . . . but in my local writing group (Middle Tennessee Christian Writers), most of us have a hard time focusing on writing during that month, what with Thanksgiving and the lead-up to Christmas that naturally comes in November. So for the past few years, we’ve designated October as our MTCW Marathon Month. Since I know that many of you may be thinking about participating in NaNo—or you may just want to spend a few weeks trying to make some headway on your writing, I’ll share with you some tips and advice for marathon writing.

“Success depends upon previous preparation,
and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.”

1. Prepare, Plan, and Organize
If the sign of a disorganized mind is a messy desk, what’s the sign of a disorganized writer?

Writer’s block!

In the past month, I’ve taught two workshops about this—planning, preparation, and organization ahead of time to help give us momentum when we actually sit down to write. So before your writing marathon starts, there are several things you can do to make sure you’re not going to get a few hundred words in and then get lost—or writer’s block.

  • Write out your characters’ backstories. Knowing where they came from gives you a clearer picture of where they’re going in your story.
  • If you don’t already know it, figure out the ending you’re working toward. You don’t need to know the “how” of the ending (the exact scene) but knowing the “what” (the hero and heroine end up together, the mystery gets solved, the journey is successful) of the ending you’re writing toward can add momentum.
  • Play “What If” with your plot structure, characters, and conflicts. Work out some “if . . . then” scenarios (if this happens, then here are the possible outcomes/consequences).
  • Create a story bible. You can do this in a table in Word, a spreadsheet in Excel, on slides in PowerPoint, in a virtual notebook in OneNote, or with other writing software like Scrivener or Storyist. Collect pertinent information on your characters, setting, plot, conflict in one place where it’s easy to access so you’re not having to stop the flow of your writing to search for it later.
  • .

    “Wishing that you had more time to write will not make you a novelist.
    You will not have more time. . . .
    Each day, you must set some time aside to write even if it is only enough to write one paragraph or one page or to sketch out your next idea for a chapter. By setting reasonable goals, you also develop a rhythm to your writing. You will be surprised that once you set a goal of say, one page a day, and you stick to that goal, it becomes part of your everyday schedule.”
    Andrew McAleer

    2. Set a Writing Schedule
    I’m the world’s best at preaching this and the worst at practicing this . . . which is why I’m about 10,000 words behind where I should be this month on the first draft of Follow the Heart—because I haven’t set a schedule and made myself stick to it every day.

    In one hour, if you’ve prepared, planned, and organized ahead of time, most writers can easily write between 500 to 1,000 words or more. No, not everyone can do this. Sometimes, no matter how well-prepared we are, the words just won’t come. But just like an old-fashioned water pump, the more often we work at it, the easier it will flow. So set a time every day—even if it’s just half an hour—to be your designated writing time. And commit yourself to doing nothing but writing during that time. No e-mails, no Facebook or Twitter, no blog reading/writing, no research. Just writing.

    “Carefully examine the phrase ‘first draft.’ There’s a reason the word ‘first’ is in there. It strongly implies that there’s going to be a second draft. And if you write anything like me, there’s going to be a third. And a fourth. And probably a fifth.”
    ~Ed Gaffney

    3. Turn Off the Internal Editor
    I know, easier said than done. But even if it means you have to go back to writing long-hand, find a way to stop listening to the other voices in your head—the ones that say you can’t/shouldn’t/mustn’t and the ones that say always/never. The most important thing with a first draft is to get the story down on paper. Don’t worry about active vs. passive, showing vs. telling, sentence structure, or balance between character/setting or narrative/dialogue. FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT. Later, you can always go back and fix the craft stuff. Your first draft should be focused purely on storytelling.

    “The secret is not to try to be perfect.
    If you try to be perfect, you procrastinate,
    you go over and over what you wrote, you make no forward motion.
    Trying to be perfect doesn’t produce masterpieces, only agony and slow writing.”
    ~Stephen J. Cannell

    4. Move Relentlessly Forward—No Going Back!
    In addition to your story bible, keep a list—a file in Word or even handwritten in a notebook—of any changes that come up as you move further into your story. Things you know you’re going to need to change when you go back for revisions after you finish your first draft. When you’re writing your first draft, it’s okay to make massive changes to characters or setting or plot or conflicts halfway through. By then, you know each of those elements better and you know what’s going to work and what’s not. But if you stop and go back and try to “fix” what you’ve already written to reflect those changes, you’re going to lose all momentum of where that change can take you if you just stick with it and keep moving forward.

    When I was writing the first draft of Stand-In Groom, after three complete rewrites of the first ten chapters (which meant that for a year, I basically made no progress on the story), I was forced to stop going back and to move relentlessly forward—by my graduate school deadlines. You see, I had a date by which I had to have a first draft finished and turned in. It was in the middle of my second semester—the semester by the end of which I had to have that first draft finished—that I came up with the hidden-identity plot. I was in chapter seventeen. I had ten chapters that had the story going one direction, followed by seven meandering chapters with little more than character development in them. But then, once I realized that the crux of the story rested on George pretending to be the groom and not being able to tell Anne, I flew through the remaining half of the book. In fact, I wrote the last approximately 20,000 words in one weekend to get it finished by deadline. (And those are still some of my favorite scenes in the book.) But if I hadn’t been forced to stop going back and trying to perfect the first ten chapters, I might never have discovered the true plot of the story.

    “You can fix, polish, and sell anything except a blank page.
    Ergo, sit down and write.”
    ~Lori Avocato

    5. Write Something . . . Anything
    When you sit down for that scheduled writing time and you stare at that flashing cursor waiting for the words to come, and they don’t, DO NOT walk away from it and give yourself the excuse that you’ll just double-up on words tomorrow. Why do you think I’ve ended up writing the bulk of two of the last three novels I’ve finished in two weeks or less?

    When I was writing what would become my first completed manuscript a little less than ten years ago, I got to a point at which (being a seat of the pants writer with no synopsis, only a vague story idea) I had no idea where my story was going. But I wanted to write. I needed to write. So since I’d just gone to the grocery store that evening after work, I wrote one of my characters doing the same thing. I had him get his basket. I had him pick out produce. I got him through the store all the way to the frozen-food section—where, surprisingly, he ran into another character; and, all of a sudden, I had a scene that moved the story forward again.

    It sounds mundane and like bad writing (and it’s probably something you’d end up cutting most of in a revision), but not only are you working at that creative pump, you can also learn more about your character by doing something like that.

    Who’s planning on participating in NaNo? Have you ever participated in a writing marathon/challenge like that before—in which you set a daily/weekly/monthly goal to meet in which all you’re focused on is word count? How do you prepare/plan/organize? How do you find time to do it? How do you make yourself build that word count every day?


    1. Lady DragonKeeper permalink
      Tuesday, October 11, 2011 2:19 am

      I’ve heard about writing marathons (such as NanWriMo), but have never participated in one. If I was still home-schooled, I might have given it a shot for fun, but with my current school and work load (and no large aspirations to become a professional author) … not this year. =)

      For those of you who have participated in writing marathons –do you work on your current manuscript or do you write a new story during the challenge time period?


    2. Tuesday, October 11, 2011 10:08 am

      I’ve never participated in a marathon writing event, but I’d like to someday. My goals and deadlines have been self-imposed, and I loved the section “Write Something . . . Anything.” I once wrote a very moving piece describing all the scenery as seen driving down the rural highway I lived on as a little girl. Will it ever be used? No, but it was fun, and got the juices flowing just a little bit. It made me realize that my characters are SEEING everything. I was able to answer a couple of questions: How can I describe without a ton of narrative? How can I have a scene where the character is alone, and not turn it into a Jane Austen novel in which there is much walking through of gardens and randomly picking them as jarring thoughts invade their reverie? 😉

      You’re making me want to get all organized again . . .


    3. Rachel Wilder permalink
      Tuesday, October 11, 2011 12:19 pm

      I’ve never done NaNo, and it’s not likely I ever will. But I have a great deal of respect for those who do it and make their goal.

      I’ve never done any kind of short-term marathon either. Life has not been amenable to it the last couple years. But in spite of all that, I did write 87,000 words in six months, so I know I can do it.


    4. Tuesday, October 11, 2011 7:43 pm

      I’ve never done any marathon writing. I am also a panster and when I write the words flow from my brain and through my fingers on the keyboard. But turning off the internal editor is, like you said, easier said than done.


    5. Wednesday, October 12, 2011 9:24 am

      I didn’t think I commented yesterday. Work has been a bear!

      I’m planning to do NaNo this year, but only because it’s convenient. I was planning to do some marathon writing of my own anyway. It’s always nice to have company.

      I’ve done NaNo before but never finished. Mostly because I didn’t go in with a solid plan. I’m working on my plan now. It will be interesting to see how this year goes. I did over 20k words back in July writing part-time and that felt like marathon writing. 50k will be incredible.



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