Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Lessons learned from NaNoWriMo

By: Deb McLeod

Every year I orchestrate and deliver a two-week NaNo Prep Countdown designed to help writers who want to win get ready so they don’t face the blank page when they’re trying to reach their daily word count. And every year for the last six I’ve competed in NaNoWriMo myself, this year writing book two in my Twin Flames Romance Series with the working title Silver Love.

So I’ve spent the last two weeks playing with the plot. When I prep for a novel I have a certain process I follow and I like to immerse myself in the dream of the book before I write. This year I was ready to start writing at least a week ago, but I held off, trying to be true to the NaNoWriMo rules. I don’t always care about being a NaNo purist, but this year I decided to wait and keep working on the plot.

The result of waiting was that when I sat down at my desk today I wrote almost four scenes and 4550 words. And I could have kept going but the day’s obligations kicked in after I’d been writing straight for five hours. Oh, the bliss of getting lost in the story.

If you’ve never tried to build your understanding about your story before you actually start writing, I’d highly advise you to try. Here’s what some famous author/teachers have to say about the practice:

Robert Olen Butler wrote an entire book about it called From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction. He says artists access the way they see the world only by “going back to the way in which chaos is first encountered – that is, moment to moment through the senses. Then, [the writer] selecting from that sensual moment-to-moment experience, picking out bits and pieces of it, reshaping it, she recombines it into an object that a reader in turn encounters as if it were experience itself….”

He advises writers to get into the dreamspace of the unconscious to discover the yearning of the characters and the moment-to-moment sensual experience of the story. To dream the book alive.

Spending time in the dreamspace of the book is an excellent way to have it at your disposal when you start to write.

Madison Smartt Bell in Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form says that daydreaming is the writer’s vocation. That you create for yourself a sort of autohypnosis. “You put yourself apart from yourself, and you enter the imaginary world.”

He also says there’s an unconscious structure to the chaos that begins to morph when you allow yourself to ramble thought the bits and the parts of it.

The unconscious in action

Well, it’s day one of 2016 NaNoWriMo, and I can say for certain that both of those things happened to me this morning. I had been rambling around for two weeks, and when a piece of the structure suggested itself, I went with it and out poured 4550 words. I had spent enough time in the dreamscape of my novel that when it was time to write, I was already there.

So here’s my morning:

Four-thirty a.m. I’m at my desk. I hadn’t even made coffee yet. I read over my Scrivener scene card for the first scene. I have a scene card I use to prep the scene and really dive into when it’s time to revise. But the only part I’d filled out for all the scenes for NaNo was the synopsis: what happens during the scene.

I like doing the rest of the prep work right before I write the scene – figuring out the conflict and the arc. So I was reading over my notes and cycling through the various forms of conflict I could use for the first scene when a lightning bolt slammed home.

This is an historical romance set in Denver in the 1870s and I’m using the romantic trope of a mail-order bride to bring my hero and heroine together. The hero has won the bride in a poker game from her intended and I plotted it that they would get married fairly soon after they meet – as it’s only proper – and spend the book learning how to fall in love.

This is the way I plotted the entire first half of the book. Though I will admit I was having trouble plotting the second half, but that often happens to me. I sort of have to wait until I get there to know what the possibilities are.

When I was mulling the conflict of the first scene and thinking about the setting, my hero is waiting on the train platform for her train to arrive, my hero spoke up and said – I don’t want to get married.

And he’s right. He doesn’t. He’s not at all the marrying kind. That’s what was going to make scenes with his new wife so cute. But I realized she’s the one who wants to get married. Not him. In fact, she’s desperate to get under some man’s wing or she wouldn’t have answered the ad for a mail-order bride in the first place. And though she doesn’t know that her intended gambled her away, the hero is such a better catch than the guy who lost her in the poker game that she would marry him if only he’d ask.

So when she comes to Denver, she’s not only greeted by a different groom, she’s greeted by a man who will jilt her before they get in front of a preacher.

The energy from that new way of looking at the plot just drove the three-and-a-half scenes right onto the page.

I think I had prepped enough, put off starting to write long enough, and put myself in the miasma of the novel that it actually allowed me to think of the story differently. And when I did, I tapped into some kind of subconscious structure that wanted to exist.

Or is that too woo-woo for you?


If you’re competing in NaNoWriMo this year and you want a cutting edge, find a system of “predreaming,” as Butler calls it, before you write your scenes. Butler says:

“There is no intellect in this world powerful enough to create a great work of novelistic art. Only the unconscious can fit together the stuff of fiction; the conscious mind cannot.”

So tune out and tap into your world. Try what Butler calls “dreamstorming.” Dream around your novel and write down only eight to ten words that represent the potential scene you’re dreaming. Make sure it contains a sensual hook, a cue that will bring you back to this space once you start writing the scenes. “A little vision of something, a little smell or taste of something, a little sound… Don’t trust a scene that presents itself to you as an idea.”

Now if you’re competing in NaNo, you’re probably saying, where was this advice two weeks ago when I had time for dreamstorming? Well, don’t despair. You can do this too.

Take the time before you write to walk around the scene you have planned. Close your eyes and put yourself into sensual experience of it. Not just the five senses, feel where the characters are on the stage of the scene. Put yourself in your main character’s place and feel what he or she feels and why. Stay in that space just a little longer than you’re comfortable.

For me, when I’m ready to write a scene the first line pops in and off I go. Wait for that impulse and then start writing. Sort of a freewrite in scene form. Maybe, like me, the scenes will flow easier and be more vivid if you’ve predreamed the sensuality in the scene.

Work in weeks

For the first week, write act one scenes. For the second week, work on the scenes you would find in the first half of the second act. The third week, the second half of the second act. And week four has you writing the finale.

No worries that you’re skating over the novel and what you have needs revision. I’m a big revision teacher. That’s where the book solidifies. For now, and all through NaNo, get the gist of it and move on. Write the full scene if it comes do you. And if it doesn’t, write the senses, experiment with different conflicts scene by scene. Accumulate your words and go for a first draft that gives you something to work with.

Forget perfection and you can do it.

About the Author: Deb McLeod, MFA, practices novel research immersion. For her novel, The Train to Pescara, Deb journeyed to Sardinia to study ancient goddess worship and spent time in the Abruzzi village her great-grandparents left in 1905. Her metaphysical knowledge for the Angel Thriller, The Julia Set, culminates from four years of studying and teaching meditation, clairvoyance and chakra healing. For over fourteen years, Deb McLeod has been a creative writing coach helping other writers to embrace their passion and get their words on the page. For more,


  1. Wow. Great tips and recommendations! Now I feel bad that I'm not doing NaNoWriMo this year. haha

  2. Thanks, Robert! There's always next year. Or better yet all year. :)

  3. Deb,
    I love reading your articles! I am not participating in Nano, but what you have here is a ton of wonderful information that can be used any day of the week. Thank you!

  4. You're welcome! I'll help writers any day of the week. :)


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