18.44: NaNoWriMo Week 1- Getting Started
Welcome to National Novel Writing Month! For November, writers all over the world are trying to complete a novel, or write 50,000 words. In honor of NaNoWriMo, all of our November episodes are going to focus on writing a novel or big project.
For our first week—starting! How do you start writing? What do you need to give your readers in at the beginning of your story? How much information is too much information? We answer all of these questions, and talk about how these factors will help shape your story, in our NaNoWriMo kickoff episode!
You have a few days left to prepare! Think about when during the day you’ll be writing, and see if you can find some people to help hold you accountable. Do you have a friend who could join? A writing group online or in-person? Check out the NaNoWriMo website at https://nanowrimo.org.
A note: all of our episodes for NaNoWriMo will feature a pep talk from a host in the middle of the episode! (These will be taking the place of “thing of the week,” but only for these 5 episodes.)
This week, Howard tells us how our mindsets can help us realize we’ve already succeeded.
Write two different openings. The first one should be action-driven, where your character is doing a thing. The second one can be anything.
Thing of the Week:
A pep talk from Howard!
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Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.
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Key Points: NaNoWriMo, writing 50,000 words. How do you get started? Writing your opening? Meet the characters and set promises for the readers. Confidence and authority, voice! And information! Promises to me, to motivate me! Voice, character, or setting. Voice driven or action driven? Hook the reader! Write a little, then ask what excites me about that. Do some freewriting, meet the character or setting or voice, before starting. [If you don’t start, you can’t finish.] Give readers reasons to care, to connect. Think about who, what, when, where, why, and how. Breadcrumbs, not infodumps! Character stakes, what is at risk. Where are we, who are we with, and what genre is this? Within 13 lines, what is the character’s goal? Remember, Nano is a time to play, to try out things. Dive in!
[Season 18, Episode 44]
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.
[DongWon] NaNoWriMo Week 1 – Getting Started.
[Erin] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[DongWon] I’m DongWon.
[Erin] I’m Erin.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Mary Robinette] We’re going to be talking about National Novel Writing Month. All month, in fact. For those of you who haven’t participated in this, National Novel Writing Month is a month-long challenge in the month of November, where you attempt to write a novel or 50,000 words, depending on how you want to define that. So what we’re going to be talking about is what you need to do in order to try to have something that’s vaguely coherent at the end of the month. These are tools that you can use the rest of the time when you’re working on novels or short stories, but we’re going to talk this week about getting started.
[Erin] So, how do we do that?
[Erin] I mean, it’s like…
[Mary Robinette] Surely, someone else will start talking now?
[Erin] That’s often the problem…
[Dan] Getting started is hard.
[Mary Robinette] Getting started is hard. So, in getting started, what we’re talking about on day one is that you’re going to be writing your opening. This is where you meet your characters and you set promises for your readers. So we’re going to be talking about both stuff that you need to establish, but the order in which you establish things is very much up to you. So, what do you all find are some, like, consistent things that make an opening, like, that first page?
[DongWon] I personally really love openings. They are my favorite part of the book. As a literary agent, I’m mostly looking at openings as I’m going through queries and new projects and things like that. So, for me, the thing I’m looking for in that first page, in those opening sections, is a sense that the author knows what they’re doing, and they’re going to take me on a journey that I’m excited to go on with them. Right? So, projecting a certain amount of confidence and a certain amount of authority in those opening pages are really important. Some of the best tools to do this is with your actual voice. The words that you’re using and the sentence structure that you have is a great way to bring readers in and project that kind of confidence that you are going to be telling us a story that we’re going to be excited to read. That can be everything from word choice to sentence structure to a kind of musicality and rhythm that you have in those opening sentences. But that really needs to be balanced with all of the information that you need to give to your readers. Right? It can’t all just be voice-y beautiful prose, you also need to be communicating a ton of information in those opening pages.
[Howard] I’m a sucker for a good first line. It can take a long time to write a first line that you’re happy with. Often, the first week of NaNoWriMo is not a great time to grind on that.
[Howard] Caveat. If the first line is good enough to excite me, the first line might be good enough to continue to excite you. So, I always try and fill my first page with things that are not just promises to the readers, but are promises to me, to get me motivated, to remind me how much fun this story’s going to be.
[DongWon] Right. This is Nano. You’re not here to make perfect prose, you’re not here to make sure everything’s super refined and edited to perfection, you’re here to get words on the page. Right? So, I’m telling you this as ways to think about what your goals are for the opening, but don’t stress about anything that I’m saying right now.
[Dan] Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned voice. Voice is one of the 3 things that I try to do in an opening. You don’t need to do all of these 3. Really, your goal is to hook the reader and get them interested. The way I think about it, you can do that with a really great interesting voice, or with a compelling character, or with a fascinating world or setting. One of those 3 is going to grab that reader in the want to learn more about it and come on in. If you can do all 3, that’s even better, but…
[DongWon] Yeah, you can only do…
[Dan] Do one of the 3.
[DongWon] Some combo of those. Right? It’s not going to be pure voice. If it was pure voice, then they’re like, “What is this story about? I’m out.” If it… But you want to have character in their. It’s sort of like you’re readjusting the levels to sort of fit the story you’re trying to tell.
[Mary Robinette] So, I find that what you’re talking about, I see as kind of 2 different paths into a story. That you can have something that’s kind of voice driven, where the voices doing all of the lifting and carrying, or you can have something that’s action driven, where the character is in the middle of doing something. That… There’s overlap between those 2 things. Like, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, nobody is doing anything. It’s all voice driven. Whereas, if you look at the beginning of Ghost Talkers, using my own novel, that begins with a character saying, “The Germans were flanking us at Delville Wood when I died.” Ginger Stuyvesant was sitting with the spirit circle… I don’t remember the rest of my actual lines…
[Mary Robinette] But she’s in the middle of doing something. But it is that hook, that both of these have different ways of hooking the reader and pulling them in.
[Erin] I would say that you may not know which of these you’re doing because it is Nano and you’re just trying to figure it out. So one thing that I find really fun during Nano is to write a little bit of a beginning and then go like, “What could this be? What excites me about it? Like, what about the voice that I’ve just written is really interesting? What about the action that’s happening is really intriguing?” It’s a great way later in the month if you get stuck to go back and look at what are 2 or 3 things that I was really excited about, like Howard said, right at the start, that can continue to motivate me when I’m not sure, like, where I went or how the story has taken a twist or a turn.
[Dan] Well. One thing that I do, and I’ve talked about this on the show before, but I still do it, and I still think it’s valuable, is I will do free writing before I start a book. I will write some dialogue, let a character talk for a couple of pages. Or I will describe the world. I will describe my favorite aspects of the world, the part of the setting that gets me excited. I will try to write something and nail down a tone of voice, or find a weird turn of phrase. Never intending to actually use any of this in the novel, but just to kind of get me into the right headspace so I can hit the ground running when the actual writing starts.
[Mary Robinette] I do something similar, that I will often do a couple of exploratory attempts. Sometimes I am planning for it to be the first chapter, but it’s just me saying, “What is this? What is going on here?” Much like Erin does, also. It’s just like is there something here that excites me? For those of you who are doing NaNoWriMo seriously, all of these exploratory attempts count towards your total word count.
[Mary Robinette] Save them. No writing is wasted.
[Mary Robinette] One of the things about Nano is that it really teaches you that no writing is wasted. When we come back from our break, what were going to be talking about are some of the pieces of information that you’re going to need to pass to your reader. But, right now, let’s take a brief break.
[Mary Robinette] NaNoWriMo is just around the corner, and it’s time to start planning. If you’re aiming for 1600 words a day, it’s easy to de-prioritize eating. But you need to keep the brain fueled. During Nano, I turn to meal kits. Hello Fresh makes whipping up a home-cooked meal a nice break from writing with quick and easy options, including their 15 minute meals. With everything pre-proportioned and delivered right to your door every week, it takes way less time than it takes to get a delivery. I find that stepping away from the keyboard to cook gives my brain time to rest. I love that with Hello Fresh, I can plan my meals for the month before NaNoWriMo begins, and then, I can save all of my decision-making for the story. With so many in season ingredients, you’ll taste all the freshness of fall in every bite of Hello Fresh chef crafted recipes. Produce travels from the farm to your door for peak freshness you can taste. Go to hellofresh.com/50WX and use the code 50WX for 50% off plus free shipping! Yeah, that’s right. 50WX, 50 for 50% off and WX for Writing eXcuses. We are terrible with puns. Just visit hellofresh.com/50WX and try America’s number one meal kit.
[Howard] It’s the first week of NaNoWriMo. It is time to get started. I’m going to throw a couple of aphorisms at you. You must be present to win. You miss 100% of the pitches you don’t swing at. [Sigh] If you don’t start, you’ll never get to finish. I speak as someone who has never actually won at NaNoWriMo. I’ve started it several times. I think one time, I actually got 30,000 words in on a project. But I’ve never actually completed something that I would consider to be a first draft of a novel during NaNoWriMo. Do I feel bad about it? No. Do I feel in the least bit conflicted about encouraging you to start NaNoWriMo? Absolutely not. I am giving you permission to start and maybe fail. Because that happens to the best of us. I don’t want to suggest that I’m the best of us. There are way better than me who have failed at NaNoWriMo. But you miss 100% of the pitches you don’t swing at. Sit down at the keyboard and write something. Let the words flow, or let the words don’t flow. Because until you try it, you won’t know whether or not you can do it. [Sigh] I’ve heard it said that the limitations that affect most people are what they believe their limitations to be, rather than what their limitations actually are. So, whether or not you think you can finish NaNoWriMo, I think you should start.
[Mary Robinette] Right. So. Now that we’re back, what I’d like us to talk about is some of the information that you want to try to get to the reader early, early in your novel or short story. One of the reasons you want to do that is that part of the promises in all of those things is that you’re giving the reader reasons to care and to connect. Readers are desperately trying to ground themselves at the beginning, and they will grab hold of any piece of information that you give them and begin to build a world. So you want to make sure that you are giving them information in order to build that world in their head.
[DongWon] One of the biggest mistakes I see in openings is not giving enough information. Right? A lack of information density can make for an opening that feels incredibly slow. It’s just not pulling me into the world. It’s not giving me information about the character and not giving me a sense of what the shape of the story is going to be. So, the way I always talk about opening pages is I want them to be like a layer cake. Right? Where there’s so much stuff put into those opening pages that are giving me a sense of world and character and all these things. So one way to do that is to kind of play with your voice a little bit and play with time and interiority and perspective to be able to give us lots of different pieces of information from lots of different angles as quickly as possible.
[Erin] Sometimes I actually like to think about this is literally the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Like, these are the things that your reader’s going to want to know in the beginning. You don’t have to give them all in one sentence. Though, if you can, that’s exciting. But, really, I like to think about when am I answering like, who. Who is this happening to? What. Like, what is actually going on at this moment? When and where is our setting. Like, when and where are we? Then, for why and how, how is a lot of tone. Like, how is this story going to be told? Is this humor, is this a light touch, is this like dark and foreboding? Like, how is the story being told? Why is a little bit of sort of the if there’s any theme that I want to put in there, that I want to seed early on. Sometimes, I’ll actually go through the pages of a story and be like when our each of these elements clear? If one is clear very, very far down, then, am I doing that for a reason? If I’m not, can I bring it up, and at least suggest what’s going on so that it doesn’t feel missing?
[Howard] On that point, or to that point, I love the idea of descriptions as being either additive or corrective. I see corrective as inherently problematic. If I’ve given you some description, you’re going to start building independently of me continuing to write things. If I lead you in one direction and you keep running in that direction, but that’s not what is actually happening, the next piece of description I give you is corrective instead of additive. Every time you do that, you are breaking a trust with the reader. Now, in a humor novel, you can absolutely get away with it. In fact, it’s a fantastic technique. But, I started thinking about it in this way, where, yes, I want to order things, the who, what, when, where, why, but I also want to make sure that if I start people down a path, I don’t let them run far enough that I have to correct my description later.
[Dan] I think it’s important to point out… We don’t want to freak you out with this thought that you have to explain everything in your first couple of pages. That’s not what we’re talking about. Think of it as providing evidence of what’s going on, rather than providing us answers for what’s going on. You don’t need to explain your entire magic system, for example. But you do need to give us the information that pertains to the scene itself. If your first scene is a fight between wizards, then, yeah, we need to understand some of the magic system. If it’s not, you can just drop hints here and there, give us some breadcrumbs, and explain the rest of it later.
[DongWon] One thing I always say is that I need character stakes in the opening scene, I need some sense of, like, what’s at risk here. The other thing I always say is these can be lies.
[DongWon] This goes a little counter to what Howard was saying, but this doesn’t have to be your main character’s biggest problem. This can be a minor set of stakes that they need to get through for this scene, that will then lead them into bigger inciting incidents. Right? So, I need a sense of the shape of the story. Don’t feel pressured to communicate your whole novel to me in this moment. I just need a story, a subplot, a little something for me to chew on that’s going to pull me into the rest of the book.
[Howard] Coming back to additive versus corrective real quick. If you tell me someone is desperately trying to get a hold of someone else, but can’t, and you don’t tell me why, I… Well, if you tell me because my cell phone has no charge, then you grounded me in the 21st-century. If you tell me that I can’t get to a pay phone, whatever, then you grounded me maybe a couple decades earlier. Or smoke signals or whatever. I need to know if we’re in Civil War era or 21st century fairly early on with the descriptions end up being very, very corrective when you deliver them.
[DongWon] This brings me to one another point is to be a little careful of metaphor in these opening pages. Because everything… I don’t know anything about your world, so sometimes somebody… I’ll run [inaudible into fantasy?] where somebody puts a metaphor in and I’ll think, “Oh, literally, people are fish in this world.” Not they were like a fish in this moment.
[DongWon] You know what I mean? You can take stuff that is completely wild because I am… It’s all open skies for me. I don’t know what it is I’m engaging with yet. So, those metaphors can be taken incredibly literally in those opening pages. So, something to be a little careful about.
[Mary Robinette] I… I… I’m going to give like some metrics for a really mechanical way to do this. For people who like rules and are feeling freaked out. I want to be really clear that this is exercise stuff, this is not books must be written this way. But if you’re like, “I don’t know, this is too much.” Using Erin’s idea of who, what, where, why, I do something very similar. That is, I try to make sure that my character’s… My readers know where we are, who we’re with, and something about the genre or mood. I count when as part of the where. I try to do that within the first 3 sentences. So that I’m just like giving… And it’s not that… When I say who, it’s not that you have to know my character’s entire back story. It’s just giving a little bit of an idea of whose eyes we’re going to be looking through, who we’re going to be connecting to. Then, within the first 13 lines, I try to make sure that we know something about my character’s goal. The reason I say the first 13 lines is an entirely mechanical and mercenary thing, which is that it’s about the first half page of a manuscript, and that’s about how long you have to hook an agent or an editor when they are in the slush pile. So if you can give them something that your reader… Your character wants. To DongWon’s point, it doesn’t have to be the big thing, but something that’s, like, somehow thematically linked. Like, if we’re going to be on a big quest later, they’re just looking for the remote control right now. But something that they want.
[Erin] Let’s say 2 things about that. One is that I think those small things, like looking for the remote control, build the trust that Howard was talking about earlier. You show that, like, I’m going to show you something and I’m going to deliver on it. Then you don’t have to deliver on it as quickly the next time, because you’ve built that trust. But also, to be like a chaos gremlin…
[Erin] Like, in opposition of what you’re saying, I also feel like one of the things that’s nice about Nano, it’s, like, a time to play around and find out what…
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Erin] And find out what happens if you break all these rules. Do you want to write 50,000 words where no one knows where they are the entire time, including the reader? Hey, go for it. You may find out that you’ve discovered a new way of writing fiction, or you may find out that it’s confusing and you need to go back and add that in. But this is a great time too, like, play around with what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
[Mary Robinette] I actually completely agree with that. So we’re in great shape. And, I think, that we’ve set you up to begin your first nano day. Hopefully. So, dive in. All of the words you count write.… All of the words you write count! Now, we’re going to give you a little bit of homework.
[Mary Robinette] So, your homework assignment is that I want you to write 2 different openings. The first one is going to be more action driven, where your character is doing a thing. The 2nd one is going to be voice driven, where you are ruminating on something and kind of just exploring voice. You may wind up using neither of these, both of them count. You can do them in any order you want. But explore 2 different ways of opening that novel.
[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.
[Mary Robinette] Do you have a book or a short story that you need help with? We’re now offering an introductory tier on Patreon called Office Hours. Once a month, you can join a group of your peers and the hosts of Writing Excuses to ask questions.