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NaNo Dares 2012 Week 2 – Election Day

November 9, 2012

National Novel Writing Month is a time to take risks, so every year in the forums, one can find threads where participants share and accept dares. Dares can be a fun way to spice up your novel or kick-start a scene when you get stuck. Sometimes they’re serious, and sometimes they’re silly, but they nearly always take you somewhere unexpected in your story. This month, in lieu of Friday Freewrites, I’ll be posting a dare each week for your NaNoWriMo novels (or any other fiction writing that you do this month).


Your dare, should you choose to accept it, is this:

Include an election in your story.

  • Bonus points if your main character is running for office or running the campaign.
  • Double bonus points if either side attempts to rig the vote.
  • Triple bonus points if the outcome has life or death consequences for a major character.
  • Quadruple bonus brownie points with sprinkles if your main character loses.


Let me know in the comments if you choose to accept all or part of this dare. And if you have your own dare for others, please share!


NaNo Dares 2012 Week 1 – Lipogram

November 2, 2012

National Novel Writing Month is a time to take risks, so every year in the forums, one can find threads where participants share and accept dares. Dares can be a fun way to spice up your novel or kick-start a scene when you get stuck. Sometimes they’re serious, and sometimes they’re silly, but they nearly always take you somewhere unexpected in your story. This month, in lieu of Friday Freewrites, I’ll be posting a dare each week for your NaNoWriMo novels (or any other fiction writing that you do this month).


Your dare, should you choose to accept it, is this:

Pick one letter of the alphabet. Write a paragraph as a lipogram, in which you do not use any word that includes your chosen letter.

  • Bonus points if you choose “E,” “T,” or “A”
  • Double bonus points if you avoid your chosen letter for an entire scene of 1000 words of more
  • Triple bonus points if you leave it out for a whole chapter of 2500 words or more
  • Quadruple bonus brownie points with sprinkles if each chapter leaves out a different letter


Let me know in the comments if you choose to accept all or part of this dare. And if you have your own dare for others, please share!

Get What You Want from NaNoWriMo – Part 4: Jump Starts and Test Drives

October 30, 2012

Back to Part 3: Quantity over Quality

While National Novel Writing Month serves well as practice, it can also serve as more serious writing. If you are well prepared and know you can handle the word count, NaNoWriMo can boost your regular writing routine.

Revitalize an Old Project

A confession: I sometimes break the “rules” of NaNoWriMo. I never count words that I wrote before the month began in my final count, but I sometimes choose stories that I’ve already begun writing instead of something new. I have many unfinished drafts that have stalled for one reason or another; I got tired of them, or I got stuck in a plot hole, or I had more important projects take precedence, or life simply got in the way. I admit that I’m not that great at follow-through. Getting back into one of these interrupted stories isn’t always easy, especially if other stories have taken their place in my attention. NaNoWriMo can jump start these abandoned projects to give them new life.

Whether or not I have successfully revived a project has always depended entirely on why I dropped it in the first place. If I got stuck, that usually means there’s a problem I haven’t consciously identified. In that case, NaNoWriMo won’t unstick a story unless I identify the problem–and the solution–before November. If I stopped because I got distracted, then it depends, again, on why. Sometimes it means the original story was just boring and can be safely left to die. However, if life intruded or another project was more urgent, there may still be life left.

The Threads That Bind, which I’m currently revising, is such a case. I let two years lapse between the first half, my NaNo story for 2008, and the second half, which I picked up again for NaNo 2010. Other stories took my attention in between, but I knew I wanted to finish Threads and not let it languish forever. Today, it sits at the center of my writing life because I used NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to pick it up again.

If you decide to revive an old project for NaNoWriMo, the key is awareness of yourself and your story:

  • Know why you originally stopped writing the story, and be certain it still has life in it. Pick a story that you still love in spite of whatever derailed it in the past.
  • Re-read your existing draft so you know where to pick up the story. If it stalled because of a problem in the story, start writing again from a point in the storyline before that problem first appeared.
  • Unless the first part of the story was also written for NaNoWriMo, in which case both parts will need extra attention in the revision stage, expect the new writing to be messier and require more revision later. On the other hand, especially if you have let it sit for a long time, you may discover that your writing has improved in the meantime.

Cheat on Your Current Project

Speaking of shiny new story ideas tempting you away from your current work, sometimes you just need a break, but it remains difficult to return once you’ve drifted away. NaNoWriMo gives you a set, 30-day period in which you can explore other possibilities, so you can take a break but have a clearly defined end-point at which to go back to your main project. Moreover, you can use that time as a test drive of your shiny new ideas to see if they’ve got what it takes to become a serious project later on.

Note: I advise against taking this approach in your human relationships.

As far as writing is concerned, however, this is the approach I’ve found most useful overall and the one I’m taking this November. The Threads That Bind started out this way, and now that another idea is trying to tempt me away from my revisions on Threads, I’ll give myself a vacation and give the new idea one month to prove itself.

To be effective, you have to take this approach with a more deliberate and thoughtful attitude than you may need for some of the others, but it can still end up at least as messy as the freewriting approach. As you write, you’ll be looking for the story’s potential–as well as potential problems.

  • Treat everything that you come up with as the epitome of the word “tentative.” This approach may end up as more of a rough outline rather than something that could reasonably be called a draft. When it’s time to revise, you may find that a complete rewrite from scratch is in order, but you’ll be working with a better idea of what works and what doesn’t for the story.
  • Write notes to yourself as you go along. Mark places where you think you’ll want to add or change things later. Mark places where you get bored or frustrated as possible trouble spots. Mark places where you’ll need to come up with explanation, backstory, worldbuilding, or other information that you haven’t figured out yet. Mark places where you have ideas for how to tie things together further into the story as well as places where you have no idea what’s going on.
  • Don’t restrict yourself to working in order. If you get bored and want to skip to a more exciting scene, do that. Good chance it’ll turn out there’s a problem in the scene you skipped, or it’s one you don’t need anyway. If you’re not sure how to get your characters from point A to point B, skip the transitions and just teleport them. Write what excites you first, and see how it all fits together later.

What’s right for one writer isn’t necessarily what’s right for another, and what’s right for me may not be what’s right for you. But I hope that by describing the different approaches I’ve taken to National Novel Writing Month you’ll have a better idea of how to approach your own experience.

If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo this year, what approach do you intend to take? Is it one of the ones I’ve explored in this blog series, or are you going another direction altogether? If you’ve done NaNoWriMo more than once before, what has worked best for you? Let me know in the comments!

Get What You Want from NaNoWriMo – Part 3: Quantity Over Quality

October 29, 2012

Back to Part 2: Something to Prove

One of the great benefits of National Novel Writing Month is that it gives us external permission to suck, which is difficult to grant ourselves. With the focus on quantity over quality, we free ourselves to make a mess, be as incoherent as we want, and get words on the page whatever way we can.

One Million Words, Ten Thousand Hours

As practice getting words on the page, NaNoWriMo can take you once step closer to your ten thousand hours or your one million words of crap. It’s an opportunity to put words on the page without worry, inhibition, or self-censorship. In effect, it can serve as one long, sustained, 30-day exercise in freewriting. If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, or even if you take a quick glance around, you can see how I feel about freewriting.

But letting go and seeing where the story takes you can be hard. By inclination, I am a plotter, and as much as I laud the many virtues of freewriting, the No Plot? No Problem! approach to NaNoWriMo has been my least successful so far. I’m willing to let some of the small stuff slide, but I tend to cling to my major plot points and intended character arcs with the tenacity of a tentacle monster squeezing the life out of its victims. While I can’t blame it all on anal-retentiveness (college gets some of the credit), the three years that I didn’t hit 50k words were all years that I didn’t plan ahead of time. On the other hand, the “see where it takes me” approach has worked for me a couple of times.

Many before me have described their strategies for producing words regardless of content or coherence, and the NaNoWriMo forums are a great place to start, but here are a few things that have helped me keep going in the years that I discarded planning:

  • Strong, clearly defined characters create conflict. Conflict creates story. If you don’t have the course of your novel plotted out, characters can and will sustain the life of your story. As long as they have distinct personalities and specific things they want and fear, they will make things happen with or without a roadmap.
  • Dares can serve as a jolt of “inspiration” when you’re not sure where to go next. Pick out a dare that fits your story, or throw in something completely random to see what happens. You can find dares (and leave your own!) in the forums. I also posted weekly dares last year, and will again this year.
  • It’s just practice, and it doesn’t have to make sense.

But letting the words pour out onto the page can be about more than simply practice.


My second year of NaNoWriMo was by far the most difficult, and not only because it followed on the heels of a first-year win, with all the accompanying pressure to repeat my previous performance. I was just a few weeks into one of the most difficult periods of my life, and the things I struggled with came out through my writing in ways I never expected.

I didn’t go into that November intending to write a fictionalized account of my own circumstances. In fact, the story I set out with was about the middle-aged mother of a young, dragon-slaying hero, but that got scrapped a few days in. I started over on the fifth day of the month with nothing but a character who had a problem in common with me, and no idea where she would end up–I didn’t even know her name for three days. I ended with a thinly-veiled semi-autobiographical tale that will never, ever see the light of day.

I am immensely grateful for it.

That story taught me a sort of honesty on the page that I had never achieved before. By watching what my character went through, I was able to recognize and put a name to those same things in my own life. At the same time, it pushed me to my emotional limits, to a point that was perhaps further than I was ready to go. It was painful and difficult, but it became one of several factors that began a healing process I couldn’t acknowledge I needed.

You may set out to write a fictionalized version of your own life, but even if you don’t intend to, it can also creep into your story before you’re aware of how close to home it really is. Either way, it helps to be prepared for what your mind may throw at you.

  • The fast writing and lack of self-censorship that comes with NaNoWriMo can help you to reach deeper and dig up thoughts and emotions that you may have held down for a long time. Be ready for the content of your own words to surprise and maybe even scare you.
  • Make sure to take care of yourself, whether that means taking time for yourself to be alone and process, insulating yourself with the company of friends and family, or finding someone to talk to and share with about what you discover. If it gets to be too much, there is no shame in taking a break or stopping altogether.
  • Likewise, remember that you are not your character. Even if your character is based on you, your character can think different thoughts, have different reactions, and make different choices than your own. You have the power to change the course of their story at any point.
  • Your health, both physical and mental, comes before your word count.

Neither of these approaches, nor that of the previous post, is likely to result in something you’ll ever want to publish for the world to read, but that’s okay. Not every word you write has to be intended for an audience.

The next and final post of this series, however, will focus on writing that is (or will be).

Next up: Jump Starts and Test Drives

Get What You Want from NaNoWriMo – Part 2: Something to Prove

October 28, 2012

Back to Part 1: Introduction

Many participants go into National Novel Writing Month hoping to prove something, and I was no exception when I first started. This seems to take two main forms, one oriented outwards and the other, inwards.

Bragging Rights

Some people do NaNo for the ability to say, “Hey, I wrote a novel in a month–what have you done that’s half so cool?” But the desire to look good in front of other people will only take you so far. While I occasionally give in to the temptation to make use of my bragging rights, it has never been the thing motivating me, and I seriously doubt I could have gotten far if it had been. I’ve met few people who took this attitude–and fewer still who saw success with it–without some previously existing desire to write. Still, enough people are motivated by the prospect of being able to call themselves “novelists” at the end of November that it’s worth a mention.

There’s nothing wrong with trying something new to see if you can do it or to see if you like it, but if you’re in it for the fame and glory, I suggest you take a step back and a hard look at what really happens when you complete NaNoWriMo. The truth is that a few people may indeed be impressed, but most won’t give a damn unless your status as a winner comes with automatic publication credits and a cash prize.

Which it doesn’t.

What it can come with is something less impressive, but more powerful.


The word “validation” has multiple meanings in NaNoLand. In official parlance, it’s the term used for the process of submitting your manuscript on the website to have your 50,000 words verified by NaNoWriMo’s word counting machine so that you can be recognized as a winner on your profile. But for many participants, especially first-timers, it means much more.

The first year I did NaNoWriMo, I had no expectation of winning. I had never written more than 5,000 words on one story. I had never finished any story longer than two pages. At that point, I was pretty certain that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer, that I was just going to sit and daydream about my stories instead of ever putting them to paper. While I was deeply unsatisfied with the thought of all those stories sitting in my head forever and never reaching anyone else, I had all but given up on my own ability to follow through with actually writing them.

When I heard about NaNoWriMo, it seemed a little ridiculous. 50k in a month? Yeah, right. Like I could do that, after failing at so many other efforts. At the same time, I heard so much about the effects that it had on other writers–or other people who wanted to be writers–that I decided it was worth a shot.

I went into my first NaNoWriMo paying assiduous care to every rule and recommendation. I picked a story I had never attempted to write before, one I liked but wouldn’t care too much if I utterly mangled. I planned the story to fit, at my best guess, within 50,000 words. As I got into the writing, I allowed myself to go off in a direction I hadn’t planned for and give the story a different ending than I originally had in mind. I wrote every day at the same time.

On November 25th, I wrote my 50,000th word, including the words “The End.”

“Winning” NaNoWriMo was proof to myself that I could do things I hadn’t believed were possible. It proved that I could write a lot of words. It proved that I could stick to writing every day. It proved that I could write all the way through to the end of a story.

But one thing I didn’t realize for a few more years was this: while “winning” meant that I could do those things,  “losing” would not have meant that I couldn’t do them. I get the shudders when I think back and wonder if I might have given up had I not succeeded in that first attempt.

The other thing that didn’t sink in right away was that I didn’t need it to be National Novel Writing Month for me to write a novel. After I wrote “The End,” I don’t think I wrote much, if anything, until the next August, nine months later, and even then it was only because I signed up for a creative writing class. One month of intensive writing was not enough to build a sustainable writing habit. It took me a long time after to figure out how to give myself the motivation–and even permission–to write without external pressures. But doing NaNoWriMo served as a first step to launch me towards the point where I could.

If you’re planning to do NaNoWriMo for the first time this year, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Write for the words and the story, not the accolades.
  • Recognize that 50,000 words in a month really is a ridiculous goal if you haven’t already built up a strong, daily writing habit, especially if you’re responsible for school, work, and/or a family. Failing to reach a ridiculous writing goal will not make you a failure as a writer.
  • It’s okay to give yourself a break and a chance to breathe after November ends, but if you want to write seriously, don’t let that break last all the way to the next November. Give yourself smaller goals for the rest of the year to build up a more sustainable habit even if you’re not quite ready for daily writing.
  • The recommendation to start a brand new story instead of continuing an old one is meant to make the month easier, not harder. If you’re doing NaNo to prove to yourself that you can, don’t try to kick-start an old project at the same time. NaNoWriMo can be useful for that too (more on that subject later), but trying to do both is likely to overload and frustrate you.

Above all, remember that while completing NaNoWriMo can give you a sense of validation, you’ll have to learn how to find that in yourself as you continue writing the rest of the year.

Next up: Quantity Over Quality

Get What YOU Want from National Novel Writing Month – Part 1

October 25, 2012

So you’re considering participating in National Novel Writing Month this November. You’ve read up on it, and you know that if you decide to participate, you’ll be attempting to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel during the 30 days of November. Maybe you’ve always wanted to be a writer and see NaNoWriMo as your chance to try. Maybe you already write regularly and hope NaNoWriMo will give your writing a boost. Maybe you just think it could be a fun way to try something new.

If you’re like most people, the idea is probably a little daunting.

This November will be my 10th year participating in NaNoWriMo and hopefully my seventh time reaching the 50,000 word goal. I love NaNoWriMo, and over the past nine years it has done me and my writing immeasurable good. You could call me a NaNo-vangelist, encouraging the other writers in my life to join the fun and try it out if they have the time and the energy to commit.

My friend/nemesis Chris Brecheen, on the other hand, has a…less than enthusiastic view of the event, which he laid out in his recent blog post, NaNoWriMo: The Good, The Bad, and The Really, Really Ugly. As you can probably guess, I don’t agree that NaNoWriMo is as detrimental to new writers as he puts forth, but his post is worth reading and considering because he makes some valid criticisms and points out some legitimate pitfalls of the month-long writing marathon. I believe those pitfalls can be avoided, but the best way to avoid a trap is to know that it’s there in the first place.

Success in NaNoWriMo is generally defined as reaching the 50k goal by the end of November. This blog series will not tell you how to do that. It won’t reveal the secret to writing 1,667 words a day. It won’t even claim that reaching 50,000 words equals NaNo success. The key to NaNoWriMo is not in the number of words you put to page, but in two things:

  • Knowing what you’re getting into


  • Knowing what you want to get out of it

Plenty of people can tell you what you’re getting into–and Chris’s post is one place to start–but only you can decide why you’re doing this in the first place. Over the course of nine years, I’ve tackled NaNoWriMo with five different approaches, some that I consider more successful than others. In this blog series, I’ll define those five approaches, describe how they worked (or didn’t work) for me, and discuss how to get the most out of each one.

First up: Something to Prove

Review of HAYWIRE by Justin Macumber

October 23, 2012

HaywireHaywire by Justin R. Macumber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Justin Macumber’s Haywire is a fast-paced space adventure that explores what can happen when the technology we use to protect ourselves is turned against us. While it has its ups and downs, the characters and their relationships layered over a humanity-threatening conflict makes this book well worth reading.

A century ago, super-soldiers known as Titans drove alien invaders from the solar system and back to their home world. Now the Titans have returned, infected by a virus and compelled to destroy humanity. Will a scholar, her son, and the only Titan able to resist the infection find a way to stop them and save humanity from its own greatest weapon?

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The opening chapter of Haywire fell flat for me, and I was a worried that it wouldn’t live up to expectations, but once I dug in a little deeper, I became thoroughly absorbed in the story of teenaged musician Shawn, his preoccupied museum director mother Dr. Alicia Campbell, and the nanotech supersoldier Artemis. The relationship between these three characters makes up the heart of the story, but it takes a while before you get to see the nuances.

The tense relationship between Shawn and his mother is portrayed very realistically, and made especially poignant because neither of them knows how to build the relationship that they both want. I was thrilled to see a story where the protagonist’s mother plays an important role in the story, and even more thrilled at how they interact with each other when both are put in danger. When Alicia has to make a decision that will change her son’s life, it’s not only the turning point of their relationship but of the whole story. I only wish she played a more active role in the last 25% of the story instead of merely serving as motivation for her son and her boyfriend.

Artemis, on the other hand, took a while to grow on me, in part because it’s so long before she has a chance to take an active role in the story. But once she comes into the lives of the Campbells, she changes everything. She serves as both role-model and foil to Shawn, a terse and pragmatic teacher who shows him how to take responsibility and become an active participant in his world, while he reveals in her the human being that she has all but forgotten underneath her armor.

I wasn’t as enamored of the space pirates as many other readers seem to be. They served their purpose as a catalyst for the story, and Captain Laroux’s utter ruthlessness definitely raised the stakes and ratcheted up the tension. However, the sympathetic pair of Gimble and Crowe never really drew me in the way I think they were supposed to. I couldn’t care about them the way I cared about the other characters, but the other side characters still gave me plenty to care about.

With so many people pursuing their own agendas and working at cross-purposes, there’s more than enough conflict—and personality—to go around, and the various threads come together in a very satisfying conclusion. Macumber did a good job of taking a solution that could have been too easy and keeping it suspenseful and, above all, personal for the characters. They had to work for every inch, and each character had a role to play and sacrifices to make.

While I feel that the epilogue was too abrupt and a little too neat—I would have preferred to see more of the immediate messy aftermath with only hints of what it would all mean for the future—I’m glad that there’s enough room to imagine how easily things could have turned out differently. It wasn’t an inevitable ending, and throughout the story there was a satisfying mix of familiar tropes with some unexpected turns that kept me on my toes.

Overall, Haywire is a solid story with characters and conflict that kept me engaged all the way through, and a surprisingly layered plot that left me with a lot to think about. After this first book, I’m looking forward to reading what else Justin Macumber will have to offer in the future.

View all my reviews

Listen to Justin Macumber‘s podcast for writers, the Dead Robots’ Society

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