Surviving Nanowrimo # 8: Write your story


Take a look at the top 10 books on Google list of bestselling fiction for 2020  What do you see?

I am looking at the October 11th list. I see romance, literary, coming-of-age, historical, dystopian, suspense, horror, fantasy, and humor. If you go back and look at the lists for other years, you would probably find different categories. One thing is for sure. No category dominates over a period of years. Some are old pros at the bestseller lists; some newbies. And some of these were written by pantsers, some by plotters.

What is this telling you and me? That anything we want to write has the possibility of having a readership. The important thing is that the story has well-drawn-out characters who have a story to tell.

There is one thing I would say. Usually, but not always, the novels on the list are not the writer’s first novel. Some write ten, fifteen, twenty novels before they get lucky. Be prepared to be in for the long haul and even if you don’t make it to the bestseller list, there’ll be readers who can’t wait for your next one.

Once you’ve finished your first nanowrimo novel, edit it through three or four edits till you’ve dressed it up in its Sunday best. Have some other people read it and give you feedback. Then send it out to agents or publish it on Amazon’s kindle. Once that’s done, start on your next novel.

So write what you want to write. Fall in love with your characters. But not so much you won’t be able to send them through hell. And have a hell of a good time doing it.


This is very important. When the novel is finished, I take some time off from the book. Maybe a month. Maybe two months. I go write another novel. After a while, I go back to your novel and read it straight through. The first thing I realize is that your novel is crap. But I don’t give up on it. All first drafts are.

So what do I do then? Now it’s time to outline the novel. I use a book like Save the Cat Writes a Novel. Why do I need a guide? Because I may have left out some essential things.

I am working on a noir novel called The Man Without a Tie. Using Jessica Brody’s book, I realized I had not introduced the antagonist early enough.

Once I have done the outline, I re-write the novel based on the outline. That’s the second draft. A third draft is to correct grammar, take out stuff and add stuff. A fourth draft is to spiff up the novel in its Sunday best. Then I turn it over to a Beta Reader for feedback.

But this is my process. If you have a process, use it. If not, try this one.


One of the most important thing I have learned, writing this blog: My job is not to save the world. My job is to entertain the reader. If I am not entertaining the reader, I probably will not have readers. Advise is cheap. There is so much of it out there in the world you can get it at bargain basement prices. Or not pay for it at all.

If I can bring a little joy, laughter or tears to my audience, I’ve done my job as a creative artist. Don’t believe me about this. Look at the most popular writer in the English language, Shakespeare. It’s been over four hundred years since he died and he is still selling. His plays are performed all over the world.


I have read hundreds of books on writing. From this experience, I have learned a great deal. But after a while, they begin to repeat themselves. So I am going to suggest ten that I’ve found very useful:

1.Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury
2.This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley
3.Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody
4.The Weekend Novelist: Learn to Write a Novel in 52 Weeks by Robert Ray and Bret Norris
5.Mastery by Robert Greene
6.Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing
7.The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway
8.What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund
9.Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
10.On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King


This is my eighth post on the Nanowrimo experience. These insights have come from participating six times. Each time has taught me a little more about how to write a novel.

It’s my hope these insights have helped. If they didn’t, it’s okay. The important thing is to encourage you to get out there and write that novel in November. You never know. It might end up on the bestselller list.

Surviving Nanowrimo # 7: Round and Flat Characters

Years ago the novelist and critic E. M. Forster stated in his Aspects of the Novel that there were two kinds of characters. Round characters are those that were multi-dimensional and complex. The kind that lead a reader to believe a character is realistic. Round characters are usually the major characters of a novel, unless the novel is a comedy.

Flat characters are those that are one-dimensional and simple. The are usually the walk-on characters who have only a few scenes. Characters like the cop that gives out a ticket or the cook in a restaurant.

Anne Tyler proved that this didn’t necessary need to be. A walk-on character could be just as round as a major character. In The Accidental Tourist, she has a waitress serve Macon Leary, the protagonist. In just a paragraph, the waitress is as alive as any round character in the novel. The fact that I find her memorable years after reading the novel proves that.

When writing a novel, try to see the walk-ons as real people with real lives. The novel may be the protagonist’s movie. But the walk-on sees themselves in their own movie intersecting with the protagonist’s movie. Sometimes the walk-on becomes so memorable that the novelist feels they have to write a novel for that character.

So give your walk-ons a chance to shine. They won’t let you down.

Surviving Nanowrimo # 6: An ensemble of characters

Years ago I remember seeing Bob Newhart on the Tonight Show. At that time, Newhart had a very popular tv show called “The Bob Newhart Show.” Johnny Carson, the host, asked Newhart, “Why do all the supporting actors get the best jokes?” Newhart answered, “But I get the credit.”

Years later I read a story about Jason Alexander, the actor who played George on Seinfeld. He was told that he would not be needed for an episode of Seinfeld. At that, he went to Jerry and said, “If I am not going to be needed for all the episodes, I am going to leave the show.” Seinfeld agreed and Jason stayed with the show.

Those two stories made me come to a conclusion. All the successful-and lasting-situation comedies had one thing in common. They were ensemble pieces. In other words, these sitcoms had a regular group of characters supporting the star. But the star didn’t do all the jokes. The jokes were equally distributed among the group.

From the very beginning, this principal has held true: The Lucille Ball Show, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Show, Laverne and Shirley, Seinfeld, Friends. On and on it goes. Occasionally a show where the star gets all the jokes is put on. It doesn’t last.

How does this apply to a novel? A novel is an ensemble of characters, each with her own role. Just because the sidekick is playing second-fiddle doesn’t mean she should have second-fiddle dialogue.

Here’s some ways for the reader to remember the supporting characters. Neil Gaiman suggests that each character should have their own sound, their own dialogue. And maybe while writing that character, give them a theme song. They do this in the movies.

Neil Gaiman also suggests that the writer might want to give each character a funny hat. Now, he isn’t suggesting the writer be literal. It is a way to make characters memorable. Like she always wears purple because she thinks she’s a royal. He has tattoos up the bazooka. Her hair could literally be a bee’s nest. His nose is so long everybody calls him Schnoz. (For a private eye, that might be a great name.)

Another thing to keep in mind: don’t give several characters names that begin with the same letter. How memorable would my characters in “Chad and the Surfboard” be if I started their names with a c?
Chad, protagonist
Chris, ex
Carol, best friend
Conor, the man who saves her from the sea
Callan, the gang lord

Not very. And if they live in a town that begins with a c like Calgary, I’ll be in real trouble.

Surviving Nanowrimo # 5: The Devil Made Me Do It

Today we’re going to talk conflict. You see, there is no such thing as a story or a hero or a protagonist without conflict. One thing to remember when writing a story: Really bad things happen to really good characters. The more a hero has to overcome the more the reader likes the character.

Consider that there are five types of conflict:
1.Man against man. Harry Potter and Game of Thrones are examples.
2.Man against nature. “To Build a Fire” by Jack London and the movie, “The Day After Tomorrow.”
3.Man against society. 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale
4.Man against self. Hamlet
5.Man against technology. 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Terminator

It’s obvious that “Chad and the Surfboard” has a human vs. human conflict scheme. In the novel, there are several villains. The ex-boyfriend chief among them. After doing the draft, it’s obvious to me that I need to flush him out more. But that is what you learn with first drafts, what I need more of and what I need less of.

One thing to keep in mind: a villain or an antagonist is human. They do not judge their actions as bad. In their mind, their actions are for the good as they see it.

And, in some cases, they won’t even understand why they did such a thing. That’s when they will laugh and say, “The Devil made me do it.” And maybe they’re right.

When creating the antagonist, try to let a little of the antagonist’s good creep in.

Just like the hero of the story, they want something. Usually something that opposes what the hero wants.

And don’t forget. The villain might just be the devil.  Who wants the hero’s soul. You never know.


Surviving Nanowrimo # 4: To Outline or Not To Outline

There a two kinds of writers. A plotter outlines their story before writing a word of the first draft. A pantser works by the seat of their pants and discovers their story as they write. Some writers are a combination of the two. If this is your first novel, you might want to try the plotter strategy. With your second novel, try the pantser strategy. Then choose. Each writer has to discover what works best for them. Neither is wrong.

With my first draft, I am the second kind of writer. I have to trust the story to lead me to its resolution. Once I have a protagonist I care about–one that’s interesting, one I like, one that causes readers (and me) to ask questions about–I need to answer five questions:
1.What does this protagonist want? In Chad’s case, she wants her surfboard back.
2.Why do they want it? It’s the closest thing she has to a best friend.
3.What’s stopping them? Is it an external obstacle, a Voldemort, or is it an internal flaw, or is it both? In the Chad story, it’s distance and the trickery of her ex.
4.Will the protagonist get what they want? We’ll see.
5.What lesson will the protagonist learn, even if they don’t get their desire? She can stand on her own two feet.

When I begin writing the story, I don’t have the answers to those questions. This is how I discover the answers to those questions. I do not fill out a character bio or create an outline. I write several a scene which features the protagonist. For instance:
1.A scene where the protagonist acts: Chad is teaching a class of fourth graders,
2.Or a scene where others are discussing the protagonist: The school’s principal is discussing Chad bringing her surfboard to school,
3.Or a scene that provides a setting for the protagonist to act: A coming storm when Chad has to choose between teaching her class or going to the beach and riding the waves the storm sends in.

A scene is one of a series of incidents that together lead to the end of the story. It usually occurs in one place at one time and features characters in a situation. In the scene the main character must have a goal. It should be a goal that leads to the character’s story goal.

Though I don’t fill out an outline, I have seven stop points (scenes) I anticipate when I begin.Think of them as stop lights along the way to the destination at the end of the story.  But I don’t have a clue what will happen at each stop point until I write them.

But I am giving an example of the plot below so you will have an idea of the points. If you are a plotter, you can use these for the points on your outline. The eight points are divided into three acts.

Since I plot out my story as I go along, how come I know so much about “Chad and the Surfboard.” I’ve wrote the rough draft of the novel a year or so ago.

ACT 1:SETTING. In this section, the reader is introduced to the story, the major characters, and the world where the story will occur.

1.HOME. This is a scene where we meet the protagonist in their world. In Chad’s case, she is at her brother’s birthday party.

2.INCITING INCIDENT. This is when the protagonist gets a kick in the seat of their pants. It is the scene (or series of scenes) that forces the protagonist out of their comfort zone. And the protagonist doesn’t have a choice.

In a romance, it might be where Mary meets John and they hate each other. But Mary can’t get John out of her mind. In Chad’s case, she might get fired from her job teaching. Then she discovers that her boyfriend has maxed out her credit cards and drained her bank accounts to pay for a trip to Indonesia for surfing.

The rest of Act 1 the protagonist spends resisting the journey she will have to make. Chad hates what happened to her. Her best friend tells her, “I am not surprised. You always lay down and let the smucks run over you.”

It is possible that it may take several scenes for the protagonist to finally make up her mind to go after what she wants. In Chad’s case: to have revenge on the s.o.b. I have also learned that a major flaw Chad has: she picks the wrong guys.

3.PLOT POINT ONE. So far I have been driving down the road that is my story, then I come to a dead end into another road. I have to choose to turn left or right. Once the character decides to go on the novel’s journey, she must take an action to implement her choice.

Since Chad is stone cold broke, she dresses up in a disguise and robs a bank to get the money to follow her ex to Indonesia.

ACT 2. OBSTACLES. From here to the mid point of the novel, the protagonist faces a series of obstacles which prevent her from implementing her plan.

Obstacle 1. Chad’s plane is caught in the middle of a storm and crashes into the sea.
Obstacle 2. Chad is saved by one of her fellow passengers. It’s a guy that wants to be her knight in shining armor.
Obstacle 3. The two of them end up on an island with cannibals. The guy turns out to be a jerk when he abandons Chad. Through her own efforts, she escapes the cannibals.

4.MIDPOINT might be called a False Resolution. This is the scene where the protagonist believes they are either victorious or they are defeated. But she is neither. If she thinks she is victorious, she will spend the second half of Act 2 falling off a cliff. If she believes she is defeated, she will end up having to climb another mountain.

Chad finally catches up with her ex. He has won a major surfing award. He turns over the money to her.

OBSTACLE 4. Just as he’s about to kiss her, a second woman shows up and accuses him of betraying her and takes the money. Just when it looked like Chad was on top of the world, she isn’t. She feels like she can’t get a break.
OBSTACLE 5. The police show up to arrest her. She escapes with her ex’s help
OBSTACLE 6. Her ex sells her to a gang lord and she ends up waiting to be turned into a prostitute.

5.PLOT POINT TWO (Dark Night of the Soul.) This is where the protagonist is at wit’s end.


6.CLIMAX. The protagonist gathers her resources.

Not knowing where she is, Chad overcomes her guard and escapes. She is chased by the ganglord’s thugs. But she eludes them, using her smarts to do so. She finds herself on the beach and sees her surfboard. She grabs it and heads for the water. One of the guys catches her but she kicks him where the sun don’t shine. Then she heads out to sea, catches a wave and it takes her away from the beach. As she does, she sees the thugs beating up her ex.

7.RESOLUTION. Chad wins a major surfing award and pays the bank back its money.

8.FINAL SCENE. The final scene should somehow mirror the opening scene. Chad shows up at her brother’s next birthday party. She is on probation for the robbery. A guy walks up to her. “Would you like to go out?” She says, “No thanks. I already have a relationship with my surfboard.”

Have I answered my questions? What did Chad want? She wanted revenge. Deep down she wanted to quit allowing her relationships to drag her down. Why did she want that? She was fed up with being used. What would stop her? She didn’t trust herself. Did she get what she wanted? Yes because the ganglord was angry at the ex for betraying him. What lesson did she learn? Sometimes a surfboard is enough.

It’s a good thing to remember this is a rough draft and not a final draft. With a second draft, I will outline and strengthen the characters.

When initially thinking about a novel for Nanowrimo, I knew I would write 50,000 words. I split Act 2 into Part 1 and Part 2. So I divided my Acts into four equal parts of 12,500 words )with Parts 1 and 2 equal parts).

Once I have written my first draft, I often use an outline for my second draft. Because I may have forgotten elements in the story, I use a strategy called Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.

Next “Surviving Nanowrimo # 4: The Devil Made Me Do It.”