NaNo Warm-Up Part 4

We’re heading into the home stretch. Just a mere 10 days before National Novel Writing Month officially kicks off.

Hopefully, you’ve taken advantage of some of the writing exercises I’ve shared in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and it sparked a new juicy novel idea to work on next month.

For some, you might not have been as consistent with your writing as you would have liked and now you’re asking yourself how will you ever be able to write 1,667 words for 30 days in a row? That’s like going to take way longer than 10 or 15 minutes a day.

Your heart picked up a little just now, didn’t it? And your breathing got a little shallower. Your inner critic is probably laughing at you and telling you it’s not possible.




Of course, it’s possible. Thousands of people do it every year. And you can too. Consistency is the key. Every day you have to sit down and try. Try is the operative word. Even if you only manage to write, say, 100 words a day, that’s still 100 more words than you had yesterday. And that is cause for celebration. (Hey, if James Joyce considered two perfectly written sentences a full day’s work, so can you.)

So instead of giving you another writing exercise this week, something that may only take a few minutes to complete, I thought I’d share some tips on how to write consistently and not feel like crap about it.

  • Be specific about when and where you are going to write. Choose the time and place that fits your schedule. It may vary depending on what day of the week it is or even what your kids’ schedule is like, but knowing ahead of time when and where you will be writing every day will alleviate the first hurdle.
  • Set boundaries on your time. If you don’t have the luxury of living alone, don’t let other people bother you when you’re trying to write. Lock yourself in the bathroom, get up earlier or go to bed later than everyone else in the house, slip out to the library for an hour. The best place to write is a cemetery. No one bothers you there.
  • Decide on what or how much you want to accomplish each day. Start off by setting the bar low, like really low to start, so that when you’ve met your goal, you feel like a badass. Start with 100 words a day, then 250, then 500, then the dreaded 1,667.
  • Or if the thought of a word count already raises your blood pressure, start off by completing one scene per day, or one page per day. You’ll be in the company of John Steinbeck who advised the same thing when he wrote, “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” 



  • Never stop writing when you can’t think of anything to say. You’ll be frustrated before you even start the next day and you’ll waste valuable, precious time pulling your hair out, slamming your fists on the desk, and swearing into your computer screen. Ernest Hemingway said it best when he offered this piece of fatherly advice, “You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next, and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”
  • Create the habit of writing by attaching it to a habit you already have (preferably one that’s good for you, but I guess it doesn’t have to be). My favorite thing to do on weekend mornings is drink a pot of tea. When that tray comes out and the first cup is poured, I know it’s time to write.
  • Likewise, you can create a writing ritual. Perform the same meaningful (or meaningless) routine to get you in the mood. Charles Dickens would rearrange knickknacks on his desk, Steinbeck would sharpen 12 pencils, Mark Twain wrote lying down, and Victor Hugo stripped naked to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (For more weird writing rituals of famous authors, check out this book.)

If the thing that gets you down is not so much the time spent at writing but what you end up with on the page, remember you are not the only writer to ever think that what you’ve written is crap. Maya Angelou said, “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay, I’ll come.'”

Remember the operative word is “try.” No one is going to think that what they wrote at such a furious pace like the one set by NaNo is great. And if they do, then it really is crap. The point behind the challenge is to just get the words out, the story finished, not to labor over linguistics.

Joshua Wolf Shenk puts it like this, “Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and rewriting the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.”


So this week, make writing a priority, or at least set plans to in motion, and have the courage to try.

Hey, if it helps, you can always tell yourself you were trying to write the worst novel ever written.

Good luck!




NaNo Warm-Up Part 3

Welcome to Week 3 in the NaNo warm-up writing prompts.

In last week’s post, we explored ways of coming up with story ideas based on book titles. Some of you may have come up with your own titles or some may have worked with titles of already-published books that you knew nothing about. Either way, writing a short book synopsis is a great way to start thinking about a story in terms of plot.

But what if writing plot isn’t your strength or you prefer to write a story based on character instead?

Mary Hilton in Potent Fictions: Children’s Literacy and the Challenge of Popular Culture criticised the Point Horror series’ main characters, who were often teenage girls, as basically being used as a plot device. These femalce characters spend much of their time being upset, stalked, dumped, terrorized, paranoid, or killed. It’s true. The main characters of any of these books could be swapped from one to the other without changing storylines much.

But for literary writers, stories begin with character, and plot grows organically from there.

This week’s exercise focuses on creating characters who have a specific story to tell and comes in two parts.

Remember the Bestselling thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or the movie The Man in the Iron Mask? How about Girl With a Pearl Earring? Each of these titles is basically an innocuous character description, and if you had never read any of these books, you would be hard pressed to guess what genre or plot they suggest.

The first part of this exercise is to come up with a list of various character descriptions. These could describe some physical attribute, a personality quirk, or an emotional state. Heck, you might even want to take a cue from Edgar Allan Poe and be as generic as possible: The Black CatThe RavenThe Sleeper.

Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • The man in the green speedo
  • The girl who cried at midnight
  • The boy who ate glass
  • The cat whisperer
  • The woman in the rain

The second part to this prompt is to randomly select one from your list and create a character from it. This could be done any way you want: personality profile, character questionnaire, backstory narrative. You can work on one character per day or spend several days on the same character. There is no wrong way to do this.

The most challenging option for this exercise is, once you have selected your character, to write his or her story. This is done by asking simple questions: WHO? WHAT? WHY? HOW?

For instance, why is that man wearing a green speedo? Is it socially acceptable because he’s on a beach in Italy or Spain? Is he on a swim team? In the Olympics? Is his choice of swim attire out of place on the rocky Maine coast?

Why is the girl crying at midnight? Who is the woman standing in the rain? How does one know they can communicate with cats on some otherworldly level? What makes a young boy eat glass? The answers are endless, and no matter which ones you decide on, your character will dictate your story and not the other way around.

Happy writing!

NaNo Warm-Up Part 2

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, young adult horror novels were all the rage. Authors such as Caroline B. Cooney, Diane Hoh, Christopher Pike, and R. L. Stine were suddenly catapulted to success with their contributions to the Point Horror imprint from Scholastic Publishing.

These novels, with titles such as Blind Date, Mirror, Mirror, and The Vampire’s Kiss, were not works of literary genius nor were they probably meant to be, but they were immensely popular and fun, quick reads.

While I never read most of the Point Horror books, my favorite YA author growing up, Richie Tankersley Cusick, had written four titles for the imprint, including The LifeguardTrick or TreatTeacher’s Pet, and April Fools, which I must have read at least a dozen times over the years (as well as all her other books). Trick or Treat was my favorite because I love Halloween, and in fact, Ms. Cusick’s books are what inspired me to write my own YA horror/mystery/suspense novels.


I recently read a Q&A with Cusick regarding the Point Horror series, and she stated that the authors were all given specific titles to work with and had to write stories around them. While some might consider this “factory” writing, I thought the idea would make an interesting writing prompt, especially for those of us who are plot junkies or those who may need a little help coming up with a plot or title.

Again, this is a two-part exercise.

  • First, you will have to come up with at least a dozen (or however many you feel like) titles for would-be novels. I suggest you don’t use titles for books you already know you want to write. That’s cheating! (And don’t worry if you find out there is already a book published with one of the titles you came up with. There is no copyright law for titles.)
  • Secondly, each day, you will randomly select one of the titles and write a short plot summary that you might find on the back of a paperback or inside flap of a hardcover.
  • Set your timer (if you wish) for 10 minutes and get writing. Stop when the timer dings or keep writing. It’s up to you!

This is the synopsis for Cusick’s novel The Mall, which I happen to have at my fingertips, and as you’ll see, it’s not particularly long or involved but is a general skeleton of the plot, the two main characters, and the overall tone of the story:

“Trish smiles into the dressing-room mirror, admiring herself in the gorgeous white dress. Unknown to her, someone else is watching. He knows she is smiling just for him. His soft, strange voice whispers her name from the crowd. His hooded eyes follow her every move … At first she thinks he’s just a creepy customer, hanging round Muffin Mania where she works at the mall. But suddenly he’s everywhere, the man with a thousand faces tormenting her day and night. He knows her secrets. There’s no safe place to hide. There’s no one she can tell, no one she can trust. How can she escape a madman wiling to kill to make her his–forevermore.”

And here are a few titles I came up (again, keeping with the horror theme) to get you started:

  • Blood Sisters
  • Murder Island
  • Hall of Mirrors
  • Cursed
  • Cellar Stairs

If you have trouble coming up with titles, I found this infographic on that gives you 15 examples of how books are titled.



  • Make a list of already-published book titles you have never read before nor know anything about. You might want to stick to a genre you wish to write in or may want to go outside your comfort zone and look for titles in an unfamiliar genre.
  • Continue as above.

I found these examples by Googling mystery titles:

  • Ghostwalk
  • City of Liars and Thieves
  • MacDeath
  • Belzhar
  • Crime Rib

This exercise is not meant to hone your synopsis-writing skills, so don’t worry about making the summary perfect or enticing. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, paragraph breaks, or even coming up with catchy phrases. It’s more about just brainstorming a general story idea with a few important characters. You may even find one of these ideas is perfect for your NaNo novel next month.

Good luck and let me know how you like this exercise. Even better, I’d love to read some of your synopses!


That Was Then. This Is Now.

December’s a pretty busy time of year what with all the Christmas shopping, Christmas parties, Christmas itself (which realistically only lasts two hours), my sister’s birthday, school projects, the ballet, two plays, etc, so my friend and I decided it would be a good time to write a novel. Yes, we ripped off Chris Baty‘s November NaNoWriMo event and moved it to December because we were too lame (and late) to do it last month. 50,000 words, plus we get an extra day to do it in.

Oh, we also decided it would be well worth the effort to eat healthy and exercise every day while we were at it.

It’s the end of week one and I am totally impressed with ourselves. We both made our weekly quota of over 11k words. This is more words than I have probably written in the past ten years. They are not great words; it is not even a great story. In fact, I didn’t even have a clue what I was going to write about up until I sat down at my laptop on December 1 and had to write something.

My story is not going anywhere in the sense that I will never revise it or even consider doing anything more with it. At first, my Inner Critic was appalled.

IC: “What’s the point of spending all this time and energy and getting so stressed out to just write a piece of crap?” inner-critic

ME: “Well, Inner Critic, that is the point. Thanks to you, I have reread, rewritten, and reviled everything I have ever written to death, and it hasn’t gotten me anywhere. Why can’t I take this time to write something you have no control over and have fun with it? You know, fun, the way writing used to be before you showed up? And by the way, who the hell let you out of the kennel?”

So now my Inner Critic just sits on my shoulder and sniggers about the drivel dripping from my fingers as if he’s saying, “One day you’ll come back to me.”

That was then. This is now.

My friend and I posed the same challenge to ourselves in July. 50,000 words in 31 days. This time we failed. Neither of us even started past an idea in our head. We did manage to work on a graphic novel at least. But I felt kind of guilty that I wasted a whole month and never reached my goal even though I had already written three short stories. So I told myself that I would definitely write a novel in August.

Okay, it’s August 14, and I officially hate my Inner Critic. I’m seriously thinking about firing him because he’s a pain in the ass. When I was a  kid I wrote for fun, for me, for escape. I was the main character in all my stories and I led some pretty cool lives; I lived with rock stars, I dated rock stars, I was a rock star. I didn’t care about “character” or “plot” or “pacing” or “setting.” I just wrote and I’m pretty sure I hit all those elements without even trying.


Then I got this brilliant idea: let’s go to school to study creative writing! And guess what? That’s when my stupid Inner Critic showed up! Now everything I write has to “measure up” to some invisible audience’s expectations. Or worse: a publisher’s. Consequently, education sucked the spontaneity, creativity, and innocence out of writing for me.

There’s been one project that I’ve been working on for awhile that I’m pretty proud of. It’s a fan-fiction serial based on World of Warcraft that I write in installments. I don’t write it for anyone but me and a few guildmates who may or may not even read it. I don’t plan on doing anything serious with it (like trying to get it published), so it’s actually fun and probably some of my best off-the-cuff writing.

That’s what I want to get back to with everything I write–that non-feeling of dread when I sit down at the keyboard (if I even get there). I don’t want to do character sketches, or plot summaries, or scene outlines. I just want to write with the same non-pressure feeling I used to when I could be anything I wanted. (Which was always apparently a rock star.)


Calling All You Writing Freaks


Halloween is by far the scariest time of the year. Not just because it is the one night when the veil between the worlds is opened allowing spirits, ghosts, and succubi to cross over into our realm or because gangs of teenagers run amuck through the streets toilet papering trees, waxing windows, and smashing pumpkins. Halloween is scary because it falls on the eve of NaNoWriMo. Yes, that dreaded month when every writer willingly surrenders himself into the depths of hell and participates in self-flagellation in the name of writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

So I thought Halloween would be a great time to prepare yourself for the month to come. All you have to do is write for one hour at some point on October 31. It doesn’t matter what you write because the best part about this is that your writing can put on a costume and pretend to be whatever it wants for those 60 minutes. If it turns out to be just a character sketch, or backstory, or even a few lines of dialog, it’s okay! It’s come as you aren’t night. So don’t get all self-critical or go all hyper-editor on yourself. Just have fun! Because the next 30 days are going to be anything but.

In case you need a few suggestions to get you started, here they are: (and they’re all conveniently Halloween related)

1. Find an eerie image or a piece of haunting music to inspire you 

2. Write about what monster scared you the most as a child (or as a grown adult): vampire, Frankenstein, mummies, zombies, mad scientists, ghosts, witches, etc.

3. Write about what the town children would do if Halloween was canceled because of a freak weather anomaly

4. Pick your favorite Halloween costume from childhood. What was it? Why? Now write about what kind of life you as that “person” would have lived.

5. You’re getting your fortune told at a fair when the psychic tactfully informs you that you are already dead.

6. You foolishly accept a dare to spend the night in a cemetery/haunted house/abandoned prison/insane asylum/whatever.

7. You arrive at your friend’s Halloween party when one of the guests turns up dead.



Come on guys, it’s just one hour. Let go of your old habits and have fun with this. You never know where your next great idea will come from.

Enter this Halloween challenge…if you dare! Muwahahahaha.