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How to stay in the zone for NaNoWriMo

^^^M Harold Page here! Just to clear up some twitter confusion: I'm the guy currently serialising a Heroic Fantasy versus Steampunk  mashup called Swords Versus Tanks. I'm a bit further down the pecking order than our noble host, but still a professional author with four conventionally published novels and two -- now three -- "indy" ones, plus a book on writing called Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic.

Who's poised to embark on NaNoWriMo? Don't worry, this isn't one of those pep talk blog entries (Oh OK. Go YOU! Rah! You CAN do it! RAH! RAHHH!)

I like the idea of National Novel Writing Month. Companionship and a deadline together will motivate you get your ducks lined up in order to tackle a novel, especially if it's for the first time.

However, I don't think focussing on motivation is useful.There is no equivalent to NaNoWriMo for, say, Halo. Nor do gamers generally post on forums pleading for tips about self-discipline.

Yes, you do need some motivation to get started in the first place, to overcome insecurities and to elbow a place in your life in order to write.

Even so, writing itself is a quietly unheroic activity done - like gaming - in flow, "in the zone", and compatible neither with an agitated state of pumped up self confidence nor with taking it in turns to act as online cheerleader.

Conversely, if you are in the zone, motivation isn't an issue and distraction is unlikely; you're lost in your story, so why would you want to be anywhere else?

It follows that the real battle is not about motivation, but rather about getting in the zone and staying there. That's actually a much easier battle to win since the objective is clear and the opposition less nebulous. 

Here's what works for me: 

First, nail the physical aspects of writing. If you're wrestling with time, space and the mechanics of typing, then you're constantly shifting focus from the writing.

Learn to touch type. The BBC website has a tutorial in which talking animals will irritate you into excellence. Touch typing doesn't just speed up your composition, it also turns the screen into an extension of your brain -- you think it, it appears.

Sort out your writing space. I don't mean create the perfect study and hang swords over the door. Rather I mean have one or more places where you can sit properly at your machine and type -- if you don't know the correct posture, google it.

Protect your writing time and space. It takes 10-15 minutes to truly get into the zone and if you are being interrupted you either never enter the zone, or else spend most of your writing slot re-entering it time and again. NaNoWriMo lasts just a month, so a little peace and quiet is not an unreasonable request to make of those in your life.

Second, like Marshal Blucher, keep going forward. Any sort of backtracking spoils your flow.

Switch off your spell checker -- the feature that underlines bloopers as you type. If you're backspacing to fix a typo, you're no longer immersed in your story. You can spell check later.

Don't try to make perfect prose first time. All text is provisional until you reach the end anyway -- that lovely forest scene might not even make it to the final cut. If the description doesn't flow, just write what you're trying to evoke and move on. "It was a dirty, rundown café" will do for now. You can expand it later.

For similar reasons, don't go back to edit as you go, not for style and not even for continuity. If Chekov suddenly needs a gun on the mantelpiece, make a note to add it later. ("XXXX ADD GUN EARLIER XXXX" in the text itself works fine).

Anything rather than leave the zone.

Third and finally, build your story from conflict. Conflict is what moves a story forward, what engages the reader, what adds momentum to description and narrative.

Character is conflict. Setting is conflict. Plot is conflict. All is conflict! Or at least the reader only sees things that are part of a conflict.

Conflict can be as subtle as thematic forces playing out in a description, and as unsubtle as a sword fight on a zeppelin or a couple falling out over domestic chores.

If you have conflict, then you have forward momentum and won't write scenes that fizzle out. What you thought was "resistance" or "block" will melt away.

So, as soon as possible, identify the handful of significant conflicts in your novel. Make every scene about somebody or something pursuing one or more of those conflicts, possibly while engaged in a more limited local conflict, e.g. protagonist struggles with garden in order to impress the inlaws, or pilot soldier struggles with damaged star fighter in order to complete a mission...

This leads me to the most useful piece of advice, something I wish I'd known when I was much, much younger. Here goes:

When drafting a scene, focus on the conflicts in that scene and write with the point of view character in dialogue with the world, like this:

[Sentence or paragraph about the world as experienced by the POV Character]

[Sentence or paragraph in which the POV Character reacts viscerally then acts.]

[Sentence or paragraph about the world as experienced by the POV Character]

...and repeat. You end up with a rhythm like this:

Rain pattered down on John's head, soaking his hair, running down his back.

John shivered. He pulled up his collar and felt in his pocket for his gun.

The Smith Homestead emerged from the sodden darkness. Tentacles...

Writing this way is quick and easy -- no need to search for elegant joining words or to explicitly "filter" perceptions through the character ("John heard... John felt...") and it locks in the conflict you need to drive forward the story.

Also, since it keeps action and reaction from getting tangled, it's very easy to edit and expand or contract, or smooth out if it seems choppy... but you can do that later, once you've finished the first draft.

For more of this approach - yes, shameless plug - try my Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic (UK link). It's a fast read, covers nuts and bolts, not literary theory, and offers no pep talks: success is motivation enough.

However, just in case: Good luck! Rah. Go you! I BELIEVE in you! RAH!



I wanted to be a science fiction writer when I was a child, because then I'd have an unlimited supply. Later I took a couple of courses and tried to write some stuff, but found that while I could get some parts of it, I am so totally schizoid that I can only see things from my own point of view. If you don't understand people you can't write stories, just fragments. But then again, many authors have made entire careers from writing from the point of view of basically just one character (Raymond Chandler for example). Maybe I'll give it a shot again.
A word about learning to touch type. I learned where to put my fingers and then learned to actually touch type by typing at sunset in a room without artificial light. At some point I thought I was looking at the keys but they weren't visible. Practice, practice, practice.


I think one advantage of the world-character rhythm I describe at the end of the piece is that it helps you stay inside the POV character's POV and you can do this purely intellectually if need be.

I've never done a writing course, but I have been mostly unimpressed by the syllabus and alumni of most courses I have encountered. (There are, however, some good ones.)


My favourite way to get in the zone is to walk away from the computer and start writing with a pen on an A4 lined pad.

Old fashioned, and yes I am over 50.

Advantages: a wider range of comfy chairs. (Although it's still possible to screw up your posture and give yourself various aches and pains.) You can disappear into a forest or up a mountain to avoid people. No email or twitter distractions. No spellchecker red lines.

Major disadvantage is that you have to transcribe everything into the computer at some point. For NaNoWrMo I can see that would be a major productivity hit.


Can I suggest, that, if like me you're a known cyberskiver, you should add:-

0) Pull your internet connection. If you can't "research" as you go, you won't spend hours watching trackday videos on YouTube (and I know the guy with "that" Skoda Yeti; If you watch trackday videos you'll know the car I mean).

I also endorse (1b) about posture etc; In fact, even if you have no intention of doing NaNoWriMo stop what you're doing and do that RIGHT NOW. Yes, it's that much more important than my blog comments.


Oddly, when last I asked, youngish uber futurist and modern Doc Savage Hannu Rajaniemi drafts longhand.

I think, if it works for you, the gains in productivity compensate for the time spent retyping -- which can also roll into copy editing.


Pull your internet connection.

Is good advice until you've learned how to get momentum.

I used to find research and/or worldbuilding overwhelming, especially when writing historical fiction. The trick turned out to be to take a layered approach inspired by military thinking:


"I wanted to be a ... writer"

Whenever someone says this (or something like it) to me, I always ask them to clarify if they want to write, or they want to have written. Some people think about this for a short while and realise that actually, yes, they don't want to write; they want the other side of that - to be the kind of person who has written. Some people, though, do find that it's the writing they want and I give them a pad and a pen and urge them to start. Now! Just start writing!

Although it sounds like you did want to write and found yourself unsuited to it.


There's another thing - different people's brains work in different ways. I was always plagued by big sweeping visions - swords versus tanks, Vikings storming Zeppelins - but somehow couldn't manage to turn them into dynamic stories by "just writing". I would have given up if I had not worked out a more top down approach to the planning.

Writing is actually pretty easy, but only if you know how for you. The learning what works for you is still the hard part, but it was even harder in pre-Internet days because there were few sources for meaningful advice.


Once PowerPoint becomes an accepted literary form, I might consider 'writing' a novel.

Would enjoy a contest among authors to see how they'd present their works in PPT.


As Isaac Asimov once said, the best writing style for telling a story is one where the reader doesn't notice any style at all, good or bad.


I have only written one big non fiction book. It was a total PITA and something I was heartily sick of by the time I finished.


Recently read Rothfuss's The Slow Regard of Silent Things. A perfect little fantasy book/story and completely unlike anything else I've read in a long time, if ever. The writing style and the story are 'just-so' and perfectly well suited on several levels.

Note: Even though this story is set in the Kingkiller Chronicles universe, uses an already known/existing character's POV, it's a stand-alone in all other respects.


Re PowerPoint

Actually, as I write from outline and use diagrams ( to identify my conflicts, a PowerPoint presentation would be no problem :)

So, joking aside, PowerPoint is probably as good a tool as any for planning a novel.


After several spectacularly failed attempts at NaNoWriMo, I've moved over entirely to just doing NaNoGenMo. It might be worthwhile, if you can code and you lack the patience to write novel-length fiction.


Interesting thoughts. My mileage -- for what little it's worth, as a hobbyist with very little ambition to have anyone else read my fiction -- varies a bit. I've 'won NaNo' three times -- four if I count one of the summer events -- as a fumbling six-fingered typist whose brain doesn't seem to do 'flow' for anything except the most mundane and repetitive tasks. Coding HTML tables, yes: creative writing, no. So I poke along at a top speed of about 1000 words an hour in bursts of two or three hundred at a time, and it gets done somehow. Sometimes it helps to turn on the typewriter noises and some suitable instrumental music; sometimes it doesn't. I do tend to find as the month goes on that I want to be working at the desktop with its more or less ergonomically correct setup, but there are nights when it's semi-recumbent with the netbook on my lap or nothing.


This is helpful! I am not considering NaNoWriMo, but I am trying to finish a 100K+ word techno-thriller which is giving me problems. I actually have the first draft, but the last quarter of the book needs significant expansion. I've only been writing this thing for nearly three years- it's time to finish it already. Then Nelson DeMille steals my premise in "Radiant Angel", and now I have to go over the thing and check to see if my writing style could be improved in the way you suggested. More work!

So, yes, motivation is a bit of a problem.


A PPT business/marketing plan presentation as the kick-off or basis of a story would probably work. Each character would be a different Dept head so the core narrative/problem would have to be told from several POVs. Then add hierarchy/detail by including a few lackies plus worker drones who'd actually explain/nitpick the dilemma/conflict. Lastly, there are the requisite regulatory agencies, plus the deus ex machina/evil ET (mysterious characters with god-like powers, i.e., Board members in banking, legal, etc.).

Always wondered how Gandalf would have handled his PPT presentation.


So like this.

The goblin was ugly. "Where did you come from?" I asked. The goblin grimaced and scuttled back.
No need to deal with this. I grabbed my bike. The goblin shuffled forward, pointed a nailed claw, mumbled gutteral snarls. I got on my bike. I heard a hissing. I got off my bike and moved my head around. The hissing was coming from my tires. Both of them.
I turned to the goblin. "Did you have something do with this?" I asked. The goblin made eye contact and turned a shoulder, then raised a hand, beckoning me to follow.

I would imagine people don't go into a thing like Sodium Nobellium Wri? Molybdenum month without something already outlined. You know, they have those competitions to program a video game in one weekend. You know they don't go in there without it already planned out and just type code. To make it a proper competition they would have to assign a surprise topic or structure.

Even a short novel that's 5000 words a day. I type about 40 words a minute, but if I'm slowing down to think about what I'm writing instead of just gibberish let's say half that. So four hours a day of typing, with the occasional pause to stare into space for a moment. Though you say not to.


The requirement to "win" is to first-draft 50,000 words on a novel (canonically a new project, though they've relaxed the rules on that recently) in the month, not a complete full-length manuscript. So it's only 1667 words/day if you write every day, or a bit more for those of us who prefer a day off now and again. That isn't impossible even at my 1000 wph rate. (I can type maybe 60wpm flat out, which is better than the 45 I could manage when I started trying this thing, but I can't think anything like that fast.) I have done 5,000 word days, but that's about my upper limit and I drop a lot of threads that way, because there's no time to stop and check my notes.

'Pantsing' -- going in with little or no plan -- actually is a thing among the NaNo crowd, but there are plenty who do plan, some in exhaustive detail. I think I overthought the planning part on my last attempt, and that one still isn't complete.


More or less. That would be fine for a first draft - e.g. you could expand on "Goblin was ugly" during the second draft. However, for added efficiency:

The goblin was ugly.

"Where did you come from?" I asked.

The goblin grimaced and scuttled back.

I grabbed my bike. No need to deal with this. [Go from visceral/instinctive through to action. Reported thought is action so comes at the end. A European editor would probably cut that, a US one would want to leave it in, probably.]

The goblin shuffled forward, pointed a nailed claw, mumbled guttural snarls.

I got on my bike.

Something hissed. [Remove filtering.]

I got off my bike and moved my head around.The hissing was coming from my tires. Both of them.

I turned to the goblin. "Did you have something do with this?" I asked.

The goblin made eye contact and turned a shoulder, then raised a hand, beckoning me to follow.


I can do 4K a day if working from outline. The main thing is not to get tied in knots - wrangling text takes longer than drafting it.


If you think like a coder, then I think you'd find my book useful. (If you're skint, PM me and I'll send you a "review copy")


I have never "won" at NaNoWriMo. I often travel in November and I can't write while travelling; or by Murphy's law I'm burned out from just finishing a project the month before.

However ...

I feel no performance anxiety, because I wrote the first draft of "The Annihilation Score" (which ran to 109,000 words) in 18 days, and produced the first 51,000 words of that draft in 167 hours, i.e. one hour less than one week. So Peak Charlie = roughly 4.5 times NaNoWriMo output rate.

(Ahem. But that's my peak output. I am reliably informed of the existence of at least two authors for whom that is the mean output rate, 24x365 ...)


Do you remember Scary Wordcount Lady?

"By good words, I'm assuming you mean words I'm not going to delete or rewrite during the evening or final edit. I usually write an average of 15-20K per day, but of those I usually overhaul or lose 3-5K during the edits, so about 12-15K."


"No need to deal with this. I grabbed my bike."

I actually think I like this better. It moves from thought to action. Why would an American editor make different choices than a European one?

I have trouble with action scenes. I've been told that they are to "choreographic"- too much detail regarding the physical action, not enough emotional reaction from the POV character. Working on it.


That's a mistake often made by people who have forgotten, or never had, the experience of a real nasty brutal fight. It's not like its depicted in fiction. And even minor injuries hurt for a long time.


My experience is that US editors like to make things utterly crystal clear to the reader, whereas European ones like the reader to infer things from actions - show don't tell. YMMV

As to the order, it depends on whether the reported thought is a decision or a commentary. Both are valid. However, visceral and non-verbal reactions generally precede speech or speech like thought in real life, so I might have got a few more words out of the thought-action order.


For those still reading: There's a digest of my various writing articles on Black Gate her -


Asimov was also prolific ... 500 books or so, and most notably, the books ranged across most of the Dewey decimal system.

Visited the Cartland url you posted and read about the Heyer copying, plus the Tolkein-Brooks situation. I noticed the same about Jordan and Goodkind. Around the third/fourth books of both series, I couldn't tell which series I was reading, they were almost indistinguishable. Stopped reading both.

About 'action' - consider 'effect' instead. Some physical actions cause more non-physical (emotional or cognitive/intellectual) than physical effect, and vice versa.


I have no idea what skint means, but I'm a sucker for free books.

NaNoGenMo has produced a lot of really interesting content. While none of the interesting content has been mine, it's perfectly possible to 'win' NaNoGenMo in excess of thirty times during November -- and there was a project called NaNoGenLab which attempted to do a brand new novel generation project every day during November (although the creator got bored with that after a while).


@Dirk: Thank goodness, I have never been in a fight. But since I'm writing a thriller, I better learn how. The mistake I'm making, I think, is to assume that people plan their actions more than they actually do. When I write a fight scene, it can end up sounding like a chessgame.

"No need to deal with this" impresses me as an emotional response- sort of like saying "F--- this, I'm outta here." That may be my American cultural background rearing up. Putting the same phrase after grabbing the bike sounds more like an intellectual conclusion: "I am now on my bike and have no need to deal with this." That sounds... unrealistically analytical after encountering a supernatural creature.


Both ways around work. One nice thing about this approach is that it keeps the text uncluttered, meaning it's easier to apply fine-level control over nuances like this.


The main thing is to keep the rhythm going - this is a writing tool not a litcrit one.

That said, "effect" generally belongs in the World half. E.g.

"My right side blazed in pain."

In a sense, the boundaries expand and contract around the character and that can also be a literary effect. For example, in narrative summary of a campaign, the army actions might mostly belong in the Character half.


Fight scenes are had to get right. Since the reader can't see the action, choreographic descriptions will lack emotional impact. However, if you drone on about emotions, then the combat loses its visceral feel - plus there really isn't time to emote while smiting!

My response is to keep the actual clashes - exchanges of fire or blows - short and nasty and to do the emotion between them.

In general, have a model of how the relevant martial art works, even if it’s invented. Have a clear tactical scenario that creates story-related dilemmas. Track consequences and continuity. Balance detail with summary. Keep combat nasty.

Longer article here:


Skint - UK (originally Scots) colloquialism - The state of having no money or negotiables.


Fight scenes involving weapons are easiest to describe without being tedious, IMHO. Try writing up this (action at 1:04)!:

OTOH, a fictional fight is something like this (JB Spectre):

and bear in mind that even quite a light "tap" will result in broken noses, fat lips, black eyes or a tooth missing. At the end of a real fight you are sweating and shaking and probably covered in blood.


In the past I've studied both kung fu and fencing, so I think I have the mechanics of a fight down realistically. It's the writing style that I seem to have trouble with. Here's an example (the protag is fighing a group of men inside a building still under construction- she has snuck up on them in the dark):

"She flipped herself up onto the walkway. Two men were standing there, holding rifles, surprised to see her. The smartsuit led her through the moves: crouch, kick the closer man’s ankle, grab his arms, flatten the rifle against her chest, shove the first man onto the second. Left foot kick to the center of his chest, detach the rifle, swing at his head. Jump over the prostrate man, grab the second man’s barrel, twist, kick at the arm. Her kick missed."

I think that's perfectly realistic, but I'm not satisfied with the way I describe it. No emotional reactions for one thing. Using your method, I suppose it should be more similar to:

"She flipped herself onto the walkway. Two men were standing there, holding rifles, surprised to see her. The smartsuit led her through the moves: crouch, kick the closer man’s ankle, grab his arms, flatten the rifle against her chest, shove the first man onto the second. She felt a sudden pain as the rifle jarred against her. Her training took over and her mind went still..."

Is that an improvement? It still feels choreographed to me...


Fighting is too often used as a get out of jail free card in fiction. Especially bad TV shows and movies. If all else fails, fight scene, hero wins. All that really says is that the most important quality you can have is the ability to fight. It's even more important than being a good guy. I think a protagonist should win by some virtue they have that the villain lacks. And that means the protagonist should NOT be a supreme fighter. The virtue itself should be shown to be a source of strength. "We prevailed over the rapacious corporation trying to steal our land because we stuck together as a family and because the community loved us", not "we prevailed over the rapacious corporation trying to steal our land because we went to the corporate office and kicked some ass." Not that that's advice about technique or anything, as if I could give such. Just venting.


Both are fine. However, the reason they feel choreographed is that the neither the other guys nor the environment are reacting. What's missing is a sense of dialogue and physicality.

She flipped herself onto the walkway.

The metal grille smacked into her boots and juddered under the impact.

Two men jerked around to face her, eyes wide. The rifles came up, muzzles impossibly wide, promising death...

The smartsuit nudged her to crouch.

Bullets whined overhead, ricochetted off the wall.

The smartsuit had her kick the closer man’s ankle. The shock of impact jarred her foot.

He toppled toward her, still spraying bullets.

She grabbed his arms, flattened the rifle against her chest.

The bullets ceased. He slammed his head forward. His helmet cracked into her faceplate.

She gasped even as the smartsuit had her shove the first man onto the second.

As he went, he punched his rifle butt into her elbow.

The pain numbed her arm but it was all so very far away. Training and the smartsuit braided together...


Ahhh. Yes, that's it. I see, shifu. Your style is a tad more, er... florid than what I was going for, but I can adjust for that. OK, now all I have to do is go back over the entire freaking novel and figure out where I have to make this kind of change. Thanks for all the extra work!


There's no figuring out, just put yourself in the character's shoes and think move and countermove. I rewrote that in one pass, so it shouldn't be hard for you to do something similar.

Glad you found that helpful, though. Puzzled you called it "florid". I use direct Dnglish in short sentences!


In terms of style, no one's right, no one's wrong. We each have our own voice. "Impossibly wide muzzles, promising death" is, I think, perhaps a bit much for someone who has seen plenty of muzzles pointed her way. I would put "Two dark muzzles swung directly at her- for a split second she could see nothing else. Warnings screaming in her ear, she crouched and kicked..." I like to understate things, esp. with that character (she's understated herself).


What's missing from both is the adrenalin rush and its effects. Shaking, sweating, an intense focus on the threat to the detriment of all else, not knowing when to stop, not feeling anything in terms of pain. The latter is especially true - if you feel pain during a fight you can pretty much guarantee you are going to be a hospital case. Then we have the insanity of the whole thing - it's not a game - it's a screaming violent situation where two or more people are trying to inflict as much injury as possible. And nothing seems to be happening - no matter how many time you stick your bayonet into their face they just keep moving. And at the end (assuming you win), it's a massive downer. You just want to cry or sleep but now the injuries start to be felt and the pain just keeps getting worse.


Yes indeed. Generally my characters have come-downs after combat, shaking legs, weakened limbs, nausea sometimes.

During combat depends on the character. I tend to write about professional warriors, so when they get going they just flow - the emotions come later.


Yes indeed. I was imagining her as an inexperienced fighter who was wearing a smart suit to punch above her weight. You - who invented the character - would write differently.


I also think that the style should match the story you are writing. A swashbuckling adventure story should have a different "tone" than a cyber-noir thriller. Although Dirk's comments apply either way.


If you want to know what a pre-meditated fight to the death feels like just before you engage, try free climbing some serious cliffs with no safety gear. Especially if you are no good at it.


Amazingly enough, I've done that. It was no fun.


Me too. It might have started off as fun, but it rapidly changed. My teenage self. These days my stupidity is at a far more refined level.



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This page contains a single entry by M Harold Page published on October 21, 2015 4:20 PM.

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