Today we have a guest post by the fabulous Catherine Martin!  Read her adventures as a VSO volunteer in Thailand at her blog, All Maps Welcome.  Or follow her on Twitter at @catilinarian .

You may have heard of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo:  every November, thousands of brave (and maybe a little masochistic) souls sign up and pledge to write 50,000 words during the course of the month.  It’s said to be a great, if intense, way to jump-start a novel, or finish off that one you can’t seem to wrap up.

Well, when I started feeling stuck with the novel I’m writing, I decided to see if the same strategy would help.  I knew right off the bat that there was no way I could commit to 50,000 words that month, but 10,000, I figured I could do.  And so, this past September, I embarked on my own mini-NaNoWriMo.  My nano NaNo.  (I actually didn’t just end up writing 10,000 words’ worth of hideous puns, although you’d be forgiven for thinking so.)

I did manage to produce 10,000 words (even if the last few were written at six in the morning on 1 October), but I think the valuable part of the project was that it taught me more about how my writing process worked than I might have learned in a year of writing without that pressure.

The very first thing I learned is this:  deadlines are your friends.

Writing is often like having a fancy cooking gadget – say, a crème brulee carmeliser

or something – lying around your kitchen.  No matter how much you wanted it, or how excited you got buying it, it’s all too easy to put it away somewhere and never use it once the initial gloss has worn off.  That is, until a moustache-twirling megalomaniac bent on destroying the world locks you in the kitchen, and you MacGuyver that sucker into an awesome incendiary device to save the day.

You don’t wanna KNOW what Macgyver would do with THIS.

Of course, “Hey, deadlines motivate you to work!” is pretty obvious, but think about this:  in my (somewhat tortured) analogy, even if you had been faithfully carmelising crème brulee every day for years, you might never have found out what else your handy kitchen gadget could do if there hadn’t been a crisis.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s the real power of deadlines, whether they’re external or self-imposed.  When you’re writing under pressure, you have to try and accomplish what you need to – that is, tell the story you want to tell – using the elements and the resources you’ve got.  And in using and reshaping those elements to work for you, you often discover that they have potential you never imagined.

Having a deadline can, strangely enough, be very freeing.  When the only limit you set for yourself is that you have to produce X words by Y date, you are allowing yourself to be less critical of what you produce.  This can be a powerful step for a writer, especially one who tends to pre-edit their work before setting it down on paper.  Now, it’s crucial to be able to critique your own writing and remove what doesn’t work, but trying to do that in advance, so that you don’t write anything until it’s already perfect in your head, can be paralysing. (Ed. note: THIS PARAGRAPH MADE ME WANT TO STAND UP AND APPLAUD.)  Personally, I prefer to have a lot of material to play with.  When I’m ready to put together a second draft, I can go back and cut parts, or mess around with the way things fit together.  In the meantime, though, actually writing scenes out, even if I don’t ultimately use them, helps me develop elements of the plot and characters in greater depth, and has often allowed me to figure out where I want the story to go.

And that brings me to one of the most important things I learned from this exercise:  your story will surprise you, if you let it.

Having a word count to meet not only forces you to get creative – it also encourages you to say “yes” more often, because you can’t really afford to say “no”.  This pushes you to follow up on side scenes and plot avenues you might have ruled out if you weren’t writing to a deadline.  Not all of these side plots will make it into the final cut, but sometimes, that silly little scene you wouldn’t have bothered with, except that it gave you an extra 600 words, will be the one that sparks something in your brain and inspires you to take the entire plot in a different, and more interesting, direction.

Your characters will surprise you, too, just because this method of writing will mean spending a lot more time in their company.  Think back to that megalomaniac locking you in your kitchen.  Now, say he locked an acquaintance in there with you.  Chances are that by the time you two busted out hours later – armed with your freshly pimped-out crème brulee carmeliser, of course – you would know more about that person than about some of your closest friends.  Just being “stuck” with a character for a set number of pages – letting them talk, letting them go about their business – allows you to notice and draw out details about them that you might not have ever thought to invent.

For example:  There’s a character in my book called the Lord of War.  That’s an

Cover of "Lord of War [Blu-ray]"

Not this guy.

official government post on his world – like a Secretary of Defence – and what’s more, it’s the government post my main character, Shalker, has wanted for her entire life.  So the Lord of War was originally conceived as a kind of antagonist by circumstance.  He embodied everything that was standing in Shalker’s way professionally.  He was officious, and pompous, and not terribly bright.  He was also, as you can imagine, boring as paint chips, and so I barely used him.

What happened when I started doing the 10,000-word challenge was that I ended up writing the Lord of War a lot more often.  And something interesting started to happen.  It turned out that the Lord of War was funny.  And maybe his sense of his own importance wasn’t annoying after all – it was kind of theatrical and endearing.  And, well, if he’d held his post for this long, he had to at least have some brains, right?  And maybe Shalker even kind of liked him, as well as resenting him; and that, in turn, made her more complex.  Sure enough, somewhere along the way, the Lord of War turned from a plot device into a person.

So, would I recommend doing a nano NaNo?  Sure, with a couple of caveats:  Pick a goal that’s realistic for you.  Pick the right point in your creative process – this approach is great when you need a push to sit down and write, but not so good if what you need is a solid month’s worth of research on the social history of Tudor England before you really know what you’re talking about.  And if you have a blog, or just a group of people interested in your writing, consider keeping a running word count, or posting first, last, or favourite lines from what you wrote that day.  The encouragement you get can make all the difference.

And what about those times when you just can’t churn out another word, let alone a hundred or a thousand?  These are a few tricks I developed when I got stuck.

  • Stop, Look, Listen:  Stop the action for a second.  What are your characters physically experiencing right now?  This is also a crucial step for world-building, especially when the world is in some way alien to us – a different place, time, planet, or plane of existence.  Not all of this description has to end up in the final cut, but even if it doesn’t, it will help ground both you and your character in your fictional world.  (Remember to focus on what aspects of their surroundings your characters would find familiar, strange, comforting, or frightening.  Check out Margaret’s recent blog post on writing historical detail for some excellent tips.
  • Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch:  Stop and check in with other characters.  If nothing else, this will get you thinking strategically about how your plot fits together, and what’s going on behind the scenes at any given moment.
  • Roll Initiative:  Instead of banging your head against the wall trying to figure out how to get from where you are to the next plot development you need to happen, trying putting yourself in your character’s shoes.  Forget everything that you, as the writer, know about what’s coming next, and treat your story like a roleplaying game instead.  What would you do?  Who would you go talk to?  Not only does this open up some plot options for you, but you might end up changing where the plot goes if you let it develop organically.
  • Suddenly Ninjas:  This is the nuclear option for dealing with writer’s block, and

    Alternatively, you could write this. Though from its IMDB reviews, I wouldn’t recommend it.

    is part of the official advice offered by the good folks who run NaNoWriMo.  If you have no idea where your plot should go next, suddenly, ninjas burst in and attack!  Okay, so it’s a little off the wall, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it if you’re writing a kitchen sink drama set in 1950s Liverpool – no, I’m lying, I think ninjas would be awesome in a kitchen sink drama set in 1950s Liverpool – but the idea is that you can sometimes jumpstart your plot by taking it completely off the rails.  (In my case, the royal reception I was writing was grinding on interminably – so I had a dude crash it to steal an experimental spaceship.)  If nothing else, it will strengthen your characters by letting you see how they react when removed from their original context and faced with something completely unexpected.  Unless, of course, you’re writing a novel about ninjas.  In which case, might I recommend zombies?