Nanowrimo – how to write a fast book

Reading Time: 2 minutes
6 tips for writing a fast book for Nanowrimo
Don’t write yourself into a tight corner – follow these 6 guidelines to write a fast book.  Entrance to Paisley Close, Edinburgh, 2016

National Novel Writing Month requires you to complete a 50,000 word work of fiction in 30 days. If your typing is speedy, this is quite achievable. But what you choose to write for Nanowrimo can scupper you before you start. Follow theses guides to write a fast book.

  1. Go contemporary. I love to write fantasy, but even urban fantasy requires world building and development of a magic system. All of that eats into writing time. Set it now, in the real world, and save yourself the work.
  2. Go local. Exotic settings are great but need research. Set the action somewhere you know, have visited, or have painstakingly stalked with Google Streetview.
  3. Go genre. For romance, thriller, mystery and horror the conventions are already in place.  For literary ground-breaking, wait until you’re not grinding out 1666 words every day for a solid month.
  4. Go away. The essence of a fast book, for Nanowrimo or any other project, is undisturbed writing time, in big blocks. Bestseller JF Penn loves a cruise for getting her writing done. I’d love that too, but I have to do the school run. If you can hang an enforceable Do Not Disturb sign on your writing space for a chunk of time every day, do that. If not, book a Premier Inn and do 13,000 words a day over a long weekend. It’s possible. Exhausting, but possible.
  5. Use a template. I don’t mean find a get-rich-quick writing formula. I mean take your favourite novel and slice it up into chapters, parts, scenes, themes which you can use as a model for your work. Chris Baty, founder of Nanowrimo, recommends this in his No Plot, No Problem! guide. It’s very reassuring somehow to see that a real book is only 10 chapters of  5,000 words, each made of a few scenes. That’s very possible, and does not make for a big To Do list.
  6. Do not research as you go. For every thing you write which makes you think, I must check that – don’t. Resist the urge to quickly google it, or scan a few free preview pages on Kindle. Just jot it down in another document, and keep typing. My current list includes ‘nabob’, ‘spun glass wig’ and ‘leghorn’. I’ll look them up later, but meanwhile, I have bluffed it.

I’m using all of these (except #1, my bad) in my current project, which is a purely for-fun story. I want it done, but quickly so I can return to the Thing I shoved on the back burner three weeks ago.

Also I want it done fast because I have learned that my enthusiasm for most things last three weeks. Three weeks. Bam. That’s it. Midway through week four, I cannot be bothered with it. Maybe this blog should be called GadflyMind. But anyway, fast writing is vital for me.

Editing, though – boy, I could edit all day. And soon, if I follow my own advice and finish draft 1 of this project, I’ll be able to. And there will still be time for a new book for Nanowrimo!

How do you write when you need to write fast? Let me know! -Sef


Irony: 9 ways to develop irony for compelling stories

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Mannequin Pis, Brussels
It might be the worst time and place to do what you gotta do, but that’s what makes it interesting. And ironic.

One of the key points in Blake Snyder’s guide to writing is that a compelling storyline has something ironic about it. CS Lakin says the same thing – she demands that a story has a kicker, an ironic aspect that turns an interesting idea into a must-read one. But how do you develop situations full of irony? Here are some starting points.

  1. Play a  game called World’s Worst. Use an online job-generator and then think of the worst possible person for that job. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gruff cop having to care for tiny children in Kindergarten Cop. Or a teenage girl obliged to slay vampires…
  2. Imagine a phobia that would prevent your hero from solving your story’s problem. Use caution and respect though. Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes adds drama to an already terrifying situation in Raiders, but the audience is not invited to mock his fear.
  3. What is your character’s greatest dislike? Put them in a situation which involves it. Maybe she has a deep dislike of society events, but is obliged to host a charity fundraiser. Or maybe he hates wealthy people but inherits a fortune.
  4. Channel your inner Alanis Morrisette. Remember, though, that rain on your wedding day is only ironic if the wedding is outdoors in a desert which hasn’t had precipitation for twenty years.
  5. Think up the worst possible place and time for your story. When would it be worst to win the lottery? Where would be the worst place to fight the bad guy? -Probably on a narrow bridge over a yawning abyss, right after you learn that he’s your father.
  6. Get your but in gear. ‘I love you but you’re undead/my sworn enemy/a werewolf/ in another dimension.’ I think Joss Whedon checked all these boxes with  Buffy and Angel.
  7. One last job/graduation/retirement day – lots of opportunities here for the wrong people to get involved in the action. Think of all those cops who have to fight crime right before collecting their carriage clock, or the criminal about to go straight but blackmailed into one more theft. Clarice Starling was totally green when she had to work alongside Hannibal Lecter, and this gave her character a horrifying vulnerability which Lecter tried to prey on.
  8. Mistaken identity can land the wrong person nicely in the middle of things. The Doctor has no medical qualifications but goes to help regardless because he can’t resist a challenge. Or what about North by Northwest?
  9. Lies. This is linked to mistaken identity, except on purpose. Think Mr and Mrs Smith, or Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies.

I hope these give some starting points for stories containing the irony Snyder and Lakin recommend. Once I started looking, I was amazed at how bestselling books and movies focus on a character who is the least qualified person to tackle the problem presented in the story. My eyes have been opened! Let me know how you come up with kickers for your stories.


Random job generator for contemporary occupations

Or try this one for fantasy jobs, from Seventh Sanctum. Actually I recommend Seventh Sanctum for anything- it’s been around for years and just keeps getting better!

You can also procrastinate for ages by googling World’s Worst… Be astounded at just how bad some places/things/people are.

PS: The statue in my picture is Mannequin Pis in Brussels, where I was last week. And yes, he is doing what the name suggests.


Book blog: Save the Cat (and your logline)

Reading Time: 3 minutes
The cat's OK but can it save my story structure and give me a great logline?
The cat’s OK but can it save my story structure and give me a great logline?

If you struggle with story structure, theme, or bookending your work with definite character progression, then Blake Snyder’s screenwriting guide, Save the Cat! is a must-read. I started this book last week and I’ve re-read parts of it so many times already, in particular his guidance on creating a killer story premise or logline. I’ve done Snyder’s writing exercises, and read out loud to friends the industry-insider anecdotes that Snyder scatters throughout his book.

This book addresses my primary story writing weaknesses: the logline (I’ve never had one) and story beats (I have them but they judder like a bad-news cardiogram). Since reading this book, I’ve been working on both, and found the writing growing stronger every time.

Snyder refuses to let you start your brilliant story until you can say, in a simple sentence or logline, what your story is. The logline forces you to examine the premise of your idea, and tests if it is strong enough to carry a whole story. His conviction that there must be something ironic about the logline, something that draws in the audience with its promise of trouble or fun, echoes CS Lakin’s advice that every good story must have a ‘concept with a kicker‘.

I found working on loglines incredibly helpful. Having to produce a logline strengthens every idea. Maybe you have this idea about a guy who wins a million pounds. OK, but what’s the irony – the kicker?  How about if the guy is the worst possible person to win because…  he’s got a week to live… he daren’t let his family get their hands on it…the love of his life hates wealth … he just became a monk … he’s just been put in jail -? A rich guy who got lucky isn’t enough of a story. The worst possible rich guy, a rich guy with an ironic reason why he can’t enjoy his new wealth…that could be the start of something.

Snyder uses the example of the movie Four Christmases to illustrate his insistence that your logline – and your title – must answer the audience’s question: what is it? In this case – it’s a couple who must endure four separate Christmases with their  double set of divorced parents. The irony? The couple are ready to commit to marriage and want out of their parents’ disastrous relationship history.

Snyder’s other piece of pure gold in  this book (among lots, lots more that is high value) is his beat sheet: fifteen points through which every successful story must pass. He demonstrate how every smash-hit movie fits this structure, whether it be Miss Congeniality or Elf. The three-act structure will be familiar if you’ve looked at work by James Scott Bell or KM Weiland – but has just 15 points, including the opening and closing images which define for your audience how the hero has changed.

For these 15 points, Snyder suggests a maximum of 40 scenes. He’s dealing with movies, but that’s a good number to go for in a novel too – you may end up with more, but 40 is nicely achievable. And only 15 points to hit, including start and end – that feels eminently doable!

This book is encouraging throughout and avoids the hectoring tone employed by some other story structure books. The examples are memorable and entertaining – the Pope in the Pool! – and their lessons are easy to learn. I know I will be watching for the hero’s ‘save the cat’ moment in the next film I see, and in every story. because if the hero doesn’t show humanity, even a tiny bit of it, then for Snyder, he ain’t the hero.

I recommend this book without reservation. The only downside is that now, as well as writing novels, I want to write a movie.

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet has been adapted by various writing blogs, including this one  on Jami Gold’s website. You could also set up this structure in Scrivener, which would be great for shuffling around your scene ideas.

Scrivener's corkboard view is great for shuffling around scenes within your story structure.
Scrivener’s corkboard view is great for shuffling around scenes within your story structure.






The four essential elements of a logline are:

  • Irony – it must give an involving and dramatic situation.
  • Compelling mental picture – a whole movie, including its timeframe, must be implied.
  • Audience and cost – for novels, the target audience and tone.
  • Killer title – says what the story is, in a clever way.

Prologues and how to avoid them – 9 ways to start at the beginning

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Don't lose your reader's attention with a dreary prologue - use these cheats to weave in your backstory.
Don’t lose your reader’s attention with a dreary prologue – use these cheats to weave in your backstory.

What is it about fantasy fiction that tempts authors into creating prologues? I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because fantasy storylines so often depend on events long previous to the main action of the story. But readers (according to popular belief) skip prologues. They want to get to the action.  Therefore most writing advice says to avoid prologues. But how do you do this exactly?

In the nineteenth century it was acceptable to begin the story with the birth of the hero (think David Copperfield, Jane Eyre) and spend a good few chapters detailing his/her early life and adventures, before reaching the main thrust of the book. Jane doesn’t meet Rochester for absolutely ages, during which you mainly learn that school is horrid and boring. Given I was sitting in school being obliged to read this yawnfest, I tended to agree, and couldn’t wait to not read Jane Eyre ever again.

(Film-makers could learn a bit from this as well. OMG the tedious opening of Fellowship of the Ring. Or Minions.  Or that sci-fi thing I never finished watching even though it had Matt Damon in.)

Today’s reader wants to start with the story, not the backstory. I imagine Bronte would nowdays begin the book as Jane arrives at Rochester’s gloomy house, and weave the school/orphan/misery parts in over the following pages.

So can a fantasy story avoid Jane-Eyre-esque torture for the reader whilst still bringing them up to speed with how the ring/grail/chosen one was forged, lost and found again?

Of course the reason I’m wondering this now, is because it would make my life much simpler if I could just bung in a prologue explaining why dragons/Vikings/Arthurian mythology. But I personally never read prologues and I don’t want to write one. So here are some thoughts on how you can have a prologue, without having a prologue:

  1. Cheat.  Write your prologue, but cunningly give it the title ‘Chapter One.’ Ha!
  2. Cheat. Start with some story action in the first chapter, then have a flashback chapter soon after, e.g. chapter four. Gotcha.
  3. Cheat. Write your prologue, but make it a single paragraph and call it ‘Chapter One’ as above. By the time the reader realises what is happening, they’ll already have read it. Points to you.
  4. Break it up into tiny pieces. Put the backstory in proverbs at start of each chapter. Making up proverbs from your fantasy world is great fun anyway.
  5. Sing it. Have a character break into the song of the prologue story. A bit artificial, this, like having someone in a  sci-fi novel describe out loud how faster-than-light works. Yeah dad we know. But perhaps you can weave in an origin-story song session while your characters are resting around a camp fire.
  6. See it. Your backstory is displayed on a prominent tapestry/painting/holy relic which the narrator can then describe in great detail.
  7. Say it in battle. Have your characters do a Q&A whilst swordfighting/zapping each other with magical blasts, etc. “But why must you hate me?” “Because your mother destroyed the McGuffin and ruined my chances of becoming supreme ruler!” “Thanks that explains it!” “You’re welcome!”
  8. Break it into tiny pieces #2. Have your characters encounter pub signs which tell the backstory. The World’s Creation – picture of a mighty god forging a planet from the blood of stars. The All Is Lost – evil ruler crushing innocent peasants. The New Hope – glowing lightsaber on a background of droids and ewoks. This would also work for ship names, a la the late great Iain Banks.
  9. Skip it. There is no travel guide to life. When you’re thrust into a new situation, nobody hands you a pamphlet showing who’s on each side. You have to work it out as you go along. So immerse the reader in your world and allow the grail/whatever to become a fact of that world and the character’s journey.

I’ll let you know which of these I choose. And in about six months’ time you can expect another post… on epilogues.