Professor Wu's Rulebook Writing tips: from writers for writers

16 of the finest NaNoWriMo writing tips from Paul M.M. Cooper

“Part of being able to write at all is giving yourself permission to write badly, to put down that first layer and not hate it.”

If you’ve always suspected there’s a novel in you, one writing project could help you get it on to paper in just 30 days.

Founded in 1999, NaNoWriMo (short for National Novel Writing Month), is an internet hub built for budding writers. Participants agree to start and complete a novel of 50,000 words or more during the month of November. To “win,” all you have to do is meet that goal.

If writing 1667 words a day, every day, for an entire month while balancing studies, work, socialising and general life admin sounds like a challenge, that’s because it is. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it – success stories include Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (now also a feature film); and in total over 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been published.

Above all else, NaNoWriMo fosters the habit of writing every single day – which, if you read among all the various writing tips from writers – is probably the closest thing to a universally prescribed strategy for eventually producing a book. NaNoWriMo spurs aspiring authors to conquer their inner critics and blow past blocks. And it also enables many writers to practice another core tenement of writing: the act of rewriting and revision. 50,000 words written in a month will, almost inevitably, need to be rewritten.

NaNoWriMo writing tips from Paul M.M. Cooper

Paul Cooper
Paul M.M. Cooper 

It is a project endorsed by countless writers – both aspiring and established. Included in their number is Paul M.M. Cooper, author of the rather brilliant ‘River of Ink’.

Of his writing process, Cooper has explained: “Just getting words onto the page is important. I heard someone describe this recently as ‘piling sand into the sandbox to build things out of it later’ – this is usually how my first drafts work. I write a lot, fill scenes with everything I can, and then winnow things down later so it is light and strong in the final draft.”

NaNoWriMo, in this way, offers the perfect opportunity for writers to start filling their own writing sandboxes. And for those just setting out on their own NaNoWriMo journeys, Cooper has also set out his own list of NaNoWriMo writing tips. They are:

  1. It’s a cliché, but you can’t edit a blank page. Think of the phrase “Don’t get it right, get it written!”
  2. The hardest part about writing a first draft is getting through the self-loathing of writing something of poor quality.
  3. I always comfort myself by thinking about oil painters – how they put down a base layer first, and then return for shading and detail.
  4. Part of being able to write at all is giving yourself permission to write badly, to put down that first layer and not hate it.
  5. Remember that inspiration comes during work, not before it. If you’re stuck, just write something, anything! You’ll get unstuck.
  6. If you’re stuck, a good idea is to ‘have coffee with your characters’. Write a conversation you’d have with them, or a monologue.
  7. Often when you let a character speak, they come to life and tell you what’s going to happen next. They’re strange that way.
  8. You don’t always have to plan ahead too much, but it’s good to have some fixed points to work to. Scenes you can’t wait for
  9. Don’t skip ahead and write you favourite scene – your excitement about getting to it will give you urgency to the preceding scenes.
  10. Do think about the values of your story: truth, justice, friendship, etc. Every scene should turn on a value, either up or down.
  11. The criminal commits a crime (justice down), the detective finds a clue (justice up), the first setback occurs (justice down).
  12. Give yourself permission to delete work, to give up on story strands, to give up on the whole novel. Nothing is really wasted.
  13. The only truly scarce resource is your own excitement. Protect it in every way you can, and top it up at every opportunity.
  14. Even if you’re completely blocked, write something. Write one sentence, or half a sentence. That’s the only thing you should force.
  15. The most important thing isn’t winning, but setting up writing as a habit for the future. Don’t accept negativity if you lose.
  16. Just by trying #NaNoWriMo, you’re doing something very brave. It’ll change you whether you complete it or not. So good luck and stay strong!



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