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Preparation, Poison and Pitfalls: A Follow Up to NaNoWriMo

by Bentley Clark

Out of Ones Head1Since writing the article “Are You Ready to Write a Novel in November?” regarding National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), much—or, as you will read, little—has happened.

In October, I was overcome with enthusiasm for writing fiction: the planning, the wordsmithing, the self-congratulating. I even read all of my back issues of Writer’s Digest. Oh, October was a gloriously productive month!

As November 1 approached and the 50,000 word goal loomed on the horizon, I bolstered my courage—as I do every year—with the mantra, “I’ve done it before, I can do it again. After all, I am a novelist.”

But I never crossed the 50,000 word finish line. So, what exactly happened? In an attempt to uncover what went wrong, I examined my writing process. Surely it is no different from a million other writers’ and, in many circumstances, these very steps yield New York Times Bestsellers:

Step 1: Prepare
I hit the ground running with this year’s NaNo novel. A compelling main character marched out of the detritus of my brain and demanded to have her story written. Alexandra was flawed and passionate and went about the business of murder with determination and devotion.

In preparation for telling Alexandra’s peculiar story, I devoured books about edible poisons. Mealtime conversations began and ended with me regaling my husband with the innumerable ways I could kill him with carefully concocted culinary delicacies. I cataloged the poisons, made color-coded notecards and pinned them to my bulletin board with care and shiny, silver pushpins. Then, I drafted the outline: the victims, the motives, and the murders.

With my cohesive outline and new-found expertise in killing a man with roots, flowers and berries, I was convinced this would be my best NaNo novel yet. After my meticulous preparation, my magnum opus of obsession and retribution would well-nigh write itself.

Step 2: Acquire the Proper Tools
No magnum opus is self-written without the proper tools. This particular book demanded a package of blue BIC Triumph 537R Rollerball pens, a new Moleskine notebook, Scrivener writing software and a dark, gothic Pandora station. (The book also requested Red Vines and chocolate-orange Piroulines, but I had to draw the line somewhere.)

Step 3: Brag About Your Derring-Do
If you are going to do something as ridiculous as writing a novel in a month, you might as well invite those around you to gawk. To that end, I told my husband and my parents that I was participating in NaNoWriMo again this year. But, in light of my brilliant, self-writing novel-to-be, I also took my braggadocio a few steps further by telling my boss and my work colleague. And then I wrote an article about it.

Making these sorts of announcements holds a writer’s feet to the fire: write a novel or eat crow.

Step 4: Brew Many, Many Pots of Tea and Stare Off into the Middle Distance
PG Tips tea is absolutely essential for this step. And a well-chosen writing soundtrack can prove indispensable for world-class, award-winning middle-distance staring. (See Step 2.)

Step 5: Sit Down and Write
While Steps 1-4 are optional, Step 5 is not.

On November 1, I sat down with my pens, my Moleskine, my Scrivener and my Pandora station and began to write. I managed to knock out the requisite 1,667 words a day for the first week or so. Then life came knocking on my home office door. Illness and family crises forced my novel into the back seat. And my enthusiasm went with it. Copious pots of tea were consumed and the middle distance was masterfully stared off into, but the story stalled at 17,000 words.

Alas, in 2015, I was many things. A novelist was not one of them. However, in my 17,000 words, I set the scene for two murders, wrote the backstory of two unfortunate but likable victims and discovered the tragic reasons for Alexandra’s murderous predilections. The magnum opus was neither magnum nor opus. But it was, ultimately, a start. A fantastic 17,000 word start. And there’s something to be said for that.

Step 6: Bake a Crow Pie
Know any good recipes?

BentleyClark125Bentley Clark hopes to one day make a career of drinking tea, staring into the middle distance, and using phrases such as “derring-do.”

This article was originally published in the January 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Image “Out Of One’s Head, Relax The Brain” courtesy of thaikrit /

Are You Ready to Write a Novel in November?

by Bentley Clark

Shield-Nano-Blue-Brown-RGB-HiResEvery November, in addition to working my day job, shopping for the holidays and baking pies, cookies and other autumn goodies, I write a novel.

A fool’s errand? Perhaps, but I am only one fool amongst many. In November 2014, over 325,000 writers around the globe participated in National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo to initiates. Over 58,000 participants successfully completed a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Now in its 17th year, NaNoWriMo offers writers of all genres of fiction the opportunity—and excuse—to write their contribution to the canon of great world literature. Or, at least, to write what Anne Lamott affectionately calls the “sh*tty first draft.”

For a successful NaNoWriMo experience, I have found the following to be indispensable:

Internet Access
Fifty thousand words in 30 days is a daunting task, so it is important to find a community of writers who are facing the same victories and setbacks. The NaNoWriMo community is an incomparable support system. is a gateway to boundless encouragement, to connecting with NaNo Buddies and to exploring forums with topics ranging from “Backing up your work: How do you do it?” to “Are elephants capable of taking over the world?” Internet access can also be useful for wasting valuable writing time researching specific elements and the varied nuances of elephant coups d’etat.

Writing Time
If I manage to find 3 hours in the day to write and I average about 556 words per hour, I’m golden and will cross the finish line by 11:59:59 pm on November 30. Manageable goals are the key to NaNoWriMo success. Typically, getting 556 words on the page in an hour is nigh impossible as we writers pull our hair out for hours to find the right 556 words. Fifty thousand words is the goal of NaNoWriMo, not necessarily good fiction. In fact, travesties of good writing are encouraged: words can be misspelled, poorly chosen, grammatically incorrect or sheer nonsense, so long as they total 50,000. Many WriMos find that in November, sentence structure goes out the window, pronouns become optional and characters get three or four middle names, all in the name of word count.

Mardi Gras Beads
Writing a novel is serious work for eleven months of the year. Not in November. To stave off the tendency to take novel writing too seriously and to remind himself to enjoy the insanity, NaNoWriMo founder, Chris Baty, dons a costume Viking hat while he writes. I drape myself in cheap Mardi Gras beads. A friend of mine wears a Halloween witch’s hat. In addition to adding a bit of levity to the task at hand, costume pieces can remind well-meaning family and friends that you are committed to your goal and that they should interrupt you only when they are bringing you Nutella and banana sandwiches or when the dog has caught on fire.

It is no secret that notebooks are an essential tool for every writer. In addition to allowing you to jot down ideas and snippets of others’ conversation—in order to pad your word count—it can be interesting to document your emotional journey through November. There are days when 1,667 words fly from your fingers as though channeled from a higher power and there are days when putting together a single sentence seems impossible. November can have tremendous emotional peaks and valleys, all worth documenting.

In order to write a novel, you must silence your Inner Editor. Even more so in November. So, I also like to use my notebook to doodle portraits of my Inner Editor. Then I doodle a giant bear clad in clown regalia mauling him beyond recognition.

Stamina, Endurance and Resolve
It may be one of the shorter months of the year, but if you plan to write a novel in November, you must prepare yourself like a marathon runner. You must steel yourself mentally for the enormity of the task. You must recognize that there will be waxes and wanes of energy and enthusiasm. And you must learn to not look back because the goal is to cross the finish line, regardless of your state upon crossing it. And, most of all, you must have fun!

(Note: If this article was a piece of fiction and was written in November, I’d be 1.4% of the way there.)

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BentleyClark125Bentley Clark drinks far too much tea, cooks far too much food, watches far too many movies, owns far too many books, loves PBS beyond reason, and enjoys sleeping more than she’d like to admit.

This article was originally published in the October 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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