NaNoWriMo: 22 Tips & Tricks from Writers

For National Novel Writing Month aka NaNoWriMo, we rounded up 22 tips and tricks from established writers, including a two-time winner of the 3-Day Novel Contest, to encourage and unlock your creativity. 


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Photo credit Phillipa Croft“I find the trickiest part about writing isn’t the actual writing but getting into the writing, so after years of staring at a blank screen, I’ve figured out a way to slip inside my project quickly and pick up where I left off: I write in the same spot every day. I have the same drink, in the same mug, and I wear the same clothes. It takes out any decision making so I can keep my brain open to figuring out what’s going to happen on the page. And then, I listen to the same album. I’ve essentially trained myself to be one of Pavlov’s dogs who hears the opening line of the Department of Eagles album and immediately begins writing.” —Lindsay Zier-Vogel, author of Letters to Amelia (Book*hug Press)
Photo credit Justin Lagacé“My advice to anyone wanting to pursue writing is to read widely—internationally, across mediums—and read writers working beyond your lifetime. It was advice I received early on and still live by. As much as your contributions will reflect your perspectives, and ignoring for a moment the pressing, commercial reality of modern day book selling, the obsession with contemporary storytelling modes and genre conventions has lead to a shrinking of the creative mind. All this to say that writing should be exploratory, as open as possible, and receptive to the world—this philosophy may not lead to memorable writing, but you will not be bored in your endeavours, I can promise you that.” —Jean Marc Ah-Sen, Disintegration in Four Parts (Coach House Books)
Photo credit Harald Krichel“During editing, change the page layout of your novel for every new correction, to avoid the eyes getting used to the shape of a page (and then seeing less). You will find more to change—I promise. My final read-through I do on an e-reader, because any other novel would look the same on it, and my novel has to live up to any other novel out there. I am more critical, maybe because I take the words more seriously.” —Thorsten Nesch, author of My Totem Came Calling (Mawenzi House)
“I love thinking about the impact of secrets and lies. You might ask yourself, Is there a lie that’s influencing my protagonist? Is it a lie they are telling to others or themselves? Or is it a lie they’ve been told? What secrets shape my protagonist’s experience? Are they keeping secrets from themselves or others? Or have secrets been kept from them?”Here are two prompts I’ve found really useful for unlocking secrets and lies: “I’m not supposed to tell you but…”“I was lying before. The truth is…”—Haley McGee, author of The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale (J. Gordon Shillingford/Scirocco Drama)
“Often what editors are looking for in a story is proof of causality, not random incidents happening to random characters. Events need to cause the events that follow, based on both circumstances and the choices of the characters; the options they still have open to them, versus the options that have been lost with each decision, should be easy to follow. It’s also satisfying for readers, who often subconsciously expect consequence rather than coincidence as they read.” —Premee Mohamed, author of The Annual Migration of Clouds (ECW Press)
“When trying to finish a piece of writing in a short period of time, the best strategy is to keep going and not stop. It’s always tempting to pause, go back to do revisions, and make things perfect, but that just slows you down and takes away from allowing the story to unfold as you write it. The best part of writing under a tight deadline, such as with NaNoWriMo or the 3-Day Novel Contest, is how it forces you to move forward, to keep telling the story, and to follow every twist and turn and see where it takes you. Stories are meant to be told. So tell it, live it, you might be surprised to see where it takes you.
Writing prompt: Write a story about a crow and climate change.” —Doug Diaczuk, author of Chalk (Anvil Press) and two-time winner of the 3-Day Novel Contest
Photo credit Tom Joerin “Go to the dollar store, buy the cheapest lined paper you can find. Return home, sit in a chair, write in longhand on the paper. Words, sentences, paragraphs. Let the pages drop to the floor, let them float around the living room. Let your cats snooze on them, let them chew off the corners. Find fragments of the pages months later. Glance at them, wonder what you were thinking. Let it all go. When you value your paper, you also value the marks you make upon it. This is misplaced desire, and it will drag you down. Lose all of these attachments. Only then can you begin to begin.” —David Whitton, author of Seven Down (Dundurn Press) 
“When writing your novel, place your protagonists in some kind of danger—be it emotional, psychological, or physical—then let the reader see them struggle to overcome it. Remember that your protagonists should be the ones to confront conflict, whether or not they are successful at it. What you don’t want is to have outside forces come in and fix problems or find solutions. This is what we call deus ex machina—when something unsolvable is solved not by the character, but by an outside force. The best protagonists confront their own problems (though they don’t necessarily solve them). Good luck with the writing, and have fun with your novel!” —Genni Gunn, author of Permanent Tourists (Signature Editions)
“My advice for aspiring writers is get it done. It doesn’t matter how bad that rough draft is, how messy, just get it out of your head. You can edit garbage, but not a blank page. Finished is better than perfect.” —D.K. Stone, author of Edge of Wild and The Dark Divide (Stonehouse Publishing)
“First drafts are difficult for those of us who struggle with perfectionism and anxiety. The first hurdle requires approaching the project with a level of self-compassion that allows oneself to fill the page without expectation of any brilliance at all. To reach this kindness, I often turn Shannon Hale’s advice into a mantra: ‘I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that I can build castles.’ The second problem to overcome is the fear associated with the sheer enormity of writing a book. Plotting story elements can sometimes feel a little bit like stargazing: the more you look, the more you see. When I feel myself spin out on the amount of work that must be done or details that must be incorporated, I remind myself of advice my father often gives (a similar but bizarro version of Anne Lamott’s ‘bird-by-bird’): ‘There’s only one way to eat an elephant—one bite at a time.‘” —Katie Bickell, author of Always Brave, Sometimes Kind (Brindle & Glass)
“Listen to that voice inside of you that won’t be quiet—that sentence or metaphor or word that keeps singing in your soul and asking for meaning. That sentence or metaphor or word that wants to be fed, that wants to know, to then tell anew and marvel with insights. And then we will say ‘Ah!’ And they will say ‘Ah!’ and he will say ‘Ah!’ and she will say ‘Ah!’ A chorus of believers, of chanters, of seers, of cheerers. Listen to the instinctual gut feeling that has a sense of what feels right, what is right outside of any other right/s—that wise seer that strings words together without the rational voice always on guard trying to curb the poetic, the beautiful, the stunning. Listen to it despite what your editor, your literary agent, your friend tells you, killing it prematurely as mere nonsense. Writing is about finding new ways of saying, of seeing, of singing the world. When you first say and see and sing like that, you may be screamed at, laughed at, mocked, but then the hope is that your singing will create a chorus of learners, of believers, of chanters, of cheerers, of seers. Writing is about trying to illuminate the corners that we haven’t yet seen, those places that contain something to be seen, something that wants to be seen. Write to find, reach those places. Use your torch blindly but with persistence, with faith, with the belief that there is some darkness that you can combat, some map that you can create, some wonder that you can engender. Our world needs it—so much.” —Irene Marques, author of Daria (Inanna Publications)
“Get the voice of your story right before you begin! It’s discouraging indeed to find yourself halfway through a project only to realize the voice isn’t quite working. Take the time to truly know and understand your main character; figure out perspective, genre, tense and other impactful details, and write as many samples as you need to until you’re certain you’ve got the voice right. It will be time and effort very well spent.” —Valerie Sherrard, author of Birdspell (Cormorant Books)
“There are many books filled with good advice for writers. Read them all and keep an open mind. But don’t beat yourself up if you have trouble implementing this advice to the letter. Writing process is a very personal thing. You have to find the way of working that suits you and not that guy who wrote the prize-winning book on how to write.” —Catherine Macdonald, author of So Many Windings (At Bay Press)
Photo credit Marina Vulicevic “The tolerance for frustration, the ability to defer pleasure—these abilities are no doubt part of what it takes to be an adult. Add to that the ability to accept rejection. Beginning writers need these qualities—no, all writers. But there is a paradox at work here. Through frustration, waiting, rejection, we need to persevere. And even as we keep working, we should be listening to the voices of rejection. Are they telling us something useful? Absolutely.” —David Homel, author of Lunging into the Underbrush: A Life Lived Backward (Linda Leith Publishing)
“There’s a lot of talk out there about a writer’s voice, for instance when a grumpy literary agent tells you your voice does nothing for them. I’ve found that voice is something that emerges with experience, from book to book. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what happens to this earlier material, whether it never sees the light of day or whether you publish it and wonder afterwards was that wise. The point is, your voice emerges through lots of writing, and in directions that might surprise you. And then, one day, you hit your stride and you just recognize it in your own ears. Sort of like knowing you’re being devastatingly witty at a party after 2.5 large drinks, perhaps while that grumpy agent takes it all in across the room.” —Anna Dowdall, author of April on Paris Street (Guernica Editions)
Photo credit Andrea Charise“Here are three writing strategies to help you when you are stuck. Whether writing description, developing a scene, or trying to figure out what is going to happen next, I turn to these strategies to spur discoveries and keep the words flowing:1) The Rule of Ten: This is a technique utilized in comedy writing: write ten jokes and one will be funny. This strategy works for all forms of writing. When you’re stuck, brainstorm ten descriptions, ten dialogue responses, ten plot turns, etc. Give yourself permission to explore, to fail, and to discover.2) Switch Perspectives: Kickstart your creativity by taking a new perspective on a paragraph, scene, or project. Write from the perspective of a different character or a different narrative voice. Challenge yourself further by writing from the perspective of an object, animal, or imaginary entity. Have fun!3) WW[_]D?: Draw on your favourite creators to inspire you. How would Toni Morrison describe this setting? How would Carrianne Leung? What would happen next in a Matthew J. Trafford story, a Gary Barwin novel, or a Kelly Reichert movie? This approach opens new pathways, and you are inevitably going to inflect these guiding lenses with your own vision and style.”—Daniel Scott Tysdal, author of Wave Forms and Doom Scrolls (Wolsak & Wynn)
Photo credit Salon du livre de Montréal“Write about what you know. Write about what scares you. Do not fear the silence. Do not fear the beauty and the pain. Let your novel rest and reread it as a merciless stranger. Don’t hesitate to throw away a good part of it if the stranger in you tells you to do so. A good novel is not just what you write but what you throw away.”—Rima Elkouri, author of Manam (Mawenzi House)
Photo credit Linda Stenson“What advice to offer writers? Encouragement, for starters. And the following.Prompts are fun exercises, but mostly a waste of time for a serious writer. If I said: Write about how an aging couple, the woman deaf and the husband blind, manage to run a shelter for stray cats in downtown Toronto. Possible. But not so much for someone wanting to write about teenagers living in Skookumchuck. Only write about what grabs you.Related to this is the obstacle all writers face, that being to write something that attracts readers.  Your first audience is yourself. If what you write doesn’t thrill you it won’t thrill anyone else either. As my friend John Lent once said: Write until you startle yourself, until you approach the cusp of wonder.” —Bill Stenson, author of Half Brothers and Other Stories (Mother Tongue Publishing)
Photo credit Ritche Perez“Here are a few bits and pieces of writing advice:
  • If I’ve been working on a piece for a long time, there’s usually a phase where I “can’t see it” anymore – the piece starts to bother me because I’m so close to it, I can’t see what I like about it anymore. When this happens, I put it down and forget about it; I’ll set a “pick-up” date and put it out of my mind until then.
  • I compare it to trying to find the best way to rearrange living room furniture in an old house. If the room hasn’t changed in twenty years. It can be a struggle to see the actual space and consider how it works best. It’s usually a good idea to shut the door on the room or clear out all the furniture so you’re not reminded of what used to go where. With writing, when the “pick-up” time comes, I’m able to see the piece with “fresh eyes.” I can see more clearly what works and what doesn’t and I get to visit the characters again. It’s one of the most pleasurable parts of writing for me.
  • Be a collector. Have somewhere like a note app on your phone or an actual notebook where you can jot down bits of dialogue, phrases, descriptions, possible character names, good words, dreams, anecdotes, current events. Give your memory a break by making a pantry of ideas you can raid regularly. When you’re looking for writing ideas, you’ve already made a collection of things that stood out to you.
  • Read widely across genres, forms, and points of view that are different than yours. Expose yourself to lots of ideas and approaches. If you were learning to be a chef, limiting yourself to understanding one type of cuisine or one kind of meal wouldn’t give you much range. Don’t do it with writing.”
—Bridget Canning, author of Some People’s Children and The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes (Breakwater Books) 
Photo credit Josema Zamorano“A bright September morning, Ramona contemplated the tiny courtyard hardly discernible from the twenty-seventh floor and decided that it would the perfect place to rest. All she had to do was climb on the windowsill and lean forward. Slightly.When asked how the author would approach this prompt?
  1. I would get Ramona on the windowsill.
  2. With heart pumping and body shaking, she would recall key moments in her life (this would constitute the bulk of the novel, which would culminate in the reasons why she’s contemplating suicide).
  3. She would decide to either lean forward (slightly) and die or climb down and live.”
—Carmen Rodríguez, author of Atacama (Roseway Publishing)
Photo credit Vincenzo Pietropaolo“When doing research for your novel (especially if it’s historical fiction), read any histories, biographies or novels you can find on the period you’re writing about. Then, as you read, use a blank sheet of paper for a bookmark. When you find a useful fact you might want to use in your writing, draw a line in the column next to the relevant text and note the page number on the blank sheet and add a few minimal words to indicate the subject, such as ‘food of the period,’ or ‘dress of the times’ or so on. Then, when writing your novel, keep these sheets handy for quick reference.” —Mark Frutkin, author of The Artist & the Assassin (The Porcupine’s Quill)
“Recognize the power of places and things. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a landscape or a kitchen, the setting of your work should always be carefully considered for its resonances and carefully tuned and augmented to let you hear the harmony or discord of those resonances. Look around the room. Every object is a symbol. No cigar is ever just a cigar. On the other hand, if you allow it into your novel, it had better be a real cigar first and foremost, and the baby smoking it had better know her cigars.” —Lee Gowan, author of The Beautiful Place (Thistledown Press)

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Thanks to all the writers for their advice, and good luck to all those taking part in NaNoWriMo this year!