Nanowrimo – your training program

Last week I told you about nanowrimo – the equivalent of a marathon for writers.

Marathoners pull on their trainers each day and practice. If this is the marathon of writing challenges, the key to success is in the preparation. With November nearly here, it’s time to get started (if you haven’t already) on your Nanowrimo training plan:

1.Decide how you will be writing your novel.

I use the Scrivener app. Here’s 10 reasons why. I love how it sets session targets. I especially love the corkboard – so much that I might just manage a separate post on it.

If you’re writing your nanowrimo novel in MSword or freehand, simply  enter your word count daily into the nano website. You can stay on track, and the graph is cool. I told you about the graph, didn’t I?

2. Have a back up strategy…and use it

Be paranoid. I back up to a hard drive and also to dropbox – just to be sure.

3. Carry a notebook and pen with you at all times. I use a moleskine. It makes me feel like a real writer.

4. Have coffee – or wine – on hand.

I tend to subscribe to the “write drunk, edit sober” theory… not that I take this literally, but you get the idea.

5. Set your targets

Dig your calendar out from wherever it is languishing and mark in your writing days for November. Decide how many days a week can you write? (Hint: be realistic)

5 days?

7 days?

This will determine your nanowrimo daily target.

If you intend writing 7 days a week, you’ll be heading for a target of 1667 words a day.

I go to bed an hour earlier and write there. It works for me – just don’t tell my chiropractor. Quite often I dream what happens next.

I also tend to grab moments wherever I can – in the hairdressers, waiting at airports, during lunch hours. Wherever, whenever. The year my daughter did the HSC I got heaps of words written waiting outside maths tutorials. I felt like I’d been called to the headmaster’s office.

While you have your calendar out, mark in all your commitments – places that you know you have to be. Be honest, and be realistic.

Maybe you can manage a half an hour in the morning before the kids get up and all hell breaks loose, or an hour at night after they go to bed. You might choose to fit it in on a weekend, or get together with friends for a marathon writing session.

However you schedule it, keep to it.

6. Schedule in your down-time

You have to. Getting out for a walk, or a coffee or whatever will help keep the creative juices flowing – and ensure you stay sane. If you want to stay inspired while you’re walking, listen to your favourite podcasts.

7. Expect life to get in the way- it will.

There will be some days where you can sit down uninterrupted at the keyboard and others where you’re clawing 5 minutes here, there or anywhere. Life doesn’t stop just because you’re doing this. Houses will still need cleaning, clothes will still need washing, gardens will still need weeding, and arguments will still need mediating.

In the same vein, there is no perfect year to do nano – it’s what you make of it.

8. If you really want to do it, you will make time.

I recall finishing my first nano experience in 2009 in the airport at Perth.

As well as the normal demands of home and my full-time job, the relocation project I was working on for Perth (and managing largely from Sydney) had blown wide open.

2010 was much the same, although this time the relocation was in Hong Kong and the final chapter was finished at that airport.

On both occasions I carried my notebook with me and scribbled during coffee and lunch breaks. Back in my hotel bed each night I’d transpose my scribbles into real words.

Somehow the word total grew. Having so much on added to the sense of achievement.

In 2015 I spent most of November road-tripping around England, and in 2016 I was climbing a mountain in New Zealand – or, rather, walking Milford Track, which is much the same thing.

9. Run your own race

I’Il go hard the first week of the challenge and, despite the session targets I set myself, usually end the first week well ahead of schedule.

This is good because I tend to hit my personal wall at about the 25,000 word mark – and things slow from there.

10. The middle 2 weeks are hard.

Most stories are abandoned somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 words. The story is often in the saggy doldrums – enthusiasm is waning and the end is still a long way off.

I find that the efforts of the first week get me through the middle two.

11. What if my story gets stuck?

When I get really stuck, I jump scenes – sometimes writing the end first, other times writing another scene that has jumped into my head. It works for me.

I don’t happen to believe in writer’s block – I’m way too busy for that. If, however, you feel that you’re suffering from this malaise, check out this post: 8 ways to beat writer’s block.

12. What if I don’t know if my idea has legs?

That’s what makes nanowrimo so great- it allows you to explore an idea and determine whether there is really a 85-100k novel in it.

My effort in 2009 was largely semi-autobiographical. It was 50,000 words that will never see the light of day (heaven forbid), but needed to come out of my head. Nanowrimo was the best time to do that. Once those words were out, other ideas started to flood in. I now have a board full of potential stories- most of which consist of a single line. If you want to write something, but need to clear some space in your head first, I’d urge you to use this years Nanowrimo for precisely that purpose.

13. Plotter or Pantser?

If you like to know where you’re going to go with the story and how you’re going to get there, you’re probably a plotter.

If you’re starting with the germ of an idea, maybe a character or two, and just seeing where it leads you, you’re a pantser.

Perhaps you’re a combination of the two? I’m definitely a pantser.

Nanowrimo is a great time to play with something different. If you’re a plotter, why not give yourself the freedom to see what happens? If you’re a pantser, why not experiment with a different technique?

14. Don’t edit

The point of nanowrino is to get the words out, so resist the urge to edit as you go.

15. What if I don’t make the 50,000 words?

So what? You’ll still have more words than you started with.

And finally…

Nanowrimo is meant to be fun, so try not to be too hard on yourself, or do the analysis paralysis thing. Just write.

There’s no judgment, or right or wrong. There are just words – and hopefully more of them by November 30 than there was at November 1.

Why you should write a novel in November

So anyways, November is around the corner…and if November is around the corner, so too is NaNoWriMo. Nano wtf? National Novel Writing Month.

Essentially the challenge is to, along with a few hundred thousand other people, get 50,000 words out of your head and onto a page – or a laptop -during the month of November. It’s a bit like a novel writing marathon.

By the end of November, our poor little novel writer’s wrists are burning, our eyelids need propping open, our body fluids have been gradually replaced by copious amounts of caffeine or alcohol, and most of us have hit a wall at some point through the process. In our case the “wall” isn’t extreme physical exhaustion (although it can be) – more often it’s a blank screen, or page.

The hardest part of the process by far is fitting writing a novel in around life – because, as we know, it doesn’t stop just because we’ve committed to writing a novel. For those of us with kids, November is the time of the year where end of year exams and end of year performances and presentation nights all start to fill up the calendar. In addition, most of us have jobs and other responsibilities. We don’t have time to add writing a novel to that list. Do we?

So, if it’s that flipping hard, why do we do it? To be honest, asking a writer that question is a little like asking a marathoner why they lace up the trainers to put their bodies through 42kms of pain, or asking a climber why they do Everest. The answer is simple – because it’s a challenge and it’s there.

I’ve done it most years since 2009. Each of my novels has started life during Nanowrimo. Baby, It’s You and Big Girls Don’t Cry were both managed while I had a full time job – with large chunks written in hotel rooms and airports during office relocation projects – and all the things that go along with being a Mum with a (then) school age child. The bulk of Wish You Were Here was written during nanowrimo in 2015 – even though I was on a road trip through Britain for the 2nd half of November.

I even signed up last year – even though I knew that I’d be on Milford Track with access to no technology for a week of the month. The first 30,000 words of I Want You Back came from that.

Should you enter? Yes. Especially if:

  • You’ve been talking about writing a book someday for ever and flipping ever
  • You’ve got a story in your head that needs to escape
  • You like a good graph

Need more convincing?

  • 50,000 words isn’t a full novel (unless you’re writing novellas, category romance or children’s books), but it’s a bloody good start.
  • It’s a great way to take a new idea for a test flight. By 50,000 words you’re going to know whether it’s got legs and, if it doesn’t, you’ve only wasted one month. In my view, that’s an efficient outcome.
  • It doesn’t need to be a novel. Perhaps you’ve been thinking about a non fiction project, a memoir, a collection of short stories or poems, a screenplay.
  • It never needs to be seen by anyone other than yourself. The book I wrote in 2009 was vaguely semi semi autobiographical shite. It will never be published – although I have used parts of it in everything I’ve written since. I’d had it in my head for so long that writing it down allowed all the other stories that had been waiting their turn behind it in my brain to come tearing out. (I think my brain is a tad like an air traffic control tower.) Anyways, that character – my runaway astrologer Alice – has her own story that I’ll be writing this year. And no, it’s no longer even vaguely semi semi autobiographical. Except for the astrologer bit.
  • It’s one month where you can experiment with different genres, different voices. Again, if it doesn’t work, you’ve only wasted a month. The year I drafted Big Girls Don’t Cry, I experimented with writing as if it were a project plan ie from the end backwards. The year I wrote Baby, It’s You, I wrote to a playlist. I wrote 3 different viewpoints in I Want You Back. Because it is only a month, you can try out different techniques to get you through the wall, through the saggy middle, and to have a little fun with the process.
  • Even if you don’t get to 50,000 words, you’ll have more words at the end of November than you did at the beginning.
  • It’s great training. To be a writer you have to get in the habit of writing – every day.
  • If you’re a plotter or edit as you go, this is a great opportunity to just let the words flow. See what happens. No edits – not until December 1.
  • You get to see the graph on the nano site. It’s a great graph.
  • With nanowrimo, there’s no escape, no catch-ups. If you’ve been struggling to establish a writing habit, I can’t think of a better way to do it.

Am I entering this year? Absolutely. I have Alice’s story – or the The Book After The Book That’s After I Want You Back – to tell. It’s the last in my Melbourne Girls series and will tie up any loose ends – all the way back to Baby, It’s You.

If you’re up for it, you can sign up at the official site. You’ll find forums, events, cool widgets for your blog, emails of encouragement and a cast of hundreds of thousands of other people doing it with you. I’m Astrojo, so if you’re signing up, come follow me.

Reviews and why I don’t read them


Ok, here’s the deal: I tend not to read reviews. I’m one of those writers who can’t – I’m scared that I might accidentally read one that’s not so good, downright bad or non existent.

My skin, you see, is paper thin – and yes, I’m aware that in the game I’ve chosen to be in, that’s not a good thing. I’m the type of person who could read 125 reviews and dwell only on the one that said something like ‘chick lit is crap’…or ‘your character was a whiny, spineless individual.’

I’m the same in the partition. I’ll work my arse off on a presentation to get everything just right – making sure that every box is ticked, every i tittled (that was on my omgfactoftheday calendar as a fancy pants word for dotting i’s), every previous piece of feedback is incorporated. Then, when a new box is created to be ticked, a new i needing tittled, I’ll beat myself up for not anticipating it.

I know that the way I feel is not rational. I know that not everyone will have the same sense of humour, like the same books, the same movies or the same TV shows as I do. I know that what I find likeable (or amusing) in a friend, in a character, in an attitude, in a situation could be the opposite for someone else. they might find that trait just plain annoying. I know that people will read into things what they think they should. I know that some people are never pleased, and others are pleased only when they are identifying faults. I know that some people can take offence at anything and everything. I get that.

The number of times I call blog posts back for editing – just in case someone reads something the wrong way is incredible. I think I edit 90% of the words that come out of my mouth and my keyboard. I allow the remaining 10% to keep me awake at night.

So I don’t read reviews – in case no one has left one, and in case I don’t like what I see.

I do, however, leave reviews – if I’ve enjoyed a book, a restaurant, a hotel. If I have a problem, I address it first with the restaurant or hotel before going to town about it on Trip Advisor.

As for books? I’ll leave stars on Goodreads for those I’ve enjoyed, and nothing at all if I didn’t. Much of the time if I don’t like a book, it’s because I don’t like the genre – and to review on that basis isn’t fair. If it wasn’t my cup of tea, why should I leave something soul destroying for the author?

It’s like the supernatural buff who complains that there were no zombies in the literary offering. It’s like the couple who love French fine dining who leave a scathing review for the local Thai: ‘the food was too spicy and the service wasn’t what we’re used to.’ Or maybe the honeymooners who chose a family friendly resort during the school holidays: ‘it was impossible to get any privacy, and there were too many noisy children in the pool and at the buffet.’

I’m not great at reviewing. I either enjoyed it or I didn’t. I generally don’t know why I did or I didn’t (unless I’m reading outside my genre). It’s why I enjoy reading balanced, well thought out, intelligent reviews by people who do know why they did or didn’t enjoy something. Debbish, I’m looking at you.

Having said that, when you’re tagged in a post there’s no avoiding it…which was why I was thrilled when Debbish reviewed Wish You Were Here. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: she’s super clever when it comes to pinpointing issues and I respect her opinion more than I can ever tell her- and that’s not just because I was ecstatic and relieved and all those other words with her review. Anyways, here it is. I’m stoked.

Of course, having said all of that, if you liked Wish You Were Here, I’d love it if you could leave a review. Not that I’d read it, but you know what I mean, right?

Finding time to write: 5 tips to beat the excuses…

Feather pen set of abstract color

Tomorrow is November 1, ie the official start to nanowrimo.

Just lately, I’ve spoken to a few people who’ve said things like:

‘I SO want to do this. Like, seriously, really want to do this- but I just don’t have time. I have a job, you know.’


‘I’m ready this year, but November is when the shit starts to hit the fan with school stuff.’


‘I don’t know how people manage it. I have a family, and a job. I really want to do it- I know there’s a book in me- but I simply don’t have time.’

Here’s the thing- I know. I know all of this. I’m busy. You’re busy. We’re all busy – in our own ways. Sometimes I think busy-ness is a competitive sport.

I have a family and work a stressful full-time job too. I’m out the door at 6.30am, and back home by 7pm. In the meantime, I have a heavy blogging schedule with the astro site, and like to keep regular posts happening on and anyways and here too. My house still needs cleaning, and clothes need washing, and shirts need ironing, and gardens need weeding, and social lives need arranging. There’s always something that has to be done. A couple of hours to sit down and write can seem like a guilty pleasure.

I used to say that I’d like to run a marathon. I said it so often that I had to enter a 10km event. Twice. Then it hit me that I didn’t really want to run a marathon- I didn’t really want to run at all. I hated it- so much I can’t put the words around it. Emily’s story in Baby, It’s You, is mine (well, the running bit is)- except that it took me longer to declare that I was never ever ever running again. Ever. A nice walk would suit me perfectly well.

The same analogy goes for writing a book. You might have been saying for years that you want to write a book. The experience of nano could help you decide if long distance writing is really for you. Or it will help you get it out of your system and convince you that the literary equivalent of a nice walk is more your style.

If you really (and I mean really) want to do nanowrimo, but have no idea how you’re going to fit it in, try these tips:

You don’t need to write 50,000 words

That’s right. You don’t. Any words you do write will be more than you had last month. Set yourself a session goal. It could be 500 words, it could be 1667…it could be somewhere in between. It’s all ok. This month I will be completely off the grid for 5 days when I’m tramping Milford Sound, and a further 3 days in the Victorian High Country. The likelihood of me making 50,000 words is slim – but, then again, I said that last year too.

Schedule your writing time

Get your calendar out and mark in all your commitments- places that you know you have to be. Be honest, and be realistic.

Maybe you can manage a half an hour in the morning before the kids get up and all hell breaks loose, or an hour at night after they go to bed. You might choose to fit it in on a weekend, or get together with friends for a marathon writing session.

However you schedule it, keep to it.

What’s my routine?

I tend to exercise first thing in the morning- at least a few mornings a week – so my alarm goes off at 4.45am. During November, I’ll use that hour to write and walk at lunchtime instead. I usually manage to write for an hour or so (in bed) each night. I write at the hairdressers, I scribble in my journal in the 15-20 mins I have every morning between getting off the bus and meeting my BMF for coffee. I grab every single minute I can.

I try and get next weeks blog posts done and scheduled on Friday evening and Saturday mornings before whatever maintenance appointment needs keeping. It’s mad, but it means I can spend time with my family on the weekend, and get my real writing done over the time that’s left.

Yes, it’s chaotic, and busy and all the rest of that, but I figure that one day (hopefully in the not too distant future) this will be my full-time job and I won’t need to fit a corporate role around it. In the meantime, I’m prepared to do what it takes to get there.

Schedule your down-time

You have to. Getting out for a walk, or a coffee or whatever will help keep the creative juices flowing- and ensure you stay sane. I tend to write to a playlist, so when I’m stuck, that music and a ramble often gets it all flowing again. If you want to stay inspired while you’re walking, podcasts are a great idea.

Limit your TV

Yes, yes, yes…but it’s only for 30 days. You can catch up on your favourite shows later. I tend to allow myself an hour a night. The same applies to internet.

Be kind to yourself

You don’t need to make like Superwoman. It’s ok if there’s a dust bunny in the corner, or a weed in the vegie patch, or leftovers for dinner or that New Moon post and newsletter. It’s ok to ask for help, and it’s ok to stand in the middle of the room when you get home and scream…or is that just me?

So, how about it? Are you in?

Am I in it?

Masks with theatre concept

Am I in it?

It’s one of the most common questions I get asked- although one of my closest friends doesn’t bother to ask…he tells anyone who’ll listen that he’s the lead character in each of the books. Life is full of disappointment.

The people who ask this question assume, incorrectly, that they are in the story…or that they know someone who is. I suspect some are worried that they are- especially the ones who know they’ve pissed me off. What did the coffee mug say? Something about not pissing off a writer- you could end up in a book. Dead. The thing is, they’re not either- yet.

It is, however, a reasonable question. It’s also a question that my husband has never asked. Part of him, I think, doesn’t want to know. For the record there will never ever ever ever be any part of my husband in anything I write. Ever. Probably. Maybe. Some of his qualities are, however, in each of my heroes. Naturally, they’re the qualities I fell in love with all those years ago. Good answer?

It’s safer to say there’s more than a little of me in each of my heroines. There’s a little of me in Emily, my heroine in Baby, It’s You. Like me, she’s a Pisces, has a thing about daggy pop music, will never ever ever run again, and is prone to blisters. There’s also a little of how I’d like to be in Emily- I’d especially like her hair and her waist.

There’s only a little of me in Abby from Big Girls Don’t Cry. Abby is the most complex, damaged and inherently strong of my leading ladies (to date). Abby was not (especially at the start) a particularly likeable character, but by the end of the story, I hope readers could connect with her.

Of them all (so far), Max from Wish You Were Here is most like me. Not physically, of course, but for much of the story, she’s the most passive of my girls and also the least damaged. Because she isn’t damaged, her flaws are possibly going to be more frustrating.

Like me, Max has a habit of drifting along and falling into decisions rather than making choices. I suspect this is because she hasn’t really been challenged before. Not really. Max needs some pretty drastic things to happen to her and around her before she makes the changes she needs to make, sees what she needs to see, and goes in the direction she needs to go. She has an almost immature and self-contained view of her own world and doesn’t see what’s even slightly below the surface or how her action (or inaction) can impact others. In a way, she’s oblivious to all of that.

The similarities between Max and myself didn’t occur to me until I was finishing the copy edit for Wish You Were Here the other day. Although most of this book was drafted between November and February, the layers were added since. Coincidentally (?) I’ve had some pretty chaotic stuff happening to me personally in the last 6 months- much of it in the same theme (although not the same events, of course) as what I’d written in for Max all those months before.

Although I tend to go with the flow, it’s only been in response to the (increasingly heavy-handed) hints that the Universe has dished out that has prompted me to start making the decisions that need to be made- rather than drifting on pretending that it will all go away and life can go on as I know it…or knew it.

I don’t know whether subconsciously Max responded in the way that I would or whether I wrote her that way because of what was happening in background of my life. I’m not even sure that the distinction matters. While Max shares these traits with me, she is also a very different person, with very different motivations and trigger points- and is a much better cook.

The thing is, writing what we know doesn’t mean that we write who we know.

As a writer, it stands to reason then, that our characters will say things we’ve heard others say, or do things we’ve observed others do. Then we exaggerate it. In the case of my “villains” or antagonists, I exaggerate an awful lot. All of my friends have been warned that anything they say could be taken down and used later by a character who will probably bear no resemblance to them.

Likewise, it would also be easy to say that the starting point when writing about relationship is what you know. Or what you think you know. Or what you imagine you know. Or what you want to know and experience. The rest comes from your imagination- and the characters themselves. As it should.

Before Baby, It’s You was published I lay awake worrying about what people would think of me when it came out. Would they read too much into it? Layer me into Emily, layer what they thought they knew of me into the rest? And that’s exactly what some people did. ‘Oh, I didn’t know that you felt that way,’ someone said. ‘I don’t,’ I replied, ‘but Emily does.’

It was only a few months down the track when I realised that I hadn’t exactly sold that many copies that it occurred to me just how arrogant I was being. It’s not something I even thought about when Big Girls came out. It’s not something that’s worrying me this time around either- even though, as I’ve admitted above, it could be reasonable this time to draw some similarities between Max and myself.

As for the other characters in Wish You Were Here? I’m sorry to disappoint, but they’re completely made up…even my “villain”… especially my “villain”…

Wish You Were Here will be available from the end of October, 2016

Waiting for the muse- and why I don’t…

Beautiful Girl Wearing Long Chiffon Dress. Fantasy Scene

It’s 5am and I’m propped up in the spare bed tapping this out while the rest of my family sleeps. My alarm went off at 4.30. I’ll get up in another 30 minutes and be on my way to work by 6.30am. My muse hasn’t woken up yet. I think that she could be a tad hungover.

As creatives we like to think that we can spend our days just, well, creating…or creating when the inspiration strikes, when the muse arrives. I’ve spent many a pleasant hour (when I should be writing) imagining what my muse- if she ever showed up- would actually look like.

The only experience I have of muses is Kira- Olivia Newton John’s character in Xanadu. Anyone else remember that? Just me? Really? I can still see her coming to life and bursting out of the mural with her sisters…wearing floaty chiffon, leg warmers, and roller skates.

How would mine dress? Would she be a he? What would she say? Would she sit beside me at the desk making encouraging comments:

‘Man, that sentence is good.’

‘Oh my God! That scene is so intense.’

‘I think we need to fix this scene by getting Richie to…’

Would she instead pat my head and say, ‘it’s ok, Jo. Go back to sleep- I’ll come back another day.’

The thing is, the things are:

  • Kira was not the name of any of the muses- although Calliope was. How do I know that? She’s a character in the novel I’m drafting now. I do my research…
  • The muses weren’t in a habit of breaking out of murals and they didn’t wear leg warmers and roller-skates,
  • If you wait for one to turn up, you’ll be waiting a very long time indeed and will get very little done.

When you work full-time as I do- as most of us who are aspiring or emerging authors do- you grab your time when you can: a half hour here, fifteen minutes there.

My writing time each day is this very precious hour two mornings a week when I don’t go to the gym, an hour or so each night after I go to bed and whatever time I can squeeze in on weekends. I wrote a good chunk of Wish You Were Here sitting in the hairdresser’s chair. I have to make the most of every single one of those moments- my muse rarely turns up.

Also precious is the 15-20 minutes each morning between getting off the bus and meeting my BMF for coffee and work. I use that time to:

  • Brain dump anything in my head that needs to be out of my head in order to clear it for story work
  • Character notes or snippets that have occurred to me on the bus
  • Sometimes I write entire scenes in the journal- usually because they’ll have come to me on the bus and will be gone by the time I get to my keyboard later that night

It’s a little like morning pages, I suppose, but helps me make the most of the time I have when I do get to the keyboard. I’ve tried writing on the bus, but the conditions are cramped and my writing illegible.

My muse isn’t around for that either- in fact, when you think about it, she isn’t around for very much at all! Somehow though, the words happen without her.

What about you? Do you have a muse? Does she turn up on time, or hit snooze on her alarm?