Breaking Bad and ricin: How to use items effectively and avoid Chekhov’s Gun

This is a very difficult post for me to write because I’m not sure of the technical terms I’m using. The best term to use is “item,” and it refers to anything that a character physically uses that has great significance, either for the plot or symbolic significance. The best example I could think of would be the magical items featured in many fantasy novels (the One Ring in Lord of the Rings). But it’s not generally listed as a literary element the same way characters, plot, or tone are.

In general, when writers talk about items, they refer to Chekhov’s Gun or symbolism. An item is either important because a writer refers to it and then doesn’t use it, or if the item imparts great significance to the story. Rarely do they just talk about how to use items effectively.

Truth be told, I’m really bad at using items this way and am also pretty bad I’m forgetting things early in a story and never referring to them later. So maybe I’m not the best person to write about this. But if only experts were allowed on the Internet, it would be a pretty barren (and boring) place. And Wikipedia would have about five articles.

Chekhov’s Gun is a narrative principle that states one should remove everything unnecessary to the story.

“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

First off, this applies to all things in your story, not just items. Second, there are still times when it’s okay to do this, for instance when the element is a red herring. But you should avoid baiting the reader too much or without cause. Don’t attempt to confuse the reader simply for the sake of being clever. Make it serve the story.

Symbolism in items is more problematic. Tolkien was famous for saying that the One Ring did not symbolize the nuclear bomb, but many people still believe that today. Sometimes we can subconsciously give meaning to elements in our story without even knowing it. You may not remember your father always drinking his scotch with water when he was happy and straight when he was mad. But your subconscious does and it makes your MC do it without you even realizing it. And then, at a critical moment, he’s drinking scotch straight and everything ends up okay and the spell is broken. There’s symbolism inherent in our working without us realizing it and there’s symbolism the reader brings with them. Don’t fight it, but learn to find it.

The best example I can think of in the use of an item is, you guessed it, Breaking Bad. From the first episode of season two to the series finale, ricin plays a significant role in Walt’s and Jesse’s predicaments. The first attempt to use it ax gains Tuco Salamanca, a psychotic drug dealer who has taken them hostage. But the plan is foiled by Tuco’s uncle, who is debilitated by a stroke. It’s not too significant here, just one more example of Walt using his chemistry knowledge for nefarious means.

But in seasons four and five, it is absolutely critical and provides a valuable lesson for writers. Walt again makes a small vial of ricin to again kill a psychotic drug dealer, this time named Gus Fring (I’m sure we can argue about whether he’s psychotic or not, but killing Victor the way he did counts for me). Walt makes the ricin and plans to use it himself, but when he realizes he can’t get close to Gus, he gives the vial to Jesse who hides it in one of his cigarettes. And that’s where things get interesting.

Jesse decides not to kill Gus so Walt needs a new plan. Jesse no longer trusts Walt so Walt needs to find a way to convince Jesse to help him. So he poisons Jesse’s girlfriend’s young son—though not with the ricin—and makes it look like Gus did it. When Gus is dead, Jesse learns that Brock was poisoned with berries from a plant called Lily of the Valley, which, unbeknownst to him, grow in Walt’s backyard.

And then the writers did something they would fight with for the next two seasons. When Walt gets the vial of ricin back, he doesn’t throw it away but hides it behind a wall plate in an electrical outlet in his bedroom. At this point, the ricin is Chekhov’s loaded gun, right on stage for everyone to see. The writers knew that at some point they would have to use the ricin. This couldn’t be a red herring, and it wasn’t.

When Jesse eventually realizes that Walt did steal the ricin and manipulate him into killing Gus while also almost killing a young boy, he finally turns on Walt. It was the last straw and Jesse’s betrayal sets the final five episodes in motion. But the ricin still isn’t been used. When the writers had Walt hide it, they knew they had to use it.

In fact, in the teaser for episode nine, they show Walt, in the future, going back to his abandoned home and retrieving the ricin. At this point, they admit they had no idea what they were going to do with it, which is amazing, but they felt they had to get it.

In the final episode, Walt is extracting revenge on everyone who has wronged him, and the ricin finally makes an appearance. Lydia, the super uptight executive that had been surreptitiously providing Gus with the precursor to make meth, always puts stevia in her chamomile tea. She also had a standing appointment with Walt at 10 on Tuesday in the same restaurant. Walt goes to the restaurant, knowing she’ll have her same routines and sit at the same table and switches out the stevia with ricin. As she puts in her tea, the camera closes in as the poison sinks to the bottom of the up and she stirs it in.

Now, this isn’t an amazing piece of writing that sets the whole series apart from every other but it is an example of the attention to detail that true fans of the show looked for and the writers felt deserving of a payoff. Isn’t that how you want your readers to feel about your writing?

In the podcast, Vince Gilligan talks a great deal about how the ricin played into the final episodes. It didn’t have to be a major plot point, though it does end up being one. But it does need a resolution. Some argue that there were many plot holes in the series. What happened to Huell? Or Ted? How did Walt know where to park in the compound when he’d never been there before? And how did that sliced pizza land on the roof in one piece?

And you’re going to have them as well. In fact, if you’re very lucky one day you’ll have a whole Reddit about mistakes in your oeuvre.

Advertisements

Can failure be an option?

If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.

Failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a part of success.

The master has failed more times then the beginning has even tried.

Give yourself permission to fail.

We hear these motivational bromides all the time, but what do they really mean? And how can they help you become a better writer?

There’s nothing wrong with screwing up or writing crap. Just keep trying. Even if you haven’t written in ten years and decide “Today I’m going to write a novel.” When you say this you’ve taken the most important first step of your life.

So how can you incorporate the “permission to fail” ideology into your daily writing routine? There are two ways. First, when stuck with a difficult situation for your characters, choose a solution that absolutely cannot work. Then make it work. Finding out that it didn’t work, and more importantly why it didn’t work is as important as anything else. Second, look back at previous writing and see what didn’t work and why.

I’ll give you some examples from my own writing.

I wrote a short story about a grandmother who falls victim to a confidence scheme. When I was trying to figure out how the granddaughter, who was helping the conman, was going to become involved, I couldn’t think of a reasonable reason for a granddaughter to take advantage of her grandmother. So I decided to make it all about the money. Ridiculous, right? What granddaughter is more concerned about money than family. So I made the granddaughter’s situation more desperate. I had her kids at risk. Then it all started to make sense. While I didn’t use it in the end, it gave me the answer for how to push the grandmother over the edge. And it ended up tying the story together in a neat way.

In the one novel I’ve managed to finish and self-publish, Grasping for Dreams, I wrote the bulk as my NaNoWriMo project. I laid it down in December and didn’t return to it until March of the following year. I then figure out how to write a few scenes, polished up what was there and gave it to a few people to edit before sending it to CreateSpace for my free proof copy.

I’m proud of it, as I think it turned out pretty good. But I never thought it was 100% right. There was always something nagging at me and I could never figure out what it was. Enter Scribophile.

I’ve written about Scribophile before and I’m going to again. It’s an online community of writers where you critique other writer’s work and they critique yours. You had to write a lot of critiques to earn “points” that allow you to post your own work, but there is a premium option where you pay a yearly membership fee and earn points faster and can post more stuff. If you can afford it and lack a writer’s group, I highly recommend it.

I posted the first half of my chapter for my novel as my first post and got a lot of amazing feedback. And most of them said the exact same thing: lose the first scene, nothing happens, open with the second scene.

I went back and looked and realized how right they were. It sucked because I’d written the novel so that it began and ended with the same line (which I stole from S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders) but that didn’t bother me that much. It was a device that wasn’t necessary for the story and I could lose it. But I really enjoyed the scene. I remember writing it that very first day of NaNoWriMo. The scenery and imagery it evoked were both very powerful to me. But it had a ton of problems too.

First, the scene introduced the MC and his best friend, but it didn’t move the story forward in anyway. Second, the MC does this thing where he obsessed over a piece of dirt on his shoes as though he’s OCD, but I never show that aspect of the character again throughout the entire novel.

As I went back through the whole story, I noted mistake after mistake. Truly, it was pretty disheartening to see how awful it was. There are three key scenes, one where the MC is injured playing baseball, another where a student is playing for him is injured, and then the MC is injured again.

First off, I never describe the scene where the student is injured. That’s just foolish. It would’ve been a key plot point and I could’ve tied another moment to it. But I missed it. And second, when the MC is injured again, I don’t tie it back to the original injury scene. How did I miss that?

In A Farewell to Arms, there are three key scenes that are all connected by the imagery of rain and mud. Hemingway does a crazy good job of setting you up for the big moments and you don’t realize it unless you’re really paying attention. Symbolism and imagery are rarely evident in the first draft, but one should be cognizant of them when revising and look for those small moments where one sentence (or even one word) can change the impact of a scene.

Now I know you’re thinking that this has nothing to do with faults, this is just bad writing. But it has everything to do with failure. I screwed the revision of this novel in many significant ways. But, I can still go back and fix them all. I can make the novel better and resubmit the manuscript to the publisher.

But, and this is far more important, I now see that I have a tendency to make these mistakes. Most editors advise you to skip a soft opening and get right to the story. I don’t always do that on the first swing, but I know how to spot it and get rid of it in the editing process. I look for that symbolic scene and try to tie t together with other scenes.

It’s not the failure that makes you better. It’s recognizing the failure and fixing that makes you better. Never worry that you’re going to get it right the first time and never worry about weaknesses in your first draft. It’s called a writing “process” for a reason. There are many steps in the process and screwing up is one of them.

Breaking Bad getting it right and wrong

There are amazing things to discover when we’re allowed behind the scenes to discover a writer’s process in actually crafting a story. Learning why they choose specific words or how they discover a character’s course of action can be incredibly valuable to writers trying to learn.

One resource I’ve discovered, and mentioned many times in the past, is the Breaking Bad Insider Podcast. The Podcast is hosted by Kelley Dixon and Vince Gilligan, the editor and creator of the show, respectively. The podcast has an incredible wealth of information that any writer would find useful.

Now, if you’re not a fan of the show, you won’t get anything out of the podcast. It’s not like being able to read Stephen King’s On Writing even if you’re not a fan of his work. With knowing how the story develops, you may extract some information, but it won’t be much.

The podcast began in season 2 and contains 45-90 minutes of information about each episode. They bring in writers, directors, producers, editors, actors, music supervisors, and others to help tell the story behind the story. Because the podcasts were originally released the Monday after the episodes aired, they can go into great detail about the plot without worrying about revealing spoilers.

The final eight episodes of Breaking Bad were brilliant, and the podcasts do a great job of describing the work in the writer’s room of how they broke the story of Walt’s descent into pure evil. When you learn how long they spent on each episode, how many different avenues they went down, it’ll really hammer into you the idea that when creating the story, the sky is the limit. Try everything, ask questions, listen to your characters, and don’t be afraid to backtrack if something feels wrong.

In the final episode of the first half of the fifth season, Hank has discovered that Walt, his brother-in-law, may, in fact, be Heisenberg. He does this when he finds a book in Walt’s bathroom that was given to Walt by a man that Hank knows was a meth cook.

But it’s not 100%, so when we come back in the next episode, which aired over a year later, we watch as Hank meticulously goes over all of the evidence to see if his suspicions are correct. And while this is going on, the writers decided that it was also a good time for Walt to find out what Hank was up to.

Now, first off, that was an incredibly audacious plan. Anyone who has watched Breaking Bad knows that the whole time it appears as if we were leading to a point where Hank would find out that Walt is Heisenberg, and they would have a big showdown that would be the entire series’ ultimate climax. But the writers chose to put that showdown eight episodes before the finale, meaning they were going to have to do a lot more to tell the story.

Now, in hindsight, it seems obvious, because the real battle was between Walt and Jesse, not Walt and Hank, but at the time, everyone was shocked that they’d put this amazing showdown in the first episode of what was essentially the sixth season. But the writers had a problem. How was Walt going to know that Hank was on to him? Hank was playing his cards close to the vest, for many reasons.

First, when it would be discovered that a DEA agent’s brother-in-law was a drug kingpin, that agent’s career would be over. Second, Hank knew that Walt was shrewd enough to cover his tracks if Walt knew that Hank was coming for him. And third, Hank just wasn’t the kind of character that would blow things up until he was absolutely sure.

So the writers had a real problem. And they solved it in two ways, one of which is brilliant, and one of which is not.

First, they had Walt discover the book is missing. As the book was on the back of the commode, it wasn’t in a place that Walt would generally notice, you’re usually facing the other way. But, because his cancer is back and Walt is back in chemotherapy, he’s throwing up into the toilet, facing the back. And that’s when he sees that is missing. He proceeds to tear the house apart, trying to find this book. This is clever because it ties this critical discovery into the series’ first plot point: Walter White is dying from cancer and needs money to take care of his family. When you look at the layers involved in the discovery, it’s a truly brilliant development.

They talk about this scene in the podcast a great deal. Walt lays down a towel to rest his knees on, recalling a previous pivotal scene in the series. He’s dealing with his cancer again, just when it seems like everything is finally working out for him. And then, boom! the book is gone.

But it’s not enough. It still doesn’t connect Hank to Walt, it just shows that the book has gone missing. Truly, it could’ve been anywhere. So they needed something else to convince Walt. And that’s when they have Walt find the GPS tracker that Hank has surreptitiously planted in the wheel well.

Now I do think that this was a great way for Walt to discover Hank’s suspicions because Walt knew about the GPS tracker when Hank was tracking another character with Walt’s help. But I don’t like the way Walt finds it. He is looking throughout the bedroom for the book, asking his wife about it. She says it’ll turn up. Then he lays down and asks about Hank, who’s been out sick from work all week. She says it’s just a stomach bug. The camera focuses in on Walt and he is clearly concerned.

We then cut to an outside shot of Walt’s house. The light comes on and Walt emerges in a robe and slippers, looking around. He walks around the vehicles in the driveway and still sees nothing. Then, he turns to go back inside but stops. He goes back to his car and starts looking everywhere. Then, he reaches into the wheel well, discovering the GPS tracker. And the game is afoot.

Now, I know that Walt had to find the tracker, and I can see Walt behaving in that manner. He’s a meticulous man, who would notice something strange is going on. But he has no real reason to feel this way. A missing book isn’t enough.

In the podcast, they talk about this scene a lot, as well. Gilligan says that Walt just “feels” that something is wrong. To me, that’s just not good enough. They could’ve done a lot of other things to give Walt the opportunity to discover the tracker. He could’ve had a flat tire, or been in a car accident. But he has no real reason to be suspicious because he believes everything is over. That part of his life is done, and he shouldn’t be so persistent. Something should have pushed him into finding the GPS tracker. Maybe neighbor Carol saw Hank putting it there and says something to Skylar, who then finds it and tells Walt.

And it could’ve been done. Here, I don’t think they’re being lazy, I just feel like that was a choice they made for the character. But I don’t think it was the right one. Walt doesn’t go on hunches and superstitions. He is a man of reason, a man of science.

How Thanksgiving informs the writing process

Thanksgiving and writing—how can these two things have anything to do with each other? Mostly, it’s about planning, making time, and being flexible. If you really want to write every day then you should find a way to write every day, even holidays and workdays, birthdays and off-days. It’s not even about hitting 1,000 words every day but find some time to do something. And plan it ahead of time.

For instance, I planned this blog post these days ago. I remembered that I’d written a blog on the Fourth of July and it was about how that holiday had something to say about writing. I was wondering on Monday if I could do the same thing for Thanksgiving. So, I opened the “blog” folder on my iPhone and opened a note for this date. I then wrote a title and a little blurb describing what the post would be about. Then, I did the same thing for Tuesday and Wednesday.

Tuesday may have actually been a harder day to write because I had so much to do and only one day off. I got done with everything and was sitting in bed watching Jeopardy! when I remembered the blog. A big part of me wanted to just forget about it and relax, but I pulled my phone out and wrote the blog. Was it a masterpiece? No. But I’d planned it and I wanted to stick to my plan. So I wrote until I got 1,000 words and called it a night.

Yesterday, the blog on collaboration was really tough, and I didn’t think it was making a whole lot of sense. But I pushed through the doubt and the “inner editor” telling me that it was pointless, and I eventually found the point I was trying to make.

And now, here it is, Thanksgiving morning and I’m writing the blog I planned three days ago. I’m at work so I won’t get it all done at one time but I’ll pick moments here and there and by the time I’m done, I should have 1,000 words.

And that’s the important thing—moving forward all the time. If it takes you six months to write your first draft, who cares? Because Stephen King said that a first draft needs to be complete in three months, there’s something wrong with you if it takes you longer? The hell with that. Remember the only rule should have: if it works for you use it.

And what would King say about Under the Dome? He started that one in 1972 and abandoned it. Then he tried again in 1982 and failed again. He finally published it in 2009. If Stephen King can take 37 years to write a book, you can take six months, or a year, or as long as you want. Just keep writing.

And yes this blog is too short, but that’s okay to. Even if you write 25 words, you’re still writing and that’s good enough.

The problem of collaboration

On the Fourth of July, I wrote a blog post celebrating the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Most of what I was writing about was how collaboration is good for the writing process. Today’s post is about how collaboration is bad for the writing process.

Collaboration is a huge buzzword in the field of business management. The Harvard Business Review says that the time business leaders have devoted to collaborative activities has increased by 50% over the last two decades. And over that time, the collaborative process has taken its toll on overall productivity. As the focus shifted, only a few key players were involved and every project would have to wait for them to weigh in, creating a bottleneck. As well, these players soon became overtaxed as they were unable to do their specific duties because of time spent on other projects.

Now, what does that mean for a writer? How would a writer find themselves in a situation where they’re focusing too much on outside input?

How do writers collaborate?

First, writing is a mostly solitary task. While that “second set of eyes” is critical to the revision process, it’s not always needed in the initial stages. While many TV shows involve teams of writers even in the breaking of a story, that’s not necessary for the novelist or screenwriter. TV shows have to use large teams because they had to produce 24 hours of content every season, you do not.

As well, many episodic shows don’t rely on teams for breaking stories because they don’t need to, each episode stands alone. Even with exams, at some point, one writer has to sit down and write the whole thing out, without relying on anyone else. They would then bring their finished script for other people to go over. That’s the best way to look at collaboration.

When coming up with a new idea, keep it to yourself as much as possible. Let our conscious and subconscious mind think about it for a while and then start trying to break it. Get as far as you can before you go online or ask for help, at least on your first attempt. If you’re struggling it’s okay to ask for help, but not too quickly. The answer will usually appear if you’re patient. Asking for too much input is one of the biggest mistakes a writer can make. When you’re first creating your story, if you spend all of your time and energy looking for outside help, it hurts you in two ways.

When to not collaborate

First, it’s your story. It’s your idea and you need the be true to that. Asking for help in the nascent stages will distract you from the one thought you had in your head to begin with. And the best stories are all focused around a single idea. It’s really hard to keep true to that idea if you’re asking for input from every Tom, Dick, and Harry in your writer’s group. I’ve said before that writers groups are amazing things and will make you better, but they’re not needed for every step in the process.

Second, breaking stories is really hard and you’ll never get better at it if you don’t exercise that part of your mind. Sometimes you’ll be writing an outline and you’ll know the first second and fourth moments but have no idea about the third. You’ll know where you’re starting, where you’re ending and the first big moment, but you’re not quite sure how the MC is going to figure everything out. You’ll really struggle with this and may even begin writing before you’ve figured it out.

That’s okay.

While you’re writing you’ll usually figure out. And if you don’t, if you’ve tried everything and can’t figure it out… still no. Go ahead and write everything, even the ending. Write every damn scene and leave that one part out. Then try three or four different ways. Then you’re allowed to take your story to an outside source for help. But not before.

The other problem with collaboration too early is creative paralysis. This is not the same thing as writer’s block because you think you’re just planning. Young fantasy writers are notoriously guilty of this crime. They spent their time building worlds and creating races, and inventing languages, but never get around to the story. Then, they bring it to their friends and they all talk about it and everyone gives their input and then they’re creating more crap to solve problems others see or others offer solutions to problems that may not even be real. And then you’ve spent two years creating a masterful universe and are nowhere close to writing the damn story.

Honestly, creative paralysis can be just as much of a problem for solo writers, so I won’t put too much on the collaborative process, but it is a problem that can be compounded by early collaboration.

The last problem with collaboration is the most difficult one to deal with: what do you when a beta reader tells you to change something you are convinced doesn’t need to change.

When do I get to be right?

First, if multiple beta readers tell you to change something, they’re right and you’re wrong. I’ve said it before: if you’re at an office party and three people tell you to sit down, you’re drunk. Give your project to people that you trust and then trust their judgment. It’s also a good way to weed out beat readers. If one reader is constantly giving you bad advice, ignore them altogether. And if someone nails it every time, they’re your go-to reader.

Second, if it’s something that you feel strongly about and your beta readers are on the fence, go with your gut. It won’t always be right, but it’s still your work and you need to be loyal to yourself above all.

And don’t be afraid to bring your beta readers into your process. Before they read something, tell them what you’re having problems with. Also, tell them what you feel is strong. Be open with them about what you think the central idea is so that they can help you and not push you in the wrong direction.

The collaborative process is just one tool in the writer’s toolbox. Don’t ignore it, but don’t rely on it too much either. Find a way to use it to your advantage.

Why You Should Not Do NaNoWriMo

Okay, this blog title is misleading, because the truth is there’s only one reason not to do NaNoWriMo and I’ll get to it later. This blog is about common complaints people have about NaNoWriMo, mostly one article written on Salon.com in 2010. The author, Laura Miller, says that the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to produce crap. She says, “Only by producing really, really bad first drafts can many writers move on to the practice that results in decent work: revision.”

She’s right and she’s not. It’s not about producing a bad first draft it’s about producing anything. And if you’re biggest complaint is that people don’t follow all of the advice to revise before submitting, that’s a pretty small complaint. My feeling is that every single person on the planet should participate in NaNoWriMo. And there are no qualifications for that statement. Everyone should do it.

Let’s look at the facts. Writing 50,000 words in a month is really hard. Most NaNoWriMo contestants fail. And to Miller, that is part of the problem: people realize it’s a waste of time and give up. Screw that. If it was easy we’d all be novelists. The hard part is the great part.

And then Miller says something that really pisses me off: “The last thing the world needs is more bad books.” This woman is a professional writer which means that she understands that words mean things. She doesn’t say “the world doesn’t need more bad books.” I would disagree with that sentiment but it’s a harder argument. No, what she is that it is the last thing the world needs. That means it is literally the worst thing in the world. Worse than war, worse than racism, worse even than the planned reunion tour of the Spice Girls. Please try to make a reasonable argument that bad books are the worst thing in the world

I’m waiting.

I’d argue that I’d rather have bad books than bad movies or TV shows or music. A bad book is just a manuscript sitting in someone’s desk. A bad movie, TV show, or CD was produced and cost money, manpower, and someone’s dignity. That doesn’t compare to Joe Schmo writing his Star Trek fan fiction about Kirk and Uhura that has way too many sex scenes.

The article than diverges to a truly disturbing place, and one I don’t recognize. Miller says, “NaNoWriMo is an event geared entirely toward writers, which means it’s largely unnecessary.” Writers write, Miller opines. It’s what they do. They don’t need help. What they need is to read more and spend money on other people’s writing, thereby making the commerce of literature more successful. Again, this woman is saying that it’s a waste of time to create a bunch of crap as if one should only go into a project knowing that you’re going to create a masterpiece.

That’s not how writing works.

Writing works by putting your butt in the chair and pounding on the typewriter, no matter what. You can’t wait for inspiration to strike, you need to go after it with a club and beat it into submission. If that means most of what you produce isn’t great, that’s fine. To think that writers don’t struggle to write has to be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read. It’s what writers struggle with most. We’re not lacking in ideas were lacking in motivation and confidence. NaNoWriMo gives us both of those.

The motivation is simple. You have a goal and a deadline: 50,000 words in 30 days. Because you’re motivated to produce 1,667 words every day, you’ll push yourself to find ways to reach that goal. That’s a gift beyond measure because most writers meander and struggle to keep going toward a goal. This gives you focus and keeps you moving.

The confidence is a little harder, but it’s the biggest thing NaNoWriMo can give you. It tells you to turn off your “inner editor.” Your inner editor is the part of you that quibbles over spelling errors, but the part of you that tells you you’re writing crap and you need to quit. It tells you that you’ll never be good enough and you’re a fool to consider yourself a writer. Miller is telling you to listen to this inner editor, turn off your computer and go back to your day job. This is why Miller is so wrong and NaNoWriMo is so necessary. You absolutely have to try NaNoWriMo for one all-important reason: you may just love it.

And that’s why I say there is no reason not to try NaNoWriMo and only one reason not to do it. One thing is been consistent on in my blog is that you have to try everything to find out what’s right for you. The worst thing that happens is that you waste a month and find out it doesn’t work for you. My mother is a writer and that’s what she discovered. All three of my kids have tried it and that’s what they learned. But I still am glad they tried it.

It’s a technique that may help you produce a ton of words in a short time. As someone who has been writing his entire life, I can assure you that’s nothing to take for granted. So why shouldn’t you do NaNoWriMo? There’s only one good reason: you tried it and don’t want to try to again.

What Is NaNoWriMo? And Why You Should Do It!

November is National Novel Writing Month, colloquially known as NaNoWriMo. The “contest” challenges writers to produce a 50,000-word novel in thirty days. On the surface, it sounds impossible. As well, the notion of writing 1,667 words a day seems more geared to pantsers than plotters. Actually, however, either type can do very well by using NaNoWriMo, as long as you understand it’s true purpose.

I was first introduced to NaNoWriMo in 2008 by my boss, who knew that I enjoyed writing. He asked us to give operating goals for the period (sales, food cost %, overtime), but then he asked us to produce a personal goal for the year. Something that had nothing to do with work. I said that I wanted to write, edit, submit for publication, a short story. He told me that his daughter loved writing and was doing a contest called NaNoWriMo. I’d never heard of it, and it was right before Thanksgiving, so I didn’t attempt it that year. But, in December, I checked out the website and thought it looked pretty interesting.

The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to get writers writing. You sign up for it before November and then begin planning. You join a “region,” typically based on where you live, and talk to other writers on message boards and such. The rules are simple. You cannot start writing until November 1 at 12:00 am, and you have to verify that you’ve written 50,000 words by November 30 at 11:59. When I started in 2009, the rules were a little stricter. You had to be writing a novel, (they had something called Script Frenzy in April for screenwriters) it couldn’t be a project you’d already started and decide to add 50,000 words to, and you had to be writing solo.

The rules are much slacker now. Now it’s all about the 50,000 words. I know someone who is writing an erotic cookbook this year instead of a novel. You can also work with a partner or even write 50,000 additional words for a project you’ve already started. It’s really about getting butts in seats and words produced.

So, I tried it and won. It was insanely hard and the story I wrote was complete crap, but I did it. My laptop died three days in and I had to start completely over. I hadn’t planned anything so I took an idea for a short story and just kept going once I reached the “end.” And it ended up being a 35,000-word short story with a 15,000-word—epilogue, for lack of a better word—that had no real value. But is felt proud of writing that much. I’d never in my life written that many words in that short a time. Emboldened by my success I attempted Script Frenzy in April of the following year and wrote two pretty good one-hour teleplays.

But I felt like I wasn’t getting the most out of all this writing. So I looked around and found a program called yWriter that helps writers organized. I think it’s the perfect program for three reasons. First, it’s designed by a software engineer who is also a writer. Second, it’s incredibly easy to use. Three, it has a free version that has almost everything you need.

My idea was to take my old NaNoWriMo story and organize it using the yWriter program. When I did I saw how unstructured the story was. There were huge sections where nothing happened, major characters disappeared, and the direction that I should’ve taken after the “end” suddenly became apparent. For NaNoWriMo 2010, I decided I was going to take my “scripts” and adapt them to novels. Because I already had a simple introduction, I felt I could hit the ground running.

And I did. I spent all October outlining and planning, coming up with whole new characters, and a simple plot line. But, and this is the critical part, it was still really rough on November 1st. I knew what the trigger was going to be (the MC’s father was going to die), but I had no ending. But that didn’t stop me from writing scene by scene and easily reach my goal of 50,000 words. Undaunted, I continued writing, after a brief December hiatus, and ultimately figure out the ending. There’s truly no way I would’ve ever done that. And I’m not even talking about finishing. I hadn’t finished the novel yet. I’m talking about sticking with one project until I’d figured it all out. And this wasn’t a case of sunk cost effect where you keep going with something because you’ve already invested so much into it. I knew there was something here and I just couldn’t see it. Normally I would’ve just completely given up, but because of NaNoWriMo, I kept going.

And to me, that is the ultimate value of NaNoWriMo. Most writers peter out because a story loses steam and they throw in a drawer and move on. But, NaNoWriMo pushes you to invest in a project for one month. After that month, you can see if you have something. If you don’t, move on to another project. If you do, figure out a way to finish it off.

This story ultimately became my self-published novel that I’m pretty proud of. It hasn’t made it on any bestseller lists, but I like the way the story came full circle and resolved itself in a way that confirms the beginning. That’s really hard for me to do. I still remember the moment I figured out the ending and how excited I was. It was a fun moment. And I’ve been chasing it ever since.

I’ve only won NaNoWriMo a few times (3 out 8), but I still try every year. Sometimes I plan a lot sometimes a little. Sometimes I take something I’ve been working on and add more sometimes I try something brand new. The last two years I was in a school so I never had much of a chance but I tried anyway. This year I’ve started and had only some success but I’m still going. Hopefully, I’ll get a last-minute burst of creativity and reach the finish line. And if I don’t, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve written over 300,000 words in 7 Novembers. That’s not bad. It’s an average of 42,857 words per attempt. That’s 1,428 words a day. That’s a lot of words and well above the Stephen King admonition of 1,000 words a day. How can that be a bad thing?

So, give NaNoWriMo a shot. Even if you just try it for the last week of November to see what it gets you. You may find something that works and you may not. But you’ll have found something out about your writing process and, no matter what, that’s valuable. If NaNoWriMo can turn a dedicated pantser into a committed plotter that it can help anybody. Even if it only helps you to realize that it isn’t your process.

Since 2006, over four hundred novels begin during NaNoWriMo have been published through traditional publishers, and much more have been self-published. Some have even been bestsellers and adapted into movies. None of these authors had polished manuscripts on December 1st, but they started the process just like everyone else and, by committing to it, it took them someplace very special.