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Saturday, November 08, 2008


Every year around this time, I get loads of notes asking me if I am doing NaNoWriMo. (That’s National Novel Writing Month, if you’ve never heard of it. It’s where people set themselves the task of writing a 50,000 word novel between November 1st and midnight November 30th.)

I usually say that NaNoWriMo is kind of my life. Every day around here looks like NaNoWriMo. This year, however, I am participating rather literally, as I am finishing up a book deadline on almost the same timescale! Since people have also been asking if I have any tricks or clever tools to help them through the experience, I thought I would share a few PROFESSIONAL THOUGHTS to guide you through an intense 30 day writing stint and make it through to the end. Some of this is guesswork, but it's all based on my own experiences.


So, you’ve committed! Feels GOOD, doesn’t it? It’s good to set up your chair, your computer, your mug. For me, the real thrill comes from opening a new Scrivener document. I love my writing program, with its wonderful way of splitting up chapters and blacking out everything on the monitor but the work.

And the story is NEW. The words, they come. The world shapes itself out of nowhere! What’s the goal? 12,500 words? 1,785.7 words a day? Ha ha ha. You’ll be done by the time Thanksgiving rolls around. You’ll be sitting there with your pumpkin pie, editing.

Ready to write.


By this point, a week by yourself staring at a computer has become a tiny bit wearing. Motivation! That’s the key! Community! Time to take a moment and open the old IM, see who’s on . . .

Oh, look! EVERYONE is on! Let’s see who’s one Facebook. EVERYONE! Forums? EVERYONE! How incredibly lucky! Time to talk shop!

What is everyone saying? Something about how it’s kind of good to start and go charging out of the barn like a MAD HORSE ON SPEED . . . but now at 10,000 and 12,000 words in, everyone has caught the first glimpse of that vast, unmapped plain called THE MIDDLE OF THE BOOK. All the other writers have the queasy feeling that SOMETHING is supposed to happen between here and the 45,000th word, and that something should be very exciting! (A lot of people have ideas about those last five thousand words. The question is, how to get there?)

Much chatting about the excitement of the journey.

Time for some friendly chat!


The conversation has taken on a grim sameness. Everyone has wandered into the sandstorm now, stumbling and coughing his or her way forward, sometimes just 100 words at a time. What is ahead? What is behind? Who knows.

Why is it going so slowly? That’s the question on everyone’s mind. The realization dawns that I must get offline immediately. That is where my words are going! I am BLEEDING MYSELF DRY in chats and e-mails!

Also, will surely kill that person (luv2rite16) who keeps saying how they are sliding through the middle of their book like a warm knife through butter.

Everyone hates luv2rite16.


It seemed like a good idea to get offline, but how are you supposed to Wikipedia things like the history of French toast if you don’t have a computer? You need FACTS. You need names for your characters, and maps of Sweden, and charts showing the average rainfall in Kansas, and a few pictures of wombats. Back to the internets!

Log on to find luv2rite16 happily reporting that he/she is now on 35,000 words and is clocking in something like 3,500 a day. And this one day? He/she did, like, 7,000!


At about the three-quarter mark, as the deadline comes into sight just over the horizon, I typically experience a mental episode which manifests itself in a compulsive need to buy post-it notes.

I own a lot of post-it notes. I own post-it notes of every size, shape, and description. I use post-it notes to leave myself notes on every door, window, and mirror, telling myself that I am NOT ALLOWED TO BUY ANY MORE POST-IT NOTES. But I cannot obey. One time, I tried to reason with myself by saying that I already had fifteen sealed, untouched packages and therefore how could I need MORE? I solved that by ripping them all open. Surely, the holes in the plot can be sealed if I could JUST FIND THE RIGHT SIZE OF POST-IT NOTE TO COVER IT. None of the others, I say, dismissing the hundreds of now-open packages . . . none of those were RIGHT.

So out I go, into darkness, wind, rain, or snow . . . off to my favorite Staples. I linger gleefully in the aisles, touching all of the shiny new things. Which is how I end up with pens, colored paper, binders, markers, highlights, three-hole punches, and index cards. But the precious thing is always the post-it notes.

I lug home my new stash and dump them out on my desk, which I have cleared off just to properly display my new post-it notes. I look at them happily for at least an hour, not wanting to break their pristine plastic covers. I’m happy because I now have the exact item I need to make this story WORK. If only I had gone out and gotten them sooner!

Eventually, I come to grips with the fact that I have to write things on the post-its. It upsets me to defile them, but I purchased them for a reason, and that reason was TO MAKE SOLUTIONS! I busily open the packages and start writing things down.

My quest for post-it notes is relentless.


I am now the owner of a manuscript covered in 300 4x6 post-it notes (along with post-its shaped like arrows and lips). The ones at the front of the manuscript seem to have some pretty clever ideas on them, like “move this paragraph to page 16,” not that I can remember WHY I thought this was a good idea. But I’ll do it, because the me that wrote that note is clearly a smarter me than the one I am stuck with now, the one who writes notes that say things like, “make funnier,” or “make shorter,” or just “fix.”

Not to mention the 45 random flags I stuck all over the place which now FLAP IN THE WIND but tell me nothing about what I’m supposed to know about those pages. Oh, I’m sure I had my reasons for putting them there. But those reasons are gone. Gone like the dinosaur, with only little clues about their existence left behind, like a random thigh bone in a tar pit. What did it belong to? How did it die? WHO CAN SAY?

Set manuscript in corner of desk and try not to look at it.


I was such a moron to think that post-it notes could solve my problems. What is this, 1983? Why did I turn away from my beloved Scrivener, which gives me everything I need? I have a virtual corkboard to outline the story. I can move chapters around. I can annotate. This program has it ALL!

Technology is the key.


Have done nothing for past day and a half but shuffle chapters in the sidebar and change the colors of the cards on my virtual corkboard in an attempt to see the pattern behind it all.

There is no pattern. Whether I label some broken scenes pink and other broken scenes blue, they are still broken.

It is clearly time to go back to the post-it notes. DO I HAVE ENOUGH? Back to the store!

More post-it notes are needed.


Dreamed about being out in a rowboat with luv2rite16. luv2rite16 was rattling off beautiful, perfectly turned phrases about the scenery with seemingly no effort. When luv2rite leans over to gaze into the water and make comments about the nature of ripples and reflections, smacked him/her in head with oar and then beat down until he/she stopped clawing at the side of the boat.

Back at shore, luv2rite is there, working on laptop as if nothing happened.

Woke up in cold sweat.


Time to tally up and see what’s left to do!


Look, just LEAVE ME ALONE. I’m FINE. Just LEAVE THE FOOD BY THE DOOR AND BACK AWAY. I just have 14,835 more words to write. I DON’T CARE WHAT THEY ARE.


Not, you will notice, the sound of things like showering. Or the sound of having a life.


That crick in your back? And neck? You embrace it. You have never known a time it was not with you. Also, who needs pants? NOT YOU!


You don’t know what it is, exactly, that you’ve created. But you’ve created a lot of it. but that’s a first draft! A pile of who-knows-what! Doesn’t matter as long as there is a pile of it!

WEEK 4.932467

Errr . . . did that . . . was that . . . is that . . . does that say 51,236 words?

Step away from desk. Confused. Look out window.

Go back to desk. Submit.

Ignore the fact that luv2rite16 submitted five days ago.

Now, at this point . . . this is where I would take the shower and get ready to do all of that AGAIN. Not starting over, but going right back to the start. Every month.

I hope this helps! If there are any specific questions you need answered, I will certainly do my best! Leave them below!

(Many of you want to know what I did for Lauren Myracle’s scare-a-thon challenge! I’ll tell you what I did! I got an extension, along with Libba Bray. Libba got one because she was on tour in Europe, and I got one because of the election, so we are likely doing something scary TOGETHER. Video to come!)

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Blogger Khy said...

Hey, that sounds like what I went through for NaNo last year. Except I don't have a lot of post-its and I don't have Scrivener.

1:41 AM  
Blogger Jennifer Hendren said...

OMG...that's scary close to my process. (g)

But I love me some post-its. They're soooo pretty.

1:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So very encouraging.


2:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love going to Staples or the office supply aisle of CVS. All the pretty pens, and notebooks of various sizes and designs. I own quite a few oddly sized and very pretty notebooks. I just can't help myself.

2:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm already on 88,689,436,576,423,267,457,345 words! And I write 90,124,345,636,436,342 words a day, and one day I wrote 176,234,653,754,234,390 words! Writing is easy!
Please don't hit me with an oar.

3:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

*hits luv2rite16 with an oar*
loooolll. i'm trying to write a 40,000 word novel, coz i'm only in grade ten. my word of advice, just stay away from the forums. FORUMS ARE SHINY, AND SHINY CAN ONLY LEAD TO DISTRACTION.
i don't have a scrivener, whatever that is, but i do have apple shaped post its.

4:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another video with you and Libba? YES!

I'm trying my hardest to do NaNoWriMo, and I'm kind of failing at it. Maybe this post will help. I know someone just like luv2rite16 who is getting on my NERVES.

What if you have a good beginning that you really like, but you have NO IDEA what happens next?

5:45 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I knew a luv2rite16 when I was doing NaNo in Darwin last year. What was worse was that I'd probably met them, during November, in the book store I was working in (Darwin is a small city). I had no idea who they were because I had only ever seen them online thus DEPRIVING ME OF MY CHANCE TO FULFIL MY HOMICIDAL DESIRES!

I bet I served her with a smile too. It makes me sick.

5:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i love postits. i have many of them. they are so pretty.

7:14 AM  
Blogger B. said...

what would life be without extensions?? can you imagine? wow.

7:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Post-its solve all my problems. They also carpet my floor, cover my walls and serve as an attractive and multi-colored pillow for my weary head.

I also have them all over my desk at work, and my supervisor comes by to say unhelpful things like, "You know you're not supposed to be writing stories at work," and "Stop muttering about pixies eating your brain." If I get fired, it's all NaNoWriMo's fault :)

8:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm reading this now as I procrastinate working on my NaNoWriMo novel... it was definitely helpful and very, very accurate.

9:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I drew a picture of Dino-Darcy today.
I'm stage manager for Pride and Prejudice and I got bored. hooray!
and the picture of that man makes me laugh. the one looking for post-it notes.

9:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for getting me hooked to Scrivener!!

I love your post about writing. They are so motivating.

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Libba and you together? YAY!

I'm doing Nano and sucking at it.

11,866 words so far. *sighs*


12:09 AM  
Blogger Courtney said...

luv2rite16 is like Alex Day. He's always twittering with how many words he has, which is usually three times as many as I have.
I only have around 6,000 while he has like 13,000.
Which reminds me that I should be working on it right now.

12:23 AM  
Blogger Paula said...

This blog combined with being too lazy to get off the couch to take a shower has inspired me to write the first line of my novel. "Sally hated masks."

pretty good eh?

1:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So THAT'S the problem: post-it notes. Since I've read this I've become the new generation's James Patterson. I'm waiting for the allergies to kick in so I can start sneezing out those best-sellers.

1:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My, my, are we writes not all the same? About 30 minutes ago I discovered that I had spent TWO HOURS changing the colors of all my post-its. BUT THERE WAS REASON. Somewhere, underneath all the post-its, perhaps, there was reason.
You see, all the hot pink post-its were things that just needed grammar fixing or just general re-wording. All the neon post-its were excessive blatherings that I was considering cutting out. All the blue-striped post-its were things that I thought were okay but for some reason needed to be marked.
And the list went on and on, until I had to pick ANOTHER color post-it to make a key for all the post-its, which ended up looking basically like this:

-Purple heart-shaped post-its: MOVE
-Yellow post-its outlined in green: NOT FUNNY
-Pink post-its: BAD
-Lined post-its: VERY BAD
-Light blue post-its: WATER. Blue water. Water makes coffee. COFFEE? NO TIME!! WRITE MORE!!

And now here I am. Very "quickly" reading your blog and not wasting time by commenting it.

1:11 AM  
Blogger Deb Sanchez said...

Not doing NaNo, but I am doing NaPlWriMo. *All* I have to do for that is a 75 page play, same time frame. 75 pages of play script is WAY less than 50,000 words.

Still not easy. I'm on page 26, and far too easily distracted by the internet.

2:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're not done with your book yet? HA! I submitted mine, like, a month ago. I'm already halfway through with another. *smirk*

2:37 AM  
Blogger Plucky the Dragon said...

Do you ever get depressed, sitting alone and writing 24/7? I've always wanted to be an author, but I don't know if I would be able to handle it!

2:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tee-hee. Luv2rite 16 reminds me of Ernie Macmillan.
By the way, if she/he is Luv2rite 16, does that mean there are 15 other luv2rite's out there? Scary...

Ha! I have defeated you all by giving my thirteen chapters thirteen separate plots! No middle-of-book madness for me!

3:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yay! nanowrimo. I'm already very behind. But I will make it! I will!

3:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

so, if you want to scared of a crazy dance-off with john green, and he would like to be scared of the same, that would be okay. because his whole "tour across america" thing got in the way of his scare-a-thon dare.
as long as it was filmed.

7:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alas there is no Scrivener for windows and being a y'know struggling writer a Mac is a little pricey so I have one Word doc and Evernote - which is great and free - which I fill with bits from other books and poems I like and fragments I have written that are yet to find a home in prose. It works almost as well.

First chapter is my most recent blog post.

Good luck everyone.

8:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, MJ.
Is it true that you write the script for the HP and Half blod prince video games?

And, I do you, like th rest if us, actually survives this years NaNo.

Awesome help us.

9:16 PM  
Blogger Statues In Stilettos said...

I know that this post wasn't entirely about about post-it notes and only briefly mentioned the magical allure of shiny school supplies in Staples, but I just have to say this. There is just something so addicting and satisfying about buying pretty things from Staples that you will almost certainly never use and DEFINITELY never need, isn't there?

In all seriousness, THANK YOU! That cleared up all the mysteries of NaNoWriMo.

10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two posts ago, when you told us about your glamorous life, I couldn't help getting patriotic. This little country I call home is the one that has given birth to that disco dancing video, the one the mighty Abba professor Maureen Johnson watches when she wants to practice her moves.

By the way, I am now on the page 170 of The Key to the Golden Firebird. I had a horrible exam week, but now I hopefully will be able to finish it! So far I love it. It is the best book I've read for a while.

11:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a very amusing read; I'm a huge fan of Post-It notes as well, and I stick them on walls and in doorways and on my notes too!

Ahh, but now I should probably stop procrasinating and get back to work on NaNo... *sigh* Week 2 has officially dawned. :(

Looking forward to the Scare video!

1:12 AM  
Blogger E. Kristin Anderson said...

We are so in a fight. It matters not that you couldn't pick me from a small crowd and I don't know much about you other than what's in your blog and your books. No. You introduced me to Scrivener.

Now, instead of picking up and dusting off the novel I've been "working on," I'm "working on" it again by importing it into Scrivener and organizing it and totally not adding to the word count.

Totally. In. A. Fight.

(PS, I'm enjoying Let It Snow so far. If that helps any.)

5:10 AM  
Blogger Heather said...

I need Scrivener. So much. So so so so so much. It's the most amazing thing ever and if I don't get it, I fear I will cry. I'm asking for it for Christmas, I guarantee you. And YOU will be responsible for me spending hours and hours on the computer "writing" when really I'll just be exploring the wonderful world that is Scrivener.

I think I shall go download the free 30 day trial....

Have fun not NaNoWriMo-ing,

5:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Omigod, Maureen, this has absolutely no connection to your post (sorry) but I was just on your agent's website and noticed the SCARLETT FEVER COVER!!! Eeeee!

OK, all done.

6:30 AM  
Blogger Callidora said...

Maureen, I am supporting you in your battle with John. You cross his name out of all of his books. :o)

6:38 AM  
Blogger K. said...

Hey MJ,
Thank you for being obsessed with ABBA. Since you have begun posting their YouTube videos, I have come to be a wee bit obsessed too.
On Friday, I had a sucky day at school and went to Target afterword to console myself among the books and office supplies. Upon wandering into the music section, I decided to look for an ABBA CD. I found "Gold" and proceded skip to office supplies. When I got home, I slyly mentioned to my mother that I bought an ABBA CD. She was overjoyed. As she cooked dinner, she danced and sang and showed off her disco moves to my sister and me.
She has always made sure I've known who ABBA is, but now she knows there is someone else who *gets* it.
So thank you, Maureen, for sharing your wonderful obsession. It made our week.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Maria D'Isidoro said...

gah! I'm trying my hand at NaNoWriMo, and I'm failing terribly, but mostly because I'm in college and writing on the school paper and my brain is fried. Por ejemplo, I got 3 hours of sleep last night as a result of staying up late to do newspaper layouts. It's killing me with paper cuts and deadlines and incompetant layout managers.

I do have a question though. You've probably answered this before but I missed it. How much do you make writing for a living? The answer won't change my decision to do it, but I'd like to be prepaired. My mom and brother both work in the arts so I know I'm not gonna be living in white, glass houses in the woods with sports cars and giant tv's and computer moniters, x-ray machines and personal blood banks, but I'm curious as to how often I'll be forgoing food and trendy shoes for the essentials of a bed and coffee.

7:42 PM  
Blogger Me said...

I am trying NaNoWriMo for the first time. I probably wont really do it though. . . I am so super busy. . . But I shall try!
Also, I heard about your feud with John Green. Are you guys being a little immature? Only one thing bothers me. BOTH of you said that zombies are better than Unicorns!
That is just wrong on so many levels. . .

10:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

staples is my anti-drug.
i get ridiculously excited every august because it gives me an excuse to go to staples and buy school supplies.
i then spend about an hour trying to convince my mom that i really do need guitar-shaped paper clips

4:02 AM  
Blogger Winter Breeze said...

I don't get it. You talk about your job (writing) as if it's terrible and not to get into it if you can help yourself. I'm confused. Why are you doing it, then? It seems as though all authors do this. I can't tell if authors just like complaining, or if they have been blackmailed into writing for a living.

6:37 AM  
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