NaNoWriMo: How It’s Done

In celebration of National Novel Writing Month, I’m going to re-post some of my previous “kick in the butt” blogs, in hopes you’ll draw some inspiration, get fired up, and move that novel toward the finish line.

This one, posted last December, is about my personal-best marathon writing, a full-steam-ahead crash to write my big SF novel THE DARK BETWEEN THE STARS. Not a schedule I would suggest any of you keep, but sometimes the deadline is a dictator.



Due to a series of unfortunate commitments, travel schedules, and other book obligations, I found myself facing a rather tough deadline for the first massive book in my new “Saga of Shadows” trilogy set in the Seven Suns universe.  I had been planning the novel for a long time, but there was always some emergency, some crunch proofing deadline, some quick project that takes precedence.

When you’re faced with a manuscript that could be nearly a thousand pages long, it’s easy to procrastinate.

But with the draft manuscript due to my editors in the US and UK this January, I needed to get started!  On October 1, armed with my detailed outline and a reasonably clear schedule—and a lot of coffee, I yelled “Banzai!” and dove in.  I ended up writing 220,000 words—over 900 draft pages—in 47 days. My personal best.

November is NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, where ambitious authors challenge themselves to write 50,000 words of first draft in a novel.  It’s a great exercise, and it seemed an appropriate time for me to be charging through THE DARK BETWEEN THE STARS.

I had been thinking about this novel for a long time, a “next generation” followup to my popular Saga of Seven Suns series . . . but I’d been away from that universe for at least five years, and I had to reread all seven volumes, take notes, and re-load all of those details into my head.  I worked on developing character sketches, fleshing out how the situation had changed in twenty years since the end of THE ASHES OF WORLDS. For months I worked on the outline, pouring out ideas for all three books in the trilogy, juggling them around to see which ones fell into book 1, which would build up for later volumes.  I arranged my chapters, then fleshed that out into a detailed outline (over 100 pages long), a full-fledged blueprint, chapter by chapter.  If you’re going to write something this complex and choreographed, with dozens of main characters and intertwined storylines, you can’t just wing it and make it up as you go along.

All of this was like a race car revving its engine, building up power, just waiting for the green light to shine.

So when I had my full outline in hand, a paragraph or two to describe the key elements in each of the 130 chapters, I was ready to go.

Back in 2000, when I began to write HIDDEN EMPIRE, the first volume in the Saga of Seven Suns, I went off to hike a nice local trail leading up to the Palmer Lake reservoirs; on that trail I wrote the first three chapters.  Hoping to recapture the magic, I did the same this time. With my notes in hand for the first few chapters in THE DARK BETWEEN THE STARS, I hit the Palmer Lake Reservoir trail, digital recorder in hand, and ready to go.

I’d had the first sentence in my head for months.  “He had to run, and he fled with the boy out into the dark spaces between the stars.”  From that point, all I needed to do was write the next sentence. And the next.  On that day’s hike, surrounded by mountains and under clear blue skies, I wrote the first four chapters. I was off and running.

126 more chapters to go.

Every day, I would set out in the morning to do a minimum of two chapters (each one approximately 2000 words). Sometimes in the afternoon I would go out again and write another one or two. My maximum was six chapters in a day. Then I would email my digital audio files to my typing service. During my most intense pace of writing this book, I was keeping three typists busy nearly full time just to keep up with my output.

Every day another two chapters, or three, or more.  But I was interrupted for three days to go to Toronto as a guest speaker at RushCon and then attend the Rush Clockwork Angels concert at the Toronto Air Canada Center. Then another three days in Fargo, ND, with Rebecca as guest of honor for ValleyCon, then a five day trip to LA for Disneyland (Rebecca’s birthday), the Anaheim Rush Clockwork Angels concert, a book signing in Burbank at Dark Delicacies, and meetings with friends. Then up to Denver one evening for a Vertical Horizon concert. (See, even if I write all the time, I do occasionally have a real life, too.)

Then back to writing.  As a counterpoint to the distractions of appearances and commitments, I also carved out a few days to go out to Utah and Capitol Reef National Park, where I hiked in the canyons and dictated enough chapters to make up for all the lost writing time during those other travel appearances.  I would dictate more chapters, new material day by day, and when the transcribed chapters came back from the typist, I would try (and fail) to keep up with a first edit.

The sheer fact of being so immersed in the world, the characters, and the intricate plot of THE DARK BETWEEN THE STARS gave me a heightened sense of focus, a momentum, that kept me rolling along at full speed. I didn’t want to do anything else, just get back to those gigantic cosmic problems, throw my characters into great traumatic situations, and save them (or maybe not).

Another looming distraction stood in my way—on December 2, Rebecca and I were due to leave for the Caribbean, where we were instructors on the Sail to Success writing cruise. I most certainly did NOT want to be derailed from my daily writing right when I was approaching the big finale!  So I pushed harder, wrote an extra chapter per day . . . and finished the final piece, chapter 130, with four days to spare.

220,000 words in 47 writing days, 900 pages, which I am now editing (up to page 600 as of tonight), and letting my brain rest and recharge for the next novel.  I think I’ll start in January….


NOVEMBER 1, 2013

The novel is scheduled for release in June 2014 by Tor Books and Simon & Schuster UK. I am currently in a marathon writing/editing blitz for my next Dan Shamble, Zombie PI novel, SLIMY UNDERBELLY…and the copy-edit manuscript for DARK BETWEEN THE STARS just landed on my desk. Now I have to read it one more time, line by line, to make it as good as it can be, and also to re-load all the details in my brain, because coming up is the deadline for the second book in the trilogy, which I’ll have to start soon. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be such a marathon this time (but it probably will be).