The Cozy Experiment: Part Four

Greetings from the land of bookish beginnings! At the moment, I’m 14,000 words into the first draft of my next cozy mystery, The Case of the Floating Funeral, and things are ticking along nicely so far. It’s time for an update on my Cozy Experiment, in which I’m trying to have more fun, write more books, and publish more frequently.

Tip: you can find my past posts here , here , and here .

For my first two cozy books, I focused on productivity. I’ve been asking: How do I write a first draft in a month? And how do I go through the editorial and publishing steps more quickly? Now, I’m focused on process & craft.

Here are some notes on how that’s going:

Painting and Banking

Writing six books in a year when you’re used to writing one is a big jump! I’ve gotten organized by spending more time up front figuring out what my book is about before I start writing it. I write the blurb that goes on the back of the book first, then I make a beat sheet and start getting to know my characters, and I even start working on the cover. I’ve got all that stuff down before I start writing.

Does the book diverge from my plans? Do characters grow beyond what I expected? Absolutely! And that’s fun. But all my prep work has left me feeling like a house painter. I put up scaffolding, check colors against the light, and mask off all the trim before cracking open that first can of semi-gloss. Careful preparation makes the writing process go more smoothly, and smooth is a very good thing when you’re trying to write six books in a year

To switch metaphors, I’m also getting organized by working like a banker. I’m talking about waking up at the same time every day, drinking the same coffee, sitting in the same chair, and working for a predictable number of hours. As a lifelong night owl who prefers to dance to her own drumbeat, this isn’t how I saw things going for me! But I can’t deny the results I’m getting. The more predictable my butt-in-chair time becomes, the more work I get done.

My biggest relief? None of these things makes the work any less creative, or any less fun. It’s all just scaffolding.

My takeaway: Creativity thrives under conditions of routine.

Writing Fat & Breaking Rules

I’m also learning how to reduce rework. Here are a couple examples:

I’m trying to write fat. My tendency is to write a first draft that’s skimpy on sensory details and then go back and add in those pieces in the second draft. Mysteries are tricky, structurally, and in the first draft I’m trying to keep the damn story straight. But I’ve found that writing a thin first draft means that the second draft takes weeks of work. Also, it’s awkward to shoehorn in the details later; they sound far more natural when I handle them in the moment. So that’s an improvement I’m making: Switching from thin first drafts to fat ones.

Also, I’m doing more editing as I go. Writers are told that they shouldn’t edit as they go, so this goes contrary to the “rules.” But I’m not talking about endless cycles of rewriting. I’m talking about finishing a few chapters, then taking 30 minutes to read them out loud, checking that the rhythm sounds good. A cursory style and grammar check takes only a few minutes, and it leaves my first draft in good shape.

What do all these process improvements add up to? Cleaner and better first drafts that don’t require a butt-ton of editing. Yay!

My takeaway: Writing clean first drafts is a time saver.

Craft Work

When you spend multiple months with your nose pressed up to your own writing, it’s natural that you’ll notice some of the weaknesses in your own work. One of my weaknesses is the stiffness in my third-person POV. To summarize, there’s a big difference between me writing “Ellie saw…” or “Ellie thought…” and simply dropping behind Ellie’s eyes and describing what’s happening from her unique viewpoint. Most beginning writers (me included) start with first person POV because there’s an easier intimacy with the character. Now that I’m writing third-person, I need to recapture that closeness with a slightly different camera.

Right here is a big advantage of writing more quickly! Now that I’ve got the basics of “write faster, publish faster” down, I can pick a skill to strengthen for each book. Thus I hope to “level up” with every story I write.

My takeaway: Writing quickly gives you more chances to level up.

The Lightbulb vs. The Wardrobe

February marks my fourth consecutive month of the cozy experiment. And I’m loving the writing life. It’s so different than the work I’ve done before.

In all my other jobs, I’ve felt responsible for maintaining a certain level of… outward energy. It was as if my feet were attached to invisible pedals, and I had to pedal furiously to keep a lightbulb lit. The lightbulb was my career! And this wasn’t a bad thing. I often enjoy doing difficult things, and keeping my lightbulb lit was a point of pride for many years. But I ended my days feeling wiped out.

In contrast, writing has a different feel. Those invisible pedals are gone, and there’s no lightbulb to be found. It’s more like… I climb through a wardrobe into Narnia six days per week, only it’s my version of Narnia. (So many murders!) And when I climb back out of the wardrobe at the end of the day, my energy isn’t gone. My batteries are still at 100% For a while, I thought this was a fluke, but maybe it’s the new normal?

Life is uncertain, blog buddies, and it’s always possible that I’ll need to return to the lightbulb life. And if that happens, I can certainly deal. But it’s been so strange and wonderful to be able to fully apply myself without feeling like the walking dead by Friday afternoon. And while I’d be a fool to expect this will last forever, because nothing does, I’ll grip the writing life with both hands and hold on for as long as I can.

Anyway, I’m due back in Murder-Narnia for my shift, so I gotta run. Thanks for following along with me while I figure things out.

Six Shark Movies Worth Watching and One to Skip

I love shark movies! Why? Shark movies are tales of survival set in a very scary atmosphere. Getting trapped underwater is scary. Being hunted is scary. And sharks are impressive predators with rows of razor-sharp teeth. At the same time, I love shark movies because they can be ridiculous to the extreme. In some shark movies, the bystanders are so willfully stupid that you don’t mind when they get eaten.

Eat that idiot, Mister Shark! She looks delicious in her bikini.

In my opinion, good shark movies come in two varieties. Serious shark movies are horror movies that emphasize survival skills and a battle of wits. The tone of these movies is dark, and the events are somewhat believable. On the other extreme we have cheesy shark movies. Their plots and action are ridiculous and over-the-top. These are horror-comedies, typically. While I personally enjoy both types of shark movies, your tastes might go to one extreme or the other.

Lastly, shark movies use a wide variety of visual storytelling methods. Do they go with dramatic CGI sharks? Or do they make use of creeping dread, perhaps by showing a bloody surfboard floating gently at the shore after an attack? As computer technology has gotten better, even a cheesy shark movie can be visually appealing. If you’re curious about shark movies, here are a few recommendations to get you started:

Serious Shark Movies Worth Watching

Jaws – Jaws is a classic, and it’s worth watching once. While I feel it’s been surpassed by other films, the use of music and slow-building suspense are unforgettable. In a way, every shark movie that has followed Jaws is an homage to it. So I recommend you watch Jaws, the ancestor to all good shark movies.

The Shallows – This is my all time favorite. Despite it’s very simple premise (one woman trapped on a rock while a deadly shark circles her) the movie is incredibly engrossing and beautifully shot. The story becomes a battle of wits between predator and prey, both of whom are intelligent and desperate to win. Blake Lively is excellent in the starring role. This may be the perfect shark movie.

Crawl – Okay, I’m fudging a bit here, because this movie is about crocodiles and not sharks. But it’s very much a movie of the shark genre. Crawl had me on the edge of my seat the whole 90 minutes, and the emotional stakes were unusually high as the main character and her father try to protect one another from harm. This movie is pure tension, but there’s a small (and effective) dose of humor to stop you from having a stroke. Like The Shallows, Crawl is a tight 90 minutes long.

Cheesy Shark Movies Worth Watching

Sharknado 1 & 2 – There are six Sharknado movies, and I can recommend only the first two. While many “cheesy shark movies” are a variant of the old slasher-films of the nineties, with clueless teens torn apart by great white sharks while they exchange stilted dialog, Sharknado is far more interesting. The movies are patently ridiculous. Sharks fly out of tornadoes, and the heroes valiantly fight them with improvised weapons. That’s entertaining, but it’s the amusing cameos, puns, familiar settings, and above-average special effects that make Sharknado fun to watch. Just be aware that the series gets worse and worse as it goes.

Six-Headed Shark Attack – This one surprised me! The dialog is bad, but it’s funny-bad, and the overall premise is a perfect cheesefest. Some very annoying couples go to a remote island for a couples’ retreat. And while they work on their terrible marriages, they’re hunted by a mutated shark with six heads. And this shark… well, I don’t want to give it away, but late in the movie he’s got some very special moves. Don’t read spoilers. Just let this movie wash over you like a the scent of a stinky-yet-appealing cheese. I was horrified and delighted by this movie. So terrible! And so entertaining! According to some reviews, two-headed shark attack is a better movie. But once you’ve seen a six-headed shark in action, can you really go back to just two heads? I don' t think so. Apparently this movie is part of a series, and in every film they add an extra head.

Dishonorable Mention

The Meg – Years ago, I mentioned on Twitter that I wanted to see Jason Statham punch a shark in a movie. A friend replied that The Meg was in the works, a shark movie with a big budget and, you guessed it, action star Jason Statham. I was excited, but as soon as I saw the trailer I had a hunch it wouldn’t be any good. Unfortunately, my initial impression was correct.

Remember when I said that shark movies tend to be either serious or cheesy? This movie tried to be both and it didn’t work. Also, it came with big-flashy-Hollywood-blockbuster expectations, and I think the screenplay was written by committee. The end result was an extremely bland shark movie with good special effects. I literally fell asleep while watching it.

Anyway, I hope this post inspires you to enjoy a shark movie. Even better, allow yourself to explore both sides of the spectrum! Watch a serious shark movie and let it terrify you. Then watch a cheesy shark movie and laugh your ass off at how ridiculous it is. Then maybe go here to learn about shark conservation, because real-life sharks could use our help.

PS: Do you have a shark movie recommendation? I’d love to add it to my list.

The Cozy Experiment, Part Three

Happy Christmas Eve, everyone! I hope you’ve been enjoying some holiday fun. Patrick and I have been embracing the holiday spirit with our traditional activities, which include eating too many cookies, assembling a new LEGO set or two, hanging out with family, and seeing the latest Star Wars movie. We also watched all the Futurama holiday episodes, AS IS TRADITIONAL. And we watched some of those super-corny Christmas movies. My favorite of the bunch was Netflix’s The Knight Before Christmas about a Knight who was thrown forward in time to fall in love with a modern woman. That’s some quality cheese, my friends.

Today’s post is a quick update on my Cozy Experiment, which I’ve written about here and here . If you’ve been following along you might remember that I have three cozy goals: Have More Fun, Write More Books, and Publish More Frequently. And to test my goals out I’m writing cozy mystery novels.

During my last update, I mentioned that I’d written the first draft of a novel in three weeks. It was fun, but it also wiped me out. In November I repeated that process but I did it more slowly and took the full month to write a first draft. That was still plenty fast, but I had actual days off and the process was much less stressful. With some practice behind me, I can say that my first two goals of Have more Fun and Write More Books seem quite achievable.

Publishing More Frequently

In December I decided to tackle that third goal: publishing more frequently. The first thing I did this month was set some scary deadlines. I went to the front page of my website and added a notice saying that I’d have new books out in December and January. Stating my deadlines publicly lit a fire under my butt for sure. And it forced me to divvy up my work schedule. I only had so many days for editing, and so many days for proofreading, and so on. Patrick started working on our template for the ebook early in the month and we hustled.

Our goal was to get The Case of the Missing Finger out on December 23rd, and we released it on the 19th. It’s been an educational month, and a good one, but not everything went smoothly.

Lessons Learned in November/December

  1. Having a deadline is great because it breaks me out of my perfectionist cycle. I could have easily spent months tweaking that story and worrying about it, but because I had a deadline, I was able to publish more quickly.

  2. It’s great that I want to stick to a release schedule, but I need to put some buffer in that schedule. I got sick this month, and I ended up working anyway because I hadn’t built in any leeway. And I was sick for ten days instead of three because I never got the rest I needed.

  3. My proofreading process wasn’t sufficient! I released The Case of the Missing Finger and the ebook had a bunch of errors in it. As you might imagine, I was very annoyed with myself for letting that happen! Back in the day, when I iterated on a manuscript for a year or longer, I was better able to pick up things like missing words and typos. But how do you fully proofread a book in three days, after you’ve been staring at that same book for a month? It’s tough, because the eye tends to skip right past errors when you’re familiar with those sentences. I’m talking about big glaring errors, like my character Violet becoming Violent.  So I spent two days listening to the book in audio, going word by word, listening for errors. It turns out my ears are better at proofreading than my eyes are! Patrick uploaded the fixed manuscript tonight and I breathed a big sigh of relief. Audio proofing will be my new process until I’ve got the cash to outsource proofreading entirely. It’s slow but it works. To the very kind reviewer who wrote a review of my book and who didn’t say YOUR TYPOS SUCK, LADY, you have my eternal gratitude. And big thanks to my internet friend M who sent me an email and politely pointed out that the manuscript was looking sloppy. We all need friends who will tell us when we’re walking around with our fly unzipped. 🙂

  4. Writing these cozies has shown me that I love the traditional cozy genre! For the new series I let myself lean into the sentimental and the slightly-silly, and it’s been enjoyable. I worried that I’d be irritated by the no-cussing restriction (something most cozy fans prefer) but it’s been no big deal. My previous mysteries were more amateur sleuth mysteries than true cozies, and cozy-cozies are pretty darn fun too.

  5. Also, working on multiple books in the same series at the same time is rather efficient. For example, I wrote the first two cruise cozies back to back before going back to edit them. That allowed me to edit book one with a greater knowledge of the characters and what’s coming next.

  6. Writing “to market” can be great if you enjoy the genre. Before writing my cruise ship mysteries, I read other cruise ship mysteries. I took a week or two to learn what readers like about those stories, and then I included some similar themes in my books. On the one hand, that sounds very calculating, doesn’t it? But doing market research hasn’t stopped me from making this series entirely my own. In fact, the idea for the mystery came to me long before I did my research for this series. The story is 100% mine, but a few of the tropes (Ellie being a single woman starting over, for example) were taken from my research. Old-me would have thought that “writing to market” made me a money-grubbing hack, but now I can see it’s all about understanding readers better and making a few tweaks to fit reader expectations.

Anyway, I might be too deep into the nerdy authorial weeds with this post, but I wanted to say that it’s been an interesting month and I’ve learned a lot.

Moving Forward

The Cozy Experiment continues! In January I’ll post about my goals for the upcoming year including what books I plan to write. (hint: Not just cozies) I’m expecting a fun and busy multi-book year with a lot of new releases. That’s something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time, so it’s exciting to put those plans into motion. Scary too.

Thanks for following my Cozy Experiment, blog buddies, and Merry Christmas. 🙂

Nano Prep #5: Mindset

Hey, Nano preppers! We’re just a few days away from the big event, so I’ll wrap up this Nanowrimo prep series with some tips about mindset. How should we think about our writing? And what attitudes should we adopt in order to complete our projects well? I’ve got a few suggestions, which I’ve listed below in the form of beliefs.  Do you agree with these beliefs, and if so, are you ready to adopt them?

Belief #1: Writing requires time and effort, so I’ve made space in my life to do it.

Writing is work, right? It’s work in the same way that going to your day job is work. If you put in the time and make an effort, you’ll make it through and you’ll improve your skills over time. And because we learn by writing, not by worrying about our writing, action is what matters.

That begins by making time, space, and energy available for your November writing project.

Belief #2: I’m writing a first draft. Later, I’ll improve it.

Writing a first draft is about telling the story to yourself. You can trust your future-self to edit your story, and focus now on the first task which is getting the whole story down so you can look at it. Nanowrimo isn’t the time to perfect your “first page hook” or obsess about comma placement.

That being said, you’re not required to write a shitty first draft!  I’d rather see you produce the best work you can, right now, given your current skill level. Let’s talk for a moment about the notion of the happy medium, when it comes to the quality of your first draft.

Finding the Happy Medium

I’ll just write shit because that’s what a first draft is.”  Nah. Why on Earth would you intentionally write shit?

I won’t start chapter two until chapter one is AMAZING.”  Nope! You’re being too rigid. First drafts aren’t amazing. You’ll be stuck in a perfectionist loop!

I’ll write this scene to the best of my current ability. Then I’ll move on to the next, because this is FIRST DRAFT TIME, baby!”  Perfect! You’ve found the happy medium.

Seek out that happy medium, okay?

Belief #3: It’s time to listen to my gut and heart. Not the experts.

You’ve probably internalized a lot of advice from other writers, right? Stephen King hates adverbs. Others advise against prologues. Your high school English teacher yelled at you for using sentence fragments, or starting a sentence with and. Yadda Yadda_._ Taken in context, writing advice can be useful. But for a beginner, all this advice becomes an extra voice of criticism, making you second-guess your natural style as you start writing.

Tip: You’re fine. Just write! Use the voice that comes naturally to you. Fix any excesses in editing, and stop worrying about what the experts think. It’s not their story. It’s yours!

Belief #4: Progress matters, but progress is not linear.

You might have this idealized notion that you’ll write X words per day during Nanowrimo. And goals can be motivating sometimes. But in reality, writing is far more… lumpy than you might expect. You might have a day where you squeak out 200 words during lunch, and another day when you write four chapters because the words won’t stop flowing. It’s okay to have general targets in mind, but don’t flip out if you’re not producing equal numbers of words.

Keep it simple. Every time you write, move your story forward. And try to set aside enough hours in the month to reach your overall goal. That’s really all you can do.

Belief #5: No one is forcing me to do this.

Write because you love it. Or because it challenges you. Or because you’re curious to see if you can. Write because you’ve got a story to tell, or because you’ve admired authors forever and books still feel like magic.

But if writing is making you miserable, or if you hate it, it’s okay to stop. Don’t turn a story into an ego contest with yourself. Remember, no one is forcing you to do it. Proceed with the intention that you’ll enjoy yourself, and see how it goes.

Belief #6: I’ll decide what to do with this story later.

You might publish your story, or not. You might give it to friends to read, or not. But my point is, you don’t need to worry about any of that now. Get the draft down, edit it later, and then you can decide what to do.

Your story is a squalling little baby made of words. It’s red-faced and shouty and it has no career plans or life goals. So put away the college pamphlets and let it grow up a little. Let your story exist for its own sake! Don’t squash it under all your bossy expectations.

And that leads me to my most important belief, which is this:

Belief #7: I’m a writer.

If you write, you’re a writer. There’s no secret-handshake, certification, or permission slip required. Drop the word “aspiring” from your vocabulary and flush your impostor syndrome down the toilet. Once you accept the reality that you’re a writer, you can stop being all angsty about labels and do your damn job.

You can write.

Nanowrimo might be the start of something lasting, or perhaps just a fun month to try something new. Either answer is fine, but time spent worrying about labels is wasted time. Imagine me smacking you upside the head with THE OFFICIAL SCEPTER OF ALL WRITERS. Boom. You’re a writer! Now get to work.

This concludes my Nanowrimo prep series, and I hope you’ve found it helpful. Good luck with your story, and feel free to drop me a comment during the month of November to tell me how your project is going. And if you’d like some in-person camaraderie during the month of November, there are plenty of local meetup groups being organized on the official Nanowrimo website right now.

Happy writing!

More posts about Nano Prep 2019

Nano Prep #4: Beat Sheets

Welcome back to my Preparing for Nanowrimo series! We’re just a few weeks away now and shit’s about to get real. But no worries! If you’ve been prepping along with me you have your story idea plus a bit of structure, also known as your story arc. Perhaps you’ve jotted down some notes about your characters and chosen a point of view to write from. If so, you’re already well ahead of the game. For me, this stage in the writing process feels exciting but messy. Today we’ll add some specificity to our writing plan to help us hit the ground running on November 1st.

This week I recommend you create something called a beat sheet for your story. A beat sheet is a bullet point list of the major events in your story. I used to call this step outlining, but in all honesty I hate the concept of outlining because it feels too rigid. So I think of my beat sheet as pre-writing. I’m smoothing the path by laying down some ideas I can expand upon.

A story “beat” is a small piece of action that moves your story forward. Think of it like a note of music, leading to another note, and another.

Here’s a sample of two beats from a cruise ship mystery I just drafted: The Case of the Missing Finger


  • Ellie admires the cruise ship. The S/V Adventurous Spirit is far bigger than she’d imagined and she compares it against what she read in the brochure two years prior. It’s very white and has tropical birds painted on the hull. She wishes Ronnie were there with her, but reminds herself that he wouldn’t want her feeling sorry for herself.
  • Her daughter in law comes up beside her, making noise. She loves her DIL, but her concern-trolling is a bit much. Does Ellie have X, does she have Y? DIL hates the thought of Ellie being alone on the ship. It’s too bad she couldn’t wait for all of them to go. Ellie remarks that she won’t be alone, she has 1,XXX new friends. She says this, but inside she’s feeling nervous. Mostly she sees couples and families. Was taking this cruise alone a mistake? She hopes she won’t be lonely. But it can’t be worse than moping around at home. She’s tired of feeling sad.

Earlier, when we talked about structure , I mentioned that your character will likely start out in a zone of comfort (or a status quo) but they want something. My opening beats establish who Ellie is, what she wants, and what she’s leaving behind. Over the early chapters we learn that she’s widowed and that she loves her family, but she’s also craving more adventure in her life. From there I move into the plot of the murder mystery.

Your “beats” might be a single sentence, a paragraph, or something longer. It’s up to you! What we’re doing here is taking our prior prep work (structure, character, setting) and fluffing them out into a list of events.

Tip: I’ve never been able to define the final few beats of my story. I leave those blank, because I know I won’t know what the final scenes look like until I arrive there. So don’t worry if that happens to you too. This isn’t a school assignment and you aren’t being graded. Do it your own way.

Tips for Building Your Beat Sheet

Beat sheets are optional. You might prefer to sit down without one and just crank the words. But I find having a beat sheet helpful because I can take a beat and paste it into a document for the day, then expand it out to a full scene. This is far easier (for me) than generating every single scene on the fly.

Here are some things that might happen when you try to make a beat sheet:

  1. You write some beats, then you read them, then you think BOY THIS IS BORING. That’s helpful! It’s your signal to come up with some exciting events to spice up your story.

  2. You write five or ten beats, then you’re not sure what happens next. That’s fine! You might come back tomorrow with more ideas, or you might want to start with those initial ideas and take it from there. There’s no wrong way to do this.

  3. You make a beat-sheet for your full novel, but it seems a bit sparse in sections. No biggie! You’ll find yourself adding more depth and detail in the moment as you write. Some of us write “thin” beat sheets then thicken up the story considerably as we write.

  4. You make a beat sheet and use it, but then you find your story is diverting off the path you set. That’s cool! You can adjust your beat sheet as you go, because we don’t always see the story in full until we start writing it. That’s normal and pretty darn fun. A surprised writer can mean surprised readers too.

  5. You start making a beat sheet, but you get all jazzed and some of your “beats” are getting really long and detailed like scenes. Awesome! You might be doing some early writing before Nano starts, but I’m not going to rat you out.

For this week’s nano prep, my suggestion is that you try to write a beat sheet for your novel, or at least for the first part of your story. Can you make Nanowrimo easier by laying down some beats before you start writing? If so, go for it.

Future-you might be very glad you did. 🙂

More posts about Nano Prep 2019

Nano Prep #3: Character, POV, and Setting

Welcome back to our month-long prep for national novel writing month in which I invite you to half-ass NaNoWriMo with me. In week one we talked about coming up with a story idea , and last week we discussed structure . This week’s prep covers three more elements of story building: Character, Point of View, and Setting. The prep work we do this week will help us write more quickly when we begin drafting our stories in November.

Decision #1: Which Point of View Will You Use?

Think of point of view (POV) as the camera you use when telling a story. You might tell your story from inside one character’s head, using sentences like “I raced down the hall.” If so, that’s called first-person perspective. It’s a fun way to tell a story because the tale unfolds like you are reading someone’s diary. But there’s a big limiting factor. You can’t tell the reader things that your main character doesn’t know! We can only see what the POV character sees, which is why it’s a popular choice for murder mysteries.

So perhaps you’d like to describe events from outside your main character’s head? Your sentences will read more like this: “Erin raced down the hall.” This is third-person perspective. We’re not inside Erin’s head the whole time, but we’re able to follow her closely. If we tell the story from Erin’s perspective, using a third-person POV, that’s called third-person limited. But that’s not our only option here. If we’re careful not to confuse our readers, we can also switch our camera between different characters in third-person. We could write one chapter from Erin’s point of view, then another chapter from her adversary’s point of view, for example. This is helpful when we’re following different groups of people, or when we want to build suspense by showing what the bad guys are up to.

Tip: If you’re using third person to tell the story through the eyes of multiple characters, keep the number of POV characters limited. Juggling a bunch of POV characters is difficult to do, and too many camera angles may alienate readers who get invested in one character only to have you hop into someone else’s head.

Lastly, we have Omniscient point of view. Common in epic fantasy, omniscient POV is where there is a narrator who knows all things, and they are telling us the story. Omniscient point of view pulls the camera way out and provides a panoramic view of events across different groups of people, places, and even different points in time.

A quick note about tense: We also get to choose whether we will write our story in past tense or present tense. Present tense is less common, but it’s become more prevalent in YA novels and some thrillers. Most novels will be written in past tense, telling us what happened, not what is happening. If you’re curious about what effective present tense looks like, check out The Hunger Games trilogy.

So your first decision for the week is this: what POV will you write in? If you aren’t sure, it’s smart to follow the conventions of your chosen genre. Murder mysteries are all past tense, for example, and can be told in either first person or third. If it helps, pull a few books from your preferred genre off the shelf and flip through the pages. What point of view do they use? Emulating others is a fine place to start.

Decision #2: Who Are My Characters?

For each of your primary characters, I’ll suggest that you fill out a quick character sheet that summarizes important facts about them. Here’s an example of what goes into a character sheet, but you can include any categories you like:

Family Situation/Important Relationships:
Nationality/Group Membership:
Positive Traits:
How they Respond to Stress:

Tip: Don’t worry if your characters feel “flat on the page” at this point, because if you are anything like me, you’ll get to know your characters as you write them. You’ll be writing a scene and their personalities will come busting out, surprising you. But it definitely helps to have some of the basics ironed out, like names, appearance, and a few personality traits. This will keep your words flowing instead of stopping you up every time you need to come up with a name. This also helps when you need to remember a fact mid-story. Checking a character sheet is easier than paging through a hundred pages of text to make sure you didn’t change someone’s name or hair color mid-book.

Some writers also add a stock photo or celebrity photo to their character sheets, “casting the character” to make it easier to describe them when the moment comes. If that helps you out, go for it! Also, some writers “get into the zone” by doing some freewriting (journaling) from the perspective of their main character. I’ve done that a time or two, but usually I just dive into the story itself and let the characters show up.

Tip: Need help coming up with character names? Check out this generator and popular names in the USA by decade. The latter is helpful when you want to name characters via their age. A 30 year old might be a Jessica, and a 50 year old might be a Heather, for example.

Decision #3: What are my Major Settings?

Lastly, it can help things along during NaNoWriMo if you know what your major settings are. Will your scenes take place in an office? A mall? A spaceship? I like to pull photographs and illustrations of settings I might use off the web and stick them in a research folder. I don’t spend a lot of time on this, but that way when I want to describe a room or setting I can pull up a photo and use it as a reference. Wikipedia is a good resource for snagging details about different cities.

That’s it! This week’s work will help you hit the ground running once Nano begins. We’ve got two more posts in this Nano prep series. Next week I’ll cover outlining, an optional step, and in our final week we’ll discuss workspace, time management, and mindset.

More posts about Nano Prep 2019