The Tools I Used To Win Camp NaNo

During Camp NaNo, I used a number of tools while I wrote. These aren’t necessarily the great works of art that inspire you to go forth and create your own prose, they’re more of the pen and paper variety, but you’re not writing anything without the utensils, okay?

Ambiance

I’m a pretty big fan of silence. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have misophonia, but there are times when even the AC coming on annoys the fuck out of me (and living in the southern US, it’s an unfortunate necessity). I’ve found that gentle, reliable background sounds, like the click of Husband’s mouse while he plays Rimworld or Bart snoring from under the bed, can be pretty soothing. So when I’m trying to block out something annoying like drunken toddler relay races thundering the length of the apartment upstairs, I turn to ambient noise machines. As a bonus, these can act as background to your scenes. If you’re writing something spooky, pull up a “dark and stormy night” track, or if your characters and traipsing through the jungle, get you some rain forest ambiance. I really like these sites for finding my audible zone:

Tracking and Sprints

As I discussed in my posts on Camp NaNoWriMo (10k | 20k | 30k | 40k | 50k), I tracked my writing very closely. I intend to continue to do this to hold myself accountable as it worked beautiful and provided me with that oh-so-delicious data (and you can’t know you’re improving–or getting worse–if you’re not tracking your progress!).

  • Google Sheets – Works very closely to Microsoft Excel and because it’s cloud-based, can be accessed anywhere, including offline once it’s been loaded. I used this to track all my numbers in a really clean way, and to help out with the math aspect.
  • Calculator App – Isn’t it funny how all the grownups in the 90s used to say we wouldn’t be carrying calculators around with us 24/7 when we were adults? Ringo-Wrongo!
  • Timer – I use the built-in timer on my computer because it gives me a handy popup and a pleasing sound when it goes off. I prefer it to my phone because that alarm is obnoxious, and I don’t want the distraction of even picking up that god-forsaken thing when I’m in writing mode.

Plotting

I’ve never properly plotted before this go round, so my process is still way developmental, but I like the programs I’m using to get the job done, and they’re simple:

  • Pinterest – Gods, I hate this site and all it stands for, but if all you’re trying to do is collect images for an idea board, this is where it’s at, and I’ve written about this before.
  • Google Docs – I do all my writing in Google Docs so hopefully that cloud never gets hacked and destroyed. Like Sheets (this is all in Google Drive, to be fair) it can be accessed anywhere, including offline. I like the ability to make different folders and view my work in the Drive, so I can treat it like a desktop with everything close at hand. I create different Docs for the outline, history, ancient history, mythology, etc., and of course for the story itself. It’s very close to Microsoft Word (the whole Google suite is) but for as close to free as you can get (meaning, you’re paying for the service with your info, but the minute you Google anything, you’re already doing that, so whatever!)
  • Google Keep – #NotSpons, obviously, but this is an application I used to use a while back then stopped. I pulled it up again out of curiosity in early June (I’d installed the extension and forgot about it), and the changes that have been made to it are phenomenal. It’s a post-it note app with a helpful labeling and color-coding system. You can keep little bits of information in here that don’t go anywhere else, or use it more permanently like I’ve been doing for characters. I used to create a Google Doc for characters, but I found that cumbersome. Now, I just make a note for each character, pasting in a character sketch and filling it out as needed. I label them all so I can filter down to the them by story and subject (right now I have both SAT and Vacancy stuff in there). Similarly, I create a note with names that I like, using the same label so I’ve got a ready-made pot to grab from when I’m at a loss.
  • NameBerry – I find naming people, things, and whole books to be a bitch and a half, and I get really hung up on leaving blanks or fill-in names for my characters. NameBerry has a nice “If you like X, you’ll like Y” concept, and you can search up any name and find similar names to get a good convention going.
  • Fantasy Name Generator – A classic, the fantasy name generator has about a bajillion different kinds of generators that make for awesome jumping off points for just about everything, and it makes up for what NameBerry lacks: you probably won’t find someone saving “Tlannatar Helekrana” for the future child.

Fun Stuff

  • A good drink – I’m talking a big glass of water, iced green tea, hot hazelnut latte, anything to keep my mouth busy so I’m not cramming popcorn or chips into it. Seriously, writing is incredibly sedentary, and unless you’ve mastered dictation and jogging simultaneously, you gotta find a way to counteract the possible pounds you’ll put on if you’re prone to bingeing like me. Just a note: I don’t advise “write drunk, edit sober.” Even with sober editing, you’re not a good enough anything when you’re drunk: you’re just obnoxious. Just like my phone alarm.
  • An easy to-do list – Between sprints I often got up to pee (see the above bullet point), and liked to complete a task when I did so. Something like throwing in laundry, emptying the dishwasher, sweeping the cat litter up in the bathroom. Knowing what these tasks were ahead of time helped me to not waste precious minutes thinking about what I needed to do or stressing about what I might be missing and would surely drown under as I whiled my time away typing out nonsense. A list made things manageable and helped me to balance my life and my book. The tasks were also pretty mindless, so my brain could go on a little jaunt while I did them and was refreshed for the next sprint.
  • A comfy spot and lots of blankies – Don’t let anything distract you, including the temperature. I always had a sweatshirt and a soft blanket handy when I was sprinting. Like I mentioned, writing is sedentary work, and I get cold really easily, but if I leave the AC off all day the apartment becomes sticky like the Amazon and Husband and all the cats get cranky in the evening. I don’t give myself the excuse of shivering to stop midway through a sprint.
  • A cat – Rutherford sat on me for about 88.3% of my writing sprints, and since it’s illegal to move when a cat has made you its bed, he basically chained me to my laptop. I owe him most of my success, if I’m being entirely honest. If you only take away one tip for this, I hope it’s this: “get you a cat.”
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A Simple Character Worksheet

There are a ton of these on the internet, and mine isn’t that special, but I wrote it with fantasy in mind. I consider this just a worksheet, not a total character write up. This is something I start with when I’m fleshing someone out for the first time. Typically, my characters come to me with one or two stark traits, maybe black as night hair and a love of chihuahuas, or densely freckled shoulders and eidetic memory. I usually let characters sort of create themselves as I write based on their reactions to situations, but I find that I need what’s basically a logbook of what I’m saying about them as I go. So I begin by jotting down at least pieces of the following worksheet and fill in what I skip over as the information reveals itself.

I also want to say very quickly that I don’t mean the very popularly touted idea that characters write themselves. Yes, sometimes you find yourself writing So-and-So saying or doing something you’d never imagined her to do, but you are still writing it. You, the writer, have control over what you put down on paper. You’re the god of your world. Wield your powers, Wise One.

Below is a text based version of the worksheet that you can copy and paste into whatever word processing thing you use (Google Docs is my weapon of choice). I wrote in some suggestions to help you as you go if you’re into that which you can delete. A printable can be downloaded here for you too without the suggestions so you can go hog wild.

 

CHARACTER SKETCH

Name: This is how your narrator refers to them. Be consistent here based on who’s narrating, even if you jump from head to head

Full Name: The character’s name given at birth or with any current titles

Nicknames/Aliases: Include who uses these other names (yeah, I basically wrote “name” three times, but I use this because it sparks backstory and relationships)

Birthdate/Circumstances: Knowing the exact date may not be that important, but the season and astronomical timing may matter depending on the world or the character’s culture. I also include here where and how the character was born, like in their parents’ home, mother attended to by local midwife, or in a cloning tube, a year too early and all alone.

Species: For me, this is any group that likely cannot (at least not easily) breed together. So I might have elves and humans which could have children, but conception would be rare. Remember, in our world, species usually don’t cross breed and mostly can’t. This isn’t to say half-elves and quarter-goblins can’t/shouldn’t exist in your world, even in abundance, just take genetics into consideration, and please do NOT confuse species with race.

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION – I always include the actual words I use in-book to describe, typically when a character is first introduced. For instance, if I give a character copper hair, I won’t change it to red here, or, more complicatedly, if someone has “piercing” eyes, that goes in this description along with the color.

Race: I feel like I should say this one more time — Species and Race are DIFFERENT. So while different species often cannot breed, races can, and people of mixed racial identity are very common (at least in a world where travel occurs (which yesss that is your fantasy world if anyone has a ship and trades)). We usually just use race to refer to humans, but I’m going to assume in your fantasy world you have other humanoids which may have their own or cross-over races with your humans. Before this becomes its own blogpost, I’m just going to encourage you to do a lot of research into genetics and the actual history of how peoples have traveled in our world and tell you to be creative and informed.

Eyes: color, shape, misc. descriptors

Hair: color, length, style, misc. descriptors

Skin: color, state (burnt from outdoor work? very well cared for?)

Weight/Height/Body Type: Environment should be a big factor here

Distinctive Markings: tattoos, scars, freckles, wings, horns, seventeen eyeballs in a world where eight are the norm

PERSONALITY – Here it is more difficult to use words I use in-book as personality is largely inferred, so I like to use examples instead of just the right descriptors. Like, if So-and-So’s weaknesses include, say, food, I might say “Once, So-and-So ate a whole chocolate birthday cake that her mother baked for her little sister’s third birthday. The morning of Lil Sis’s big party, Mom found So-and-So passed out on the kitchen floor swathed in the clinical light of the fridge, cake crumbs, and shame.”

Strengths: I start with the good stuff, because I like liking my characters (even the baddies).

Weaknesses: A pitfall I always trip into is making these opposites of the strengths. That might be a good place to start (He’s brave! But dumb! He’s logical! But emotionally shielded!) but being one thing doesn’t always make you also the other.

Hobbies/Talents: What a person likes says a lot about them. Include what your character allows other people to know and what they keep hidden.

What Makes Them: (be forewarned I went a little Pixar here)

  • Joyful: Sunshine!
  • Sad: Rain 😦
  • Disgusted: Wet socks! Ew!
  • Afraid: Thunder and lightning!
  • Angry: A ruined beach day >.<

(The above is a great example of that opposites thing being silly but not useful)

BACKGROUND – I try keeping this section light, but once an idea starts, sometimes it flows out. Don’t let any worksheet or other planning device ever stop you (especially mine as it has very little space). If you’re on a roll, even if you’re talking about strengths under their cultural background or something, just go with it You can chop up the pertinent stuff later.

Culture: You may not have come up with your world’s cultures yet, but you can jot some ideas down here. I suggest making this very vague and elaborating on culture in its own worksheet (I’ll write that someday).

Family/Childhood Friends: A list works here, and also your character’s feelings about those listed

Where/How Did They Grow Up: The city/town/farm and the physical house/room, as well as their socioeconomic class

Romantic History: This is a good place to figure out their sexual identity as well

 

You probably noticed there were no questions relating to the character’s motivation or the plot, but as I mentioned, this is just a minor worksheet to get your started. It can also be handy to refer back to as you’re writing if you forget someone’s exact eye color or their father’s name. Since the worksheet prints out on two pages, I like to have those facing each other, on the left and right, in a binder or notebook so all the character info is spread out at one time.

Here’s hoping this is helpful to you.