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Writing a genre novel in the cloud

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Daedalus Howell/Index-Tribune

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The leaves have turned, there’s a chill in the air and panic has creased the brow of writers from coast to coast. Like you, they’re contemplating that annual autumnal albatross known as National Novel Writing Month. If you’re readying yourself for a November spent huddled over the keys in an effort to arrange 50,000 words into some sort of coherent narrative, I wish you god speed and offer the following three “Nanowrimo” Prep Tips:

1. Write to the Cloud. As I’ve related elsewhere, writing directly into the “cloud” – that vast, ever-expanding plume of data in the sky (or in a server barn in the middle of nowhere) – has long been my preferred means of composition. Whether one is using Google Docs, Evernote, Celtx or any of a number of cloud-based platforms, the real world advantages are manifold. Your work is constantly being saved, so if some cafe-cruising miscreant makes off with your laptop mid-sentence, you can pick up where you left off on another device.

Likewise, this same ubiquity of access means that your Nanowrimo novel is available to you with whatever device you happen to have at hand. When you might otherwise be sexting undergrads, you can instead be adding words to your novel via iPhone. I’ve made many a BART-wait a productive writing session simply by being able to access a work-in-progress.

Sadly, Google has yet to implement its word-count feature on its phone and tablet apps, but you can always check later when next at a desktop. You’ll eventually develop a feel for the length of your thumbs’ output (tip: it’s always less than you think). Also, don’t Nanowrimo and drive.

2. Pick a Genre. I’m old enough to remember the days before the geeks inherited the Earth and flattened the depths of artistic expression into technicolor mashups of spandex and origin mythologies. At first, it seemed like progress because there was enough crossover with the lit-crit crowd and it allowed closeted “Star Wars” fanboys (the entire male population of Gen X) to come out without fear of social reprisal. Then they rebooted “Spider-Man” again and the arty people started getting suspicious.

Whatever the future holds for storytelling, genre is a tool that’s as useful as opposable thumbs for trying to make your word count when you’re writing a novel in a month. In his post, the “Hailstorm Approach,” writer Daniel Swensen, of the Surly Muse, suggests that even “If you want to write a crazy, genre-mashing masterpiece for Nanowrimo, that’s fine, but it’s best if you at least know which genres you’ll be defying from the outset.” True that, Dan. And remember, even “literary fiction” is considered a genre to publishers, the same way that film studios had “independent” divisions in the ’90s.

Get over yourself and conform to the tenets of your chosen genre, milk its archetypes and promise yourself you’ll personalize it later. Remember, you’re writing a draft and if you get hit by a bus mid-novel, no one will ever see it unless they have your Google password or they’re in the NSA.

And don’t worry about some daft pal rolling out your Nanowrimo piece of junk as a tribute: posthumous works are only published when the author is already famous, or Emily Dickinson. Your crappy Nanowrimo book is just a bit of gaseous data that will eventually waft away like a Google Bot’s fart.

3. Summarize Your Scene, Then Write It. Obviously, writing with any velocity will benefit from outlining, but going a notch deeper and summarizing individual scenes prior to writing them is crucial to developing optimum efficiency. Sure, it seems counterproductive to create words that will ultimately be tossed instead of investing that time and creative energy into your 50k opus. But it’s less about the words than taking the time to make a mental map of the jungle terrain into which you’re about wander, machete or iPad in hand.

In her indispensable tome, “2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better and Writing More of What You Love,” prolific author Rachel Aaron advises, “If you want to write faster, the first step is to know what you’re writing before you write it.” Just as some painters will sketch their subjects prior to putting brush to canvas, Aaron suggests writers do the same by simply jotting out the basic structure of what they intend to write before drafting it.

As she writes, “If the scene you’re sketching out starts to go the wrong way, you see it immediately, and all you have to do is cross out the parts that went sour and jump back into the good stuff.”

I personally used this technique during last year’s Nanowrimo and was astonished to find myself writing 4,000 words in a few hours with the same ease as if I had written 600 – the length of my weekly newspaper columns (except this one). I’d employ the same technique with the paper were it not for the fact that I’m paid by the word and my editors prefer my prose, snappy, concise and cheap.

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  Daedalus Howell is a writing another novel this month. Join him at DHowell.com.