Storyville: NaNoWriMo and Free Writing

For this edition of Storyville, I’d like to talk to you about NaNoWriMo and free writing. I’ve never been big on plotting out stories. I don’t want to push my characters towards certain outcomes instead of observing and interacting while letting the organic and instinctual actions rise to the surface. There is a lot to be gained by sitting down, plugging in and letting go.


The reason I bring up NaNoWriMo first (even though I’ve never actually done it) is that it starts November 1st and is a great way to add a bit of structure and community to the concept of free writing. It stands for National Novel Writing Month, and here’s a quick synopsis directly from their page:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing on November 1st. The goal is to write a 50,000-word (approximately 175-page) novel by 11:59:59 PM on November 30th.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

As you spend November writing, you can draw comfort from the fact that, all around the world, other National Novel Writing Month participants are going through the same joys and sorrows of producing the Great Frantic Novel. Wrimos meet throughout the month to offer encouragement, commiseration, and—when the thing is done—the kind of raucous celebrations that tend to frighten animals and small children.

In 2011, we had 256,618 participants and 36,843 of them crossed the 50K finish line by the midnight deadline, entering into the annals of NaNoWriMo superstardom forever. They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.

I can’t think of a better way to try and finally take a run at that novel you’ve been dying to write. Maybe you have a detailed outline, maybe you have only a general idea of what you want to do, but why not stop with the excuses already and start writing? What have you got to lose—only time and a bit of your ego?

You’ll have to go to the website and dig around a bit to get all of the details, but it’s a very straightforward, common sense program. They have a long list of authors that have published after doing NaNoWriMo, and at big presses too: Ballantine, Simon & Schuster, Plume/Penguin, HarperCollins, Doubleday, etc. So, it’s not just an exercise, it can really turn into something legitimate.

Free Writing

What is free writing? Some people call it a “pre-writing” technique, and I guess, for the most part, that’s what it is. It’s that great push, purge, information dump—whatever you want to call it. You write for a set period of time (or a word count) without stopping to worry about spelling, grammar, or story. So how does this work? How does this turn into anything except a bunch of crap?

Breathe life into a story, show us this world that you want to create, make us care, and then break our hearts... one of the best ways to do this is to not hesitate... to not worry about what you are making, but to simply be the artist that you are, building, molding, shining light into the dark corners...

I wrote most of Disintegration like this, my second novel, a neo-noir, transgressive thriller. I had very little information when I started. I knew that I had an unnamed protagonist who lost his family in a car accident. I knew he would fall apart. I knew it would be located in Wicker Park (my old neighborhood in Chicago) and set in my old apartment on Milwaukee Avenue in the winter. Beyond that—I had no idea what I was going to do. I knew my voice—I knew it would be my usual mix of the dark, sexual, violent, and surreal—but that’s about it.

I had a journal with some notes in it. Mostly these were scenes that I had in my head, some ideas of what might happen if I were to fall apart and drop off the grid and end up back in Wicker Park, drunk and insane, angry and suicidal. I jotted down words, I started a folder on my computer with images of “disintegration” and then one day I sat down and started writing. That’s all you need to do.

Follow Your Instincts and Your Characters

That’s not to say that you should just type gibberish. I had my protagonist sitting at a table, shaking, strung-out on drugs. I painted in the details of the apartment as an envelope slid under the door. I followed my instincts, and this man (who is really just a thinly veiled depiction of myself) down the rabbit hole. What would I do? What would THIS guy do? Drugs, alcohol, despair. Take your story and let it flow—see where your characters take you. Keep in mind that if your protagonist is a coward, then he/she needs to remain a coward, unless they change. Every time that coward runs into a conflict, they will try to weasel their way out of it, or run in the other direction. My character was not a coward—he was angry, violent, and tired of taking shit. ("Every time I kill I get a new tattoo. I have a lot of tattoos.") He had transformed into somebody he didn’t even recognize, and embraced his role as a hired killer. And he liked it. Everything from his clothes (simple and dark) to his apartment (sparse and dirty) to his interaction with the rest of the world (only at night) reveals his true character. Stay true to that. But don’t stop to think about it, just keep moving that guy around, send him out on his assignments, remember his state of mind, the despair that hangs over him, and then give him a ray of hope, a tiny bit of humanity (his cat) and show the complexities of his heart and soul—assuming he still has them.

Set a Goal

This is a basic NaNoWriMo rule, but set a goal—time spent, or a word count. I sat down one week, about a year after I started Disintegration, and set a goal of 35,000 words. I had already written 35,000 and I wanted to get at least 70,000—a length that felt like a solid novel, and a realistic goal. Now, I’d done this before—these long spurts of writing. The first half was written in installments of 5,000 or 7,000 or 10,000 words. I’d send the wife and kids away and take all day Saturday to bang out the story, never stopping, only getting up to stretch and grab a soda or coffee, a sandwich, or take a piss. I was so into my character and the dark places he was going I couldn’t step away from the computer. But that week, my God!

I had just ended a freelance gig as an art director and was starting a new one the next week. I had exactly five days to write. The kids were in school. This was it. I hadn’t touched my novel in almost a year. I read over the whole thing—and I still liked it. I wanted to see where it was going to go. What was going to happen next? Vlad, his boss. The mysterious dominatrix he’d fallen for. His ghost of a girlfriend who may or may not exist. His family that may or may not be dead. I was excited to get back to it.

Over those five days I wrote 40,000 words. My arms were sore, my fingers were bruised, and I thought I might vomit and then burst into tears.  I was spent. But I’d done it. Set aside the time, close the drapes, get some caffeine in your system and run with it, full of joy (or in this case, full of angst and vengeance) and be your characters.

The NaNoWriMo goal is 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s only 1,666 words a day—totally possible. Figure out what your goals are, be reasonable, and go after it.

What Not to Do

Don’t worry about the plot. If you must, put a notebook by your computer and if you are worried about a plot point, or feel that a thread is hanging out there unanswered, just make a note and move on, keep writing. Don’t worry about continuity, especially things like time and place. You can fix that later. Don’t worry about tense, if it shifts, you’ll catch it later. Don’t worry if a scene you just wrote “sucks” in your opinion. You wrote it down for a reason. If witnessing a guy kicking a puppy to death is something that will be important to your story, then it will stay. You can clean it up later. Capture the moments, the scenes, and move on. Do not get on the internet. Do not get on the phone. Only play music if it is background noise, and not a distraction. Do not edit, cut, or hover over sentences. Do not criticize yourself—this is the best thing ever written, so keep writing it. Do not lie to yourself and make up excuses to step away from the computer, not for a run to McDonald’s (okay, but make it FAST!), an errand, or a phone call. Sit down and write the fucking story. This is you, on the page. These are your hopes and dreams, your greatest fears and worst nightmares. Let the world fall away, be a “body without organs” and channel your visions.

In Conclusion

I can’t hold your hand, check up on you, or whisper ideas into your ear. If you want to write, you will write. If you are not happy with the quality of your writing, you will either put your time in (reading, writing, practicing, editing, workshopping) or you won’t. It’s the same thing with free writing. If you can stop making excuses long enough to give yourself this gift, then do it. Breathe life into a story, show us this world that you want to create, make us care, and then break our hearts. Show no mercy. And one of the best ways to do this is to not hesitate, to not criticize, to not worry about what you are making, but to simply be the artist that you are, building, molding, shining light into the dark corners, revealing our weaknesses, showing us naked and vulnerable and desperate for love. Let it flow, let yourself go—you might be surprised at the results.

This week, I thought I'd just link to a handful of cool online webzines. Maybe you've heard of these place, or maybe not, but when I am looking for something to read online, here are some of the places I frequent: PANK, Juked, Hobart, Metazen, ChiZine and Beat to a Pulp.

TO SEND A QUESTION TO RICHARD, drop him a line at Who knows, it could be his next column.

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of eight books—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), Transubstantiate, Staring Into the Abyss, Herniated Roots, Tribulations, Spontaneous Human Combustion (Turner Publishing), and The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). His over 175 stories in print include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), Lightspeed, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Shallow Creek, The Seven Deadliest, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), PRISMS, Pantheon, and Shivers VI. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker (twice), Shirley Jackson, Thriller, and Audie awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor. He was the Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press and Gamut Magazine. For more information visit or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.


Anabelle Bernard Fournier's picture
Anabelle Bernar... from Montréal is reading Robopocalypse November 2, 2012 - 8:42am

I'm doing NaNo for the first time, and the story idea came while doing the dishes on the morning of November 1st. I am totally, absolutely pantsing it.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 2, 2012 - 9:34am

awesome. best of luck. just go for it. be sure to keep a journal handy and jot any scenes down that come to you. i've had many great moments come to me when falling asleep, waking up, in the shower, etc.

Stacey A. Smith's picture
Stacey A. Smith from Baltimore Maryland is reading The electric kool-aid acid test November 2, 2012 - 10:01am

Doing it for the first time too as well and I am terrified. I totally overthink everything. So, I am hoping that won't be my downfall. I just need to...WRITE! :)

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 2, 2012 - 12:42pm

yeah, don't overthink it. just let the idea of your novel wash over you. jot down an image, a name, maybe make a folder on your desktop with images that match what you're doing. i had a title for my book, Disintegration, and did a google image search and kept that art for when i got blocked. think broad brush strokes and whatever you do guys don't be too hard on yourselves. just keep writing, not so fast that you make everything thin, but not so slow and painful that you question every word. relax and have fun. it'll come to you.

good luck, stacey!

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list November 2, 2012 - 1:06pm

Good luck to both of you! This is my second year of attempting it. Last year was a miserable failure, because I took on too much (working two jobs and taking five 400 level college English courses). I figured this would be a better year and it already is :) I'm at 1,967 words so far and am getting ready to start working on it again.

Free writing is pretty much the only way I write. Sometimes I will scribble down ideas, like you mentioned, specifically ones that were the heart/core of the story that inspired me.Those little movies and snippets of dialogue that brought the idea/characters to life. I've written three novels and two novellas through strictly free writing and going back to edit content months later. The other novel I am working on (not my NaNo one) had to have extensive outlining and time line, because it takes place during World War II. It is a daunting task after being accustomed to free writing for so long. Now I spend hours going over the words and the facts to make sure they line up.

Great post, as always, Richard.

Zachary Simon's picture
Zachary Simon from San Diego is reading stockholm November 2, 2012 - 1:37pm

Thank you for that.

Tom's picture
Tom from London, England is reading Story of Your Life November 2, 2012 - 1:54pm

Thanks, Richard. This is always an informative and inspiring column.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 2, 2012 - 2:25pm

thanks sammy, zachary and tom. i just try to toss ideas out there and see what sticks. some people like to outline, some like to dive in. good luck all.

Caleb J. Ross's picture
Caleb J. Ross from Kansas City, KS is reading on the toilet by himself November 10, 2012 - 4:27pm

I video-fied my thoughts on NaNoWriMo here, if you'd like to take a watch.