A little NaNoWriMo organizational help: The Nine Box Method of structuring your novel

Oh, it’s that panic time! National Novel Writing Month, the challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days, is only four days away!

I know lots of writers are pantsters, and just write as they go. I find if I try it, I fail.

So I’m sharing my favorite quick-and-dirty way of getting some structure in place before I start writing a novel.

It’s called the Nine Box Method. It was first referenced on Verla Kay’s Blue Boards (which are now owned by SCBWI) and has been posted about by Query Tracker and other writer-centric blogs.

I have PDFs for you!

The first one is the nine box with the explanation of what to put in each box. The idea is that you make boxes that touch connect their content in order to write a cohesive story that has tension, pacing, and flow in place.

Download the explanation box PDF

The second one contains three sample Nine Box Grids for three popular movies: The Help, Despicable Me, and Monsters, Inc. They might help you see how the nine box plays out in real stories. (I made these myself, so any bad conclusions are my own.)

Download the sample box PDF

The third one is blank so you can fill it in for YOUR project.

Download the blank box PDF

When I do my novels now, I used the Nine Box, Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey to work out my story in multiple ways. By the time I’ve filled out all these structures, I have a solid sense of where my story begins, where it’s going, and where it’s going to end, which helps me avoid giving up, slowing down, or writing myself into a hole.

Happy Nano-ing!

A letter to Chris Baty on the eve of NaNoWriMo 2012

I’m sure all those years ago, when you and a few friends cooked up the crazy idea to write 50,000 words in a month, you had no idea the impact this new event might have on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the world.

Let me tell you how much it changed mine.

In October 2005, I had a broken heart, two small children, and no idea how to find the time to write the book I wanted so much to get on paper. As a self-employed single mom who lost most of her friends in the divorce, I struggled in every way.

But a librarian had told me about NaNoWriMo, and I wondered if I should try it. Somewhere between diapers and custody hand offs and school pick ups and photography clients, I would make it happen.

So I got myself to the Midnight Write that year, organized by the incredible Austin Penguins, a well-established local chapter. I didn’t know a single person but sat at a table in a 24-hour cafe, surrounded by other determined writers, typing the opening words to a novel I’d been thinking about for a year.

Deanna & Ivy at Austin Java 2005

About a week in, at a writing meet up at a coffee shop called Austin Java, I sat down by two women, who let me know it was cheap wine night and to avail myself of a glass. They introduced themselves as Ivy and Audrey. A few minutes later, a fourth person, a guy who went by Fool, joined us.

The evening, greased by red wine and a sense of hilarity in trying to write novels on such a short timeline, caused us to laugh and joke and try to out-wit each other with ridiculous scenes.

Ivy, Deanna, and Audrey on the night of the end of NaNo party 2005

We  became tight friends, and on the last night of November, I made my word count, as did Audrey and Fool. I had done it. 50,000 words. A novel more than half finished. And friends.

We celebrated the next Saturday at a party hosted by the Penguins, then made our way to a jazz bar called The Elephant Room. We were met by a man named Kurt, a friend of Audrey’s, who wrote me a few days later to ask if he could read my work. With the encouragement of the Austin Java crew, Kurt and I began dating.

Our Bookstore Wedding

This last June, we were married.

The Austin Java group, now bigger and even more amazing, still meets every week for wine and writing. Many of them flew to New York for our destination wedding. We held it in a bookstore, of course. Both Kurt and I do NaNoWriMo now. It’s something we always make time for.

The expanded Austin Java group in New York at the wedding.

Three of my NaNoWriMo novels have been published. I am living my dream of being a full-time writer, and I have a following now who signs up to read my NaNo excerpts as I release them during November.

My life is amazing.

So Chris, maybe you had no idea that your idea would have such an impact. But the trajectory of my life completely altered by what you started.

And so, thank you.

The original Austin Java group had a reunion in 2011

Shutting out the world, 30 days at a time

My life gets pretty crazy.

Two kids. A split household. Two small businesses.

Sometimes you can’t see my sink.

Okay, usually you can’t see the sink.

But despite the day-to-day essentials of lunch packing, homework helping, books balancing, order filling, photo taking, and household managing, I know that what is most essential about me must also be nurtured. And that is the writer.

The trouble is, I’m the must-really-focus-and-be-bathed-in-silence kind of writer. I wish I weren’t. I’d love to be a put-on-the-headphones-and-shut-out-the-world type of writer. I’d also like to be able to write in short bursts, say, in between dropping off and picking up for trumpet lessons.

But no, I need to feel my time won’t be disturbed, to settle in. If I get on a roll, then sometimes, if I’m super lucky, I can keep that momentum, gliding through the day slightly above its rushed activities, doing what must be done but still keeping the story whirring in my head. It’s a delicate balance, much like riding a unicycle on a tightrope.

With people tugging at your elbows for a snack.

National Novel Writing Month re-prioritizes my world for 30 days.  I’m supposed to write 50,000 words. I’ve achieved that five times. Last year I only managed 35,000. (But I added moving to a new house and setting up a new studio to the month—priorities didn’t budge.)

All of my novels have started out as NaNoWriMo projects. I don’t draft by the seat of my pants, but using an outline. I always have a direction for my stories, so I’m not writing total blather. While often I end up keeping 15% or less of the November words, they still serve an excellent purpose. Several, in fact:

  1. It tells me whether my story idea is one I want to live with for the next year through editing.
  2. It gets all the “junk” out. We often reach for familiar story lines and overused character types in our first drafts.
  3. It helps me find the “voice.” Slow drafting with breaks in between often means the character will pick up characteristics and mannerisms based on the new experiences and influences around me. Fast drafting helps me keep the voice consistent through the first version.

I never “come down” from the story. I leave my laptop powered up and open to the novel document at ALL times, sitting on the dining room table. Passing it keeps the action fresh in my mind, so when I sit down again, it all starts flowing, as if I’d never stopped.

Usually I take December off from the book. Most years the story isn’t done, as an adult novel is 80,000 words, so I’ll review what I did in November, edit the story line, make notes on changes, and finish out the draft by March. Usually by summer I have a good first draft, revised and rearranged, to start presenting to my critique group.

Stella & Dane, my current project, has been part of an experiment to keep readers involved since I’m writing a prequel to a novel just published last month. I’ve released bits and pieces of it, knowing that those scenes may not end up in the final draft at all, and certainly not in their current state.

Editing them, which is usually forbidden, has slowed me down just enough that I might not make the 50,000. But I’m very deep into this book, and the characters live with me now. And that’s the single best part of NaNoWriMo—immersing myself in a writing world, making it the first thing I do each morning, if only for 30 days.

Write a lot? Try 10,000 words. In one day.

tootsiepopRemember those commercials, “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?”

Of course you do. You’re just that old.

Other than being a brilliant use of alliteration, rhythm, and outrageous trademark repetition, the old Tootsie Pop ad justified all the silly questions in our lives. It didn’t matter that the old owl only took three licks and bit into the lollipop (Don’t try THAT at home. You’ll break a tooth. Really.) We could investigate ourselves to find the answer to this timeless question, simultaneously wrapping our happy tongues around pure sugar satisfaction.

So what if we’re suckers.

My question today: how many hours does it take to write 10,000 words? And not 10,000 words of gibberish. Real words. Real dialogue. Real story.

See, I was way behind on NaNoWriMo. As in, well, 10,000 words behind. And I had this marvelous day where my parents had been here and just left. So my house was CLEAN! And I’d killed myself catching up on my work before they arrived. And I’d played LOTS with the kids.

I had no guilt. And no chores. And best of all, no kids! (Off with dad.)

And so I set a goal that was rather obscene. 10,000 words in a day. It seemed pie-in-the-sky, unrealistic. I figured I’d fatigue around 3K, the most I’d ever written in one sitting before.

But I knew I could punch out a thousand per hour. I also knew it was like saying you can type 100 words a minute. Sure, maybe for one minute. Or even five. If pushing, maybe fifteen. But could you sustain this level for a long haul?

The answer: yes.

Caveats: I had an outline. A good one. And on Friday, I found a change of direction in voice that I felt crazy passionate about, the sort of outrageous exuberance that leads to lofty goals. I just didn’t have time to implement it.

Until today.

So yes, I wrote 10,042 words today. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo and you’re behind, take heart. It can be done.

But now my fingers hurt and I’m hungry. And my butt may be permanently shaped like my chair.

I think I deserve a Tootsie Pop. How many licks will it take to get to the center of chewy chocolatey goodness?

The world may never know.

Plucking Words from Thin Air

The blank page stared at me like a great ghostly eye.

I might have punched it in the eye, had it not been a $600 Apple Cinema monitor. The apparition element was all my own.

But there was a reason for the empty screen. I had begun my fourth venture into National Novel Writing Month, pledging to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

And I had nuthin’.

All the novels from the previous years lined up inside my head. All were good books, a literary piece, a women’s fiction, and a middle grade low fantasy. I’d finished them all in the late winter after each NaNoWriMo, gone through peer critiques and rewrites, and felt pleased with the end results. One had won a contest. The latest was still being considered for representation by an agent.

But still, a lot of hours, a lot of my life, and a huge chunk of my energy and emotion had gone into them. And for what exactly? A file lying resident on a hard drive.

The cursor blinked quietly, ever patient. I started at the malevolent screen, empty, mocking.

Had I neglected my kids to do this? My business? Was the tradeoff worth the end result?

I leaned back in my chair, thinking maybe I wouldn’t participate this year. Or, sign up, hang out with the friends I’d made through NaNoWriMo and type gaily here and there, but not push to finish.

Then, somewhere, far back in my reptilian brain, I remembered a moment, a gesture, a bit of conversation, a big laugh, and then a character came full blown, and I placed her in a scene. Then her motivations came tumbling out, what she’d do under pressure, mixed in with a setting, a chance opportunity, and suddenly, I had an idea for a novel.

For any of us who create art in all its forms, what we do is not a choice, time wasted, or moments lost. It’s who we are, what makes us get up in the morning, and hopefully, if we’re really really good, really really perserverant, AND really really lucky, one day we will break out, get our art before others, and someone else will understand and connect with what we’ve done.

We’re 20 days into the race for 50,000 words. I hit 30K last night. I’m slightly off pace, but in good shape to finish on the 30th. During the same 20 days, I’ve done 30 photo shoots, created seven new holiday card designs, printed a heck of a lot of pictures, and written an article for

AND cleaned my daughter’s bedroom, helped with homework, had kids over for playdates, and baked at least six dozen cookies.

I think I’m going to get it all done.

As long as I don’t sleep.

Books and Reading

Well, National Novel Writing Month is over! Whew! I finished the 50K by writing random bits about my main character’s parents. It was drudgery, and I will delete it all as soon as I open the Jinnie Wishmaker file again, but for now–I’m READING! And watching movies! And doing all the other things I mostly gave up during November.

One of the most fun things that happened during this month’s NaNoWriMo is that the fiction editor from ran an article I wrote as well as my pictures from our “Nano in Nature” event where some of us crazy novelists hiked to a waterfall to work on our books. I am pleased how the text and photo series turned out!

I just finished Higher Power of Lucky and I really did love it in the end. I also got through The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe (Emily is reading it and I wanted to see what she’d be in for since the whole Golden Compass controversy erupted via emails. I might take on the Golden Compass itself soon, but I’m not terribly interested in fantasy and Emily isn’t asking for it.) I’m about halfway through the first of the Children of the Lamp series and having fun seeing how PB Kerr has fleshed out the genie mythology in different ways than I did.

I’ll take December off from writing and hit the editing seriously in January. I’ve committed (and should be committed) to submitting the first 30 pages of Jinnie Wishmaker to my Novel-in-Progress critique group mid-January, and I’m not sure the first couple chapters move as speedily as they should. This is why I’m trying to work through as many kid books as I can. To learn!

I’ve opened up comments for this post, so if you want to suggest a kid’s book for me to read this month, do so! I can read one a day easily, and I’m making weekly sojourns to the library! Thank you!

The kid book is done! And 5K short.

Sometimes I look up from my computer (which is rare these days, between National Novel Writing Month and holiday portraits) and wonder how in the world I ended up writing a middle grade novel.

But last night, I finished Jinnie Wishmaker! I’m sitting at 45,000 words at the moment, just shy of the goal of 50K, and still in shock that I wrote an entire book in 23 days! (Now I have to come up with 5,000 words of filler to finish the contest.)

I can’t tell you how happy I am with the story, though. It’s everything I wanted–the magic of Matilda, the insight of Summer of the Swans, the happy ending of Meet the Robinson’s.

And probably best of all, tonight Emily was reading The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe for her nightly 20 minutes of homework. After a while she called me into the room. “Mama, you have to read this!”

She showed me page 13, which read

[He told] about long hunting parties after the milk-white Stag who could give you wishes if you caught him.

 “Just like your book!” she said. “It grants wishes!”

It’s all new to her, the complex stories, the magic, the characters. She was so excited to make the connection between this book and mine, as if one validated the other.

Some things are eternal. The awe in children when they read a story that captivates them. The joy in a shared interest, a mutual love of something that makes you both thrum with happiness.

I always thought those grand literary novels were the pinnacle of writing, the ultimate accomplishment.

But maybe it’s all important. Late great works that appeal to our wisdom AND early magical stories that keep us imagining a new and different world that teaches us more about our own.

The Hard Press Toward a NaNoWriMo Finish

13-kids-jiffypopgoes.jpgWe’re 2/3 of the way through National Novel Writing Month, and I have crossed the 30,000 word mark with my middle grade novel Jinnie Wishmaker.

I hosted three Write-Ins last weekend, which netted me about 4,500 words. Not quite on pace, but each were fun in their own way.

On Friday we had kids over to watch movies while parents wrote. (They LOVED watching the Jiffy Pop expand!) Saturday I hosted the now-infamous Margarita Write In. And Sunday we enjoyed beautiful weather for the NaNo in Nature.

Unfortunately, last night I came to the end of my planned outline. I don’t know where to go next! I need some hard-core thinking time to figure out what the story means, where it should go, and what I waweb-roy-nano-nature-coyoteblue-silver-breca-quasky.jpgnt it to say. Not easy!

I’ve been researching the lengths of books geared toward the 8-12 set. It seems the Harry Potter series has helped to redefine the genre, with longer more complex books still being marketed toward these young readers.

But overall, I’d still put myself in the Roald Dahl camp, something fun and only mildly complex, with one main character and a few fleshed-out minors, only a handful of adults mentioned, and something like 150 pages of text. I’m at 100 pages at the moment, so 2/3 of the way works out pretty well for where I am. I should find myself on Nov. 30 with a finished middle grade novel first draft!

I’m having a great time shooting, and I’ve met some wonderful new moms (and dads!) who are bringing their kids for the first time. It’s been a really easy, low-stress season–and I’m actually, at this moment, totally caught up on my orders!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Seasonal Madness

webcard1.jpgThe holiday craziness is in full swing! I’m shooting every day and still trying to keep the word count for my new novel Jinnie Wishmaker on pace to finish in November. I hit 25,000 words last night after a mighty struggle. Am I stressed out? You bet. Am I caught up? Well, mostly.

We’re having a good time with photo shoots, even under the duress of getting that perfect Christmas card shot. Babies will cry, but they will smile gloriously too. Toddlers will wander and be most annoyed if you keep setting them back by the tree, but we will get the shot.

webshot1.jpgOverall I’m very happy with how pictures are going. I posted my favorites in opposite extremes–the most sublime to the most rowdy.

I’m hosting THREE NaNoWriMo write ins this weekend (not sure WHAT I was thinking) and I’m really having fun. And that’s what it’s all about. Let’s hope I can write at least 4K this weekend and stay on pace going into Thanksgiving week.

Luck is with me!

Today in the mail came two very important postcards.

Remember when I shipped my non-fiction book contest entry with the wrong amount of postage?

The postcards were from the contest noting that both my manuscripts had arrived safely. No one noticed that I used the wrong type of label!


NOW we can move on to the luck of actually becoming a finalist (one step at a time, one step at a time.)

You can read an excerpt of the lucky nonfiction book here.

I am 12,000 words into Jinnie Wishmaker, my NaNo novel for 9-12 year olds. It’s going well, but I’m still not ready to put up an excerpt. I’ve been reading The Higher Power of Lucky, though, and it is a very fun book. I thought MY book was a little controversial by starting off with the birth of a baby deer, but THAT book, written for fifth-graders, starts out with the little girl eavesdropping on a 12-step meeting where a man describes his exploits as a drunk! It uses the word scrotum!

It won a Newbery, so I suppose mine is okay.

I tell you what, if you’re very curious, I’ll send you the first chapter of Jinnie Wishmaker via email. Just write me. Read it to your kids, if you have the right age. They will tell it like it is–boring, interesting, wonderful, or flat out awful. I can take it!