Tell Your Story

Take your novel idea from a flight of fancy fiction into reality

Posted: November 3, 2012

Susan Utley, of Warren County, always said she’d write a novel — someday.

In 2006, she made the jump from short story writer and poet to earn the title of novelist, with the help of National Novel Writing Month, held each November since 1999.

By the end of the month, she’d penned her first novel. A year later, she founded the Shenandoah Valley region of writers as Municipal Liaison.
Operating under the quirky abbreviation “NaNoWriMo,” the worldwide project whips creative juices into a wordsmith’s frenzy. Using, writers are challenged to log at least 50,000 words in 30 days.

“If it is on your ‘one day list,’ stop thinking about it and just do it,” says Utley.

Sometimes it takes several tries for authors to meet that goal. For Kelly Giles, James Madison University librarian, the fits and starts don’t hold her back from hitting the keys again.

She’s made three attempts so far in her Jane Austen pastiche, each time logging more momentum. In addition to the hope of finishing this year, Giles will “pay forward” the encouragement she’s received back into the writing community by hosting a “write-in” session from 2-5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4 in JMU’s Rose Library, Room 3311.

Pulling It Together

No need to become a hermit; this marathon month of writing isn’t meant to be run alone, says Utley, whether in a write-in meetup or the virtual world.

“One of the truly extraordinary benefits of participating in NaNoWriMo is the knowledge that you are not in this alone,” she said. “The NaNoWriMo community of writers is one of the most supportive groups of people I have ever encountered.”

Last year, they numbered over 250,000 around the world; 36,843 of those finished with their goal of 50,000 words completed.

This November, over 600 of those writers call the Shenandoah Valley region home, with 400 more “affiliated” with the area, or keeping up with the Valley’s progress.

Utley says it’s not uncommon to find as many writers online at one time as words in a novel: thousands of fellow writers are often on at once, contributing to forums, asking and answering questions, swapping inspiration and offering encouragement along the way.

Novice Novelists

Now co-owner of her own publishing company, Utley has words of wisdom for reaching that daunting word count in a month.

“The best advice I can give to any writer is to ignore your inner editor and just write,” she said. “Your inner editor is the perfectionist in your brain that second guesses every word you write and forces you to rewrite …  until they are perfect.”

This self-editing kills creativity, she says, when the main goal, at least at first, should be simply getting the story down.

Finding their most productive time of day can also help writers beat a block. Her tactic is to meet goals in the morning, while others may find “the dark and solitary approach” more conducive to creativity.

Where does she find inspiration for nearly 2,000 words per day? Books, browsing antique store shelves, taking walks and people watching — Utley’s favorite method — can all spark ideas.

“I find that true, genuine interactions and emotions provide the best inspiration for developing believable characters,” she said.

Giles takes the task one chapter at a time. “Treat it like you’re writing a serial and have to get the next installment out on a deadline,” she said, “even if you have no idea what’s going to happen next!”

Start Writing
Susan Utley’s top 3 tips for aspiring novelists:

1) Ignore your “inner editor” and write freely
2) Discover your optimal time of day for writing productively
3) Have friends and family hold you accountable

For more information on regional meet-ups and how to get involved, email Utley at

Contact Samantha Cole at or 574-6274