It’s November again, and for the second year running, I’m attempting NaNoWriMo. That’s the thing where you write a whole novel draft in thirty days. Okay, technically you only need to get to 50k words to “win”, but we call it a novel. Last year I wrote daily throughout November and December and completed the fourth book in my Eidolon series, but this time I’m attempting something completely new. And something I’m keeping completely under wraps until it’s finished, my agent has had a look, and we decide what to do with it. All I can tell you is that it’s contemporary (i.e. no dead people walking among us like those cheeky eidolons), and that I’m very excited about what it might become. For the first time, I’ve decided to write about something I’m personally passionate about—which is kind of terrifying.

Anyway, since I can’t tell you any more than that, I thought I’d share two things I’ve discovered to be a great help this year.

1. The scent of inspiration

A slippery, fey, fair-weather friend is the muse. When I started NaNo five days ago, I had a premise, a character (first name only), and a vague starting point. Not for 2014-Zoë the luxury 2013-Zoë had of working in an established world with more-or-less established characters. But luckily, February Djerassi Zoë (I’ll stop referring to my past selves in the third person any moment, I promise!) had planned ahead. Before I got to the Djerassi ranch, I spent a day shopping in San Francisco with a friend. I’d been warned the kitchen there would have “basic tea”, so I decided to go to a nice tea shop and buy myself something special. (It was Cherry Blossom white tea from David’s Tea, if you’re wondering. They don’t make it anymore, sadly.) I drank a lot of that tea during my week at Djerassi, and cleverly (if I do say so myself), I have never made myself another cup of it at home unless I’m writing. It’s my writing tea. Wrapped in its scent is the spirit of creativity that inhabited me during my week on the ranch, who comes to visit me every time I inhale those vapours over a warm cup.

Smell, for me at least, is one of the strongest triggers of something stronger than memory. I’m sure there’s some biological reason for it—meaningful reminders of safety vs danger, for example—but to summon the muse, it really does work. If I close my eyes, I’m back in my little writing studio, and I’m ready to write.

2. Selective polishing

I said in my post-NaNo post last year that I learned to embrace my bare-bones style of writing. And I did. Then. This year, I’ve struggled to accept that very thing. Maybe because I’m not doing any world-building this time, which means I don’t need to spend as much time describing things, but when I did a quick skim of what I’d written so far (perhaps my first mistake), I wasn’t very impressed. I didn’t expect poetry and stars, but I was afraid it was all looking too much like an episode of Glee. I like Glee, but it isn’t what I’m trying to produce. True, I’m still finding my voice, and I can accept that. But what really helped me shut up the voice that begged for more pretty words was a practical approach: Each session I will select one, and only one, phrase, sentence, or paragraph and polish it until it shines like a final draft. Ironically, these are probably the parts that will end up getting cut during editing (kill your darlings, and all that), but that’s okay. One shiny bit in a pile of chicken scratch seems to be all it takes to nod and move on.

So those are my tips for NaNoists in 2014. They might not work for anyone else (any time travellers out there want to try the tea thing, let me know how it goes!), but they’re working for me right now.

Good luck, and see you in December!