Well, here we are. Ten years ago, more or less todayish, a friend first told me about this writing contest that challenged the self and one’s own ability to concentrate on and commit to a single manuscript. It was called National Novel Writing Month, and it was just coming into its own.
That first novel I wrote was fanfiction and is buried forever in the archives of my hard drive, and it will never see the light of day if I have anything to do with it. (Or, at least, not in its present form).
This is not because NaNo was a horrendous experience, but because it was my first time I didn’t have any practice just sitting down and pounding out a book. I hadn’t done anything of the things that I have since learned to do in order to create a useful block of a novel. Instead I just created….50k words. Of tangled useless nothingness. Because I didn’t know what I was doing.
And that’s okay.
I came out of that first NaNoWriMo with a story, sure, but not a well thought out one with good characters and a consistent world and a beginning, middle, and end. And that was a lesson learned.
The next time I did NaNo, I did better. The novel was more cohesive, it was less of a struggle to make up enough story to fill up 50k, it got easier to figure out what had to come next. And it was better still the time after that. By my fourth and fifth years, I was overwriting – going far beyond 50k. One year I hit 70k, because I had the habit down, the mental drive engaged, and I just kept going when I got to the goal because the novel wasn’t finished yet. (Also, I had the kind of day job, at the time, where I could write at work if I wanted to and nobody minded.)
I’ve also failed. Twice I began NaNo and had to give up because I just couldn’t get the time to write around school work – those were both the years my thesis was due. And last year I did all the prep for the story, got all ready to go, and then ended up in the hospital on the eve of the kickoff with emergency abdominal surgery. I had the month off to recover so I thought I’d be able to write, but I stalled out at about 16k because the drugs I was on made my whoozy and unable to concentrate. (That book is now at 30k, as I’ve played with it all year; I think I will try to finish it for NaNo next year.)
As of 2006, I’ve sold each of my subsequent NaNos I’ve done in one form or another to a publisher. How? Because NaNoWriMo taught me how to plot and plan a novel, and I learned to use NaNoWriMo as the springboard for each new novel I create. It took a few years, but I’ve finally got it.
The more you do it, the more you will understand your own processes and preferences, and the more you will learn to shape NaNo into the kind of novel writing experience that works specifically for you.
Here’s how I use it:
This is my writing “year”:
November – start a new novel (50k in 30 days).
December – Try to complete the novel by the end of the holidays. (30-50k in 30-40 days).
January- Ignore the book for a month to let it settle; work on something else
February/March – reread the book with fresh eyes, tear it into chunks and play Jenga with it, do massive reorganization or rewrites (such as cutting out charcters, adding an entire extra POV, completely redo the ending, etc.)
April/May – send it to beta readers, get feedback, edit appropriately (this also usually includes sending it to my agent and/or paying my friend-editor to do a substantive and copy edit)
June/July – more edits, start working with editor/agent to create a submission package for the book
August/September – finish up the edits and pass the book off to my agent to start submitting
October – Plan and research a new book.
(Sometimes it’s not this cut and dry. Deadlines shift, and of course, I’m always actually working on several novels at once. Year 2 of a novel’s life is usually filled with yet more edits or rewrites after I start getting agent/editor/publishing feedback, and that’s all in between writing a short stories, or submission packages, or scripts, or, or, or…)
NaNoWriMo is, yes, about writing a 50k novel in 30 days. On the surface. But really, NaNoWriMo is about learning how you write, discovering your own habits and preferences and then, over the years, honing them. NaNoWriMo is about teaching yourself how you like to write novels.
I talked last year about letting yourself be a bit crap while you’re writing – that is, that the key to hitting the word count is to tell your inner editor to bug off and just write. Because you can edit later. But that advice is also a bit too shallow – because, as my very first NaNo proves, if you just write, if you value quantity over quality too much as you go, then you might end up with something completely unsalvageable.
The real key to coming out of NaNo with something useable is 4 fold:
1) Plan your novel (in as much or as little detail as works for you and your process).
2) Write the novel, and tell your inner editor to stuff it.
3) Forgive yourself if it doesn’t go to plan, and just keep writing. Plans are flexible.
4) Shape the novel later, when you’re in the editing stage.
I’ve now managed to convince a professional writer friend to join my cadre of crazies this year, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what her take on the whole shebang is. She’s written a handful of other novels, three of which are published, but she’s never done NaNoWriMo, so I’m really curious to see how the challenge meshes/enhances/impedes her normal writing process. She’s going from having a process to trying to shape it to fit NaNo, whereas my process was shaped by and relies upon NaNo.
Also joining us are three other Real Life buds who want to take steps towards writing professionally, two of whom are NaNo newbies. That makes me pretty lucky, because I know not everyone has RL buddies to help them through the challenge; and it’s good for them, too, because they’re working with a supportive veteran. But not everyone is a lucky as we are, so to that end… yet another NaNoWriMo advice blog post!
I’ve already given some advice, but I wanted to add a bit more:
1) Talk to the people who’ve done it before
I have been to some of the community meetup events for NaNo, and consistently all the newbies have a common fear: I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m scared. This will be so hard, what do I do? I was lucky in that the first time I did NaNo, I had a real life friend present who was a veteran of the challenge and could guide me… or at least talk me down. She was an invaluable sounding board and cheerleader and taskmaster. Even to have her there to say, “No, that’s okay. You’re fine, c’mon, let’s go for a chat.” was invaluable. Newbies, find a mentor on the forums, or form a pen-pal association with someone via the site, or attend some of the real life events in your area to find a support group. I’m not saying you need to find someone to cling to, but to have someone who understands what you’re going through and can help talk you down from that ledge, or up from a funk, is a genuine blessing. And this person doesn’t have to be professionally published, either – any friendly veteran will do!
2) Be rigorous and selfish with your writing time
Sundays are my Holy Day of Sit Down and Shut Up and Write. Originally it was Friday nights while my roomie had his D&D guys over, but once I finished uni, I switched it to Sundays. Carve out time and space for yourself. Both physical and in your schedule. If it has to be 5am before you go to work, then there it is. If you have to give up Monday Night Laundry, then do it. And make yourself a nook, a nest, a space, so that when you go there, when you are in it, you are there to write and for no other reason; don’t make it a space you use for other things, like a bed or a kitchen table. Put a TV tray up in a corner of your bedroom if you don’t have a desk. And surround this area with notes to yourself, ideas you get on the subway, your character sheets, your plot arc, etc. Make this YOUR SPACE and make it very, very clear to your loved ones that doing NaNoWriMo means a lot to you and when you are writing they are NOT TO BUG YOU.
3) Tell people you are doing this.
Make yourself accountable. Post your scheduled writing time somewhere were the people who share your home can see, so they understand that this block is WRITING TIME. Show your loved ones around the website so they see what it’s all about and understand it, so they can cheer you on. Advertise your wordcount goal and your updates. Put it on your blog. In short, make sure there’s lots of loving peer pressure all around you. Key word: loving.
It took my parents several years of NaNos to understand how important taking this challenge seriously was to me. At first they needled and wheedled for me to come out of my room to spend time with them when I had myself secluded for my writing time. Eventually, I sat them down and explained how important this is to me, how I used NaNo to write first drafts, and that I really wanted them to support me and respect my dedication to the challenge. Now they know that November is NaNo time and actually are very supportive. They remind me that NaNo is coming up, they ask me how my word count is doing, they leave me alone when I am writing and sometimes bring sandwiches and tea into the room and just leave them on my desk. Two years ago, when I didn’t think I’d make the deadline (10k and 20 hours to go), Mom scolded me lovingly, sat me down at her kitchen table, and glared at me every time I got up to pee. She was an absolute star because she knew I could do it, and helped me get there.
4) Do not agonize if you don’t hit your wordcount each time you sit down to write. Forgive yourself – don’t worry if you don’t win, and don’t worry if it doesn’t work.
It’s okay. You’ll make up your wordcount later. Additionally, if you’re on a roll, don’t stop just because you hit your goal. Keep going, bank words against bad days or emergencies or funks. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t hit a certain number. It’s just a number. If you don’t hit your daily word count, or if you don’t even finish, it’s okay… you tried, and you learned something about yourself and how you write and that is the important part. That you are trying and that you are learning. Hey, and sometimes you just have to write your thesis. Or go to the emergency ward. That’s life.
5) Feel free to set your personal goal lower than 50k words.
NaNoWriMo isn’t about hitting 50k; it’s about setting a goal and meeting it. It’s about teaching yourself discipline, about learning how to set parameters and to meet them, it’s about teaching yourself that your creative life is worth carving out time for. It’s about developing habits that will help you write more novels later.
6) Know your characters before you begin
Try to know everything you can about your main characters before you start – food preferences, eye colour, etc. That way you’re not stopping to think or debate while you’re writing. Sometimes I use D&D character sheets to create characters and tape them to the wall beside my desk so they are all spread out for a handy reference. There’s no such thing as overthinking a character, or knowing a character too well. (That said, you don’t need to cram all of that information into the manuscript. Infodumps are boring and bad writing. Just know it – your audience doesn’t need to know your character as well as you.) Also, be open to letting the characters teach you new things about them as you write. Characters sometimes evolve, or take on lives of their own, or talk back. Listen to the characters as you write and be flexible.
7) Know your world before you begin
Same as above. You cannot possibly know too much about your world. But, be open and flexible to the process, as well. I’m going to cheat here and just point you to my blog post on worldbuilding, because any hints I have about that, I’ve already written down here.
8) Don’t be afraid to not know your plot before you begin. But do know what the main conflict is going to be, and how the book ends.
You can work out the rest of the middle stuff when you get to the middle. You don’t have to rigorously plot, step by step, scene by scene, and then stick to that, if that’s not how you write. Conversely, if that is how you write, that’s fine, too. Be open to the adventure of seeing where the book takes you. But also, at the same time, have an idea of what the end destination is. It’s alright if that destination changes, but it will keep you from floundering and writing yourself into a corner or a block mid-month.
9) Don’t be afraid to hop around.
You don’t have to write the book in order. In fact, I never, not once in my whole career, have ever written a book in order. I write the first chapter, then usually the climax or the dénouement (sometimes both) and then I write up any scene that I really want to make sure I include and don’t forget, and then I go back to the beginning and start filling in the gaps, like mortar between bricks. And if I think of another scene that happens later in the book, I jump ahead and write it, then pick up where I left off. Don’t forget, NaNoWriMo is a challenge to write 50k words, not a complete story. If you finish the story when you finish NaNoWriMo, that’s great! But the average commercial novel is 80-120k, so even then your novel isn’t actually done. In short, don’t leash yourself to getting the story finished or finished in order. If the way you work demands it, be free to write the parts of the novel that attract and intrigue you most – that’s a surefire way to ensure that you won’t get bored of your book and will be eager to push through to that 50k.
10) Remember that 50k does not a novel make.
Do not send it to editors or agents immediately on November 1st. Writing creates stories; editing creates novels. It doesn’t matter how incredible your book is, or what an amazing writer you are, or how much your beta readers love it – no one in the history of ever has ever written a perfect first draft. And that’s okay, that’s part of the fun of NaNo, but also remember to have respect and not to inflict your first draft on other professionals.
And that’s that! Best of luck, everyone, and Happy Novelling!