Last month I shared that I’d signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short). I’d never done it before but thought I’d give it a try. So first things first.
I WON (okay, hundreds of thousands of writers did but I was one of them). I wrote 50,111 words during the month of November. Got myself a slew of badges. A certificate suitable for framing. Several engaging Instagram posts. A cool T-shirt. Bragging rights from now until this time next year. And hopefully the beginnings of a saleable second novel.
And as promised, here are my takeaways:
- Taking it in chunks helps.
I wrote 2-3 hours every morning when I knew I’d be fresher. That turned out to be enough time to complete two short scenes or one longer one and still leave time for other commitments so I never felt overwhelmed. Something about keeping to a set schedule and plodding along worked for me, although there were writers in my support group who skipped days and then played catch up. But the majority of those who got behind in the first week gave up and I understood why. If by Day 15, you’re only at 10,000 words, it’s hard to believe you can actually finish.
So I vowed to not take any days off. Every morning when I sat down at the keyboard, I referred back to my index cards to see what I needed to write next, and that grounded me and freed me at the same time. I kept reminding myself I wasn’t writing an entire novel that day, only a scene. Step by step, inch by inch, word by word. Didn’t Annie Lamott say something like that?
- It’s hard not to go back and start tinkering.
In fact, my word count now, ten days after completing NaNo is 49,017. Yes, that’s backward progress. Why? Because after the event was over, I circled back and took out several big chunks of the story that weren’t working, instead of continuing to plow ahead. (slaps own wrist very hard)
I keep telling myself that revision comes after I spew out this shitty discovery draft but either I’m not talking loud enough or I’m not listening to myself. Anyway, it’s something to watch out for because the whole objective, in fact the ONLY objective, of NaNo is to FINISH your draft and that means all the way to the end. If you start revising before you’ve written the last page, you’re defeating the purpose. I hereby vow to do better.
- Find a support group to share the journey.
I joined a small group of eight authors in my town, most of whom I’d met in person at various writer roundtables. Some were doing NaNo, some were there to cheer the rest of us on, and some dropped out along the way because of, you know, life. Every other day we shared our word counts through Facebook and we had three Zoom meetings during the month where we shared tips and challenges and yes, drank wine.
I went into this contest not wanting to spend a lot of time talking about writing with others if it interfered with the actual writing time itself. But having a small cheerleading group I could dip into a few times a week made me feel less isolated. Find what works for you. The national organization sponsors regional and local community groups at their web-site and there’s genre-specific chat rooms as well so if you write mysteries or historical romance or anything really, there’s a community out there for you.
- After page 75, it gets harder.
Everyone tells you this because it’s true. While I wouldn’t say I sailed through the first quarter of my story, it certainly flowed easier than when I reached “the muddle of the middle” and there’s a simple reason for that. Like most of us, I’d already written some version of the beginning in my head. For the first 25,000 words, I introduced the major characters, highlighted the ordinary world, and wrote about my protagonist’s goals, wants, and fatal flaw. I set the plot in motion and my fingers flew across the keys as the story became real. And then I came to the end of Act I, where the main character is thrown into a whole new world.
The problem is, I’d entered a new world myself. Events I’d felt sure would happen no longer fit with what I’d written. Characters took on a life of their own. The narrative wandered off on tangents that took attention away from the main thru-line. And somewhere around 40,000 words, I began to run out of steam. I’d used up a lot of the good stuff and wasn’t exactly sure where the story was headed. Each day’s writing sprint felt like a slog. By the last day, I only had 800 words to eke out for the win and I have to admit, I checked the counter every ten minutes those last two hours.
Now it’s the second week in December and I find myself slipping back into bad habits. Finding excuses not to get back to drafting (my podcast, this blog post, the third season of Ozark). But yesterday I wrote a new scene. And today I wrote another. And it felt good, like coming home after taking time away. I have to believe the habits I set up during NaNo are still there beneath the surface and even though I’m not churning out the word counts I was during the event, I’m much further along in my manuscript than I ever would have been had I not participated. It feels like a rite of passage that I went through and survived.
Plus I got a cool T-shirt.