Thoughts on NaNoWriMo

December 3, 2012

There won't be any November reading log, because I didn't do any reading in November. I was too busy doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for the non-writers), in which the challenge is to write 50,000 words in a single month.

Several years ago, someone told me that I needed to figure out a way to increase my daily word count output. That advice simmered in my head for a while, and two summers ago I wrote a 20K word novelette in a month. I've been meaning to try NaNoWriMo for a while, but never had a novel at the right stage to attempt it (ie, with the story more or less gelled and outlined, but not started). But this year I finished the photo book in the summer, spent September and October outlining, and had no excuses.

So I committed to NaNoWriMo. I did not sign up on the official site, mostly because having recently started a new job, I wasn't sure how deep my commitment was going to be, and if I bailed, I wanted to be answerable only to myself. Also, I've found that in endurance endeavours, I do better without much cheerleading; I prefer to dig deep and look within. I posted daily updates to my Twitter feed, which got me exactly the level of response I needed to keep going.

NaNoWriMo was both harder and easier than I thought it would be. I don't tend to write every day, but to hit 50K words, you (or at least I) pretty much have to. I got behind by almost 7K very early on, due to my attendance at World Fantasy Convention in Toronto, where I wrote zero words for the first 4 days of November.

While I was writing, it didn't feel like I increased my daily word count average by a whole lot. I typically write between 700-1200 words a day. To start, NaNoWriMo required 1667 words a day to hit the 50K mark. My biggest day was about 3500 words on the plane ride home from WFC. My lowest (not counting the zeroes) was 500 words on U.S. election night. Because I got behind so badly, my daily required count went up over 1800 words. To catch up, I told myself to consistently write 100-200 words more than my target (when writing during the evenings after work), or 500 more words than my target (when writing on non-dayjob days). This gave me consistent 1800-2000 word days, with the occasional 2200-2500 word day. Come to think of it, a 100%+ increase in average word count is nothing to sneeze at.

On the plus side, I remember attending a workshop and being reduced to tears from creative and literal fatigue when asked to write 4500 words in a couple of days. There were no tears during NaNoWriMo. Just a commitment to gettin' 'er done. But. The word count becomes the be all and end all. You can't stop for breaks—ever. Miss one night and you're screwed. So you type. And type, and type. I couldn't take thinking breaks, or breaks to flip through the dictionary looking for the right word, or breaks to research how my world should work. With NaNoWriMo, if you get stuck, you move on to the next sentence, pronto, don't look back. There's a heck of a lot of [insert blah here] notes in my story right now. And that's fine.

What I didn't find all that fine was the complete lack of what some people call "flow" moments during the writing. I had several of these when writing my last novel when the words just spilled out, and I was almost unaware of what I was writing until I came out of flow minutes or hours later, and went, "that just came out of me?". With NaNoWriMo, I didn't get close to flow until the last week, when I'd caught up to my deadline, and as a result reduced my daily word count targets and could relax and forget about the deadline for a few minutes at a time.

So: NaNoWriMo. An effective exercise for raising daily word count targets. Less effective for producing quality and creativity, at least for me, at this stage in my career. Case in point: I hit 50K. I sat staring at the fireplace for 3 hours after. With nothing to do but watch pretty flames, my brain solved a problem with the story it hadn't been able to deal with all month long.

I suppose the next step to becoming a better writer is to obtain that flow when putting out that kind of quantity of material. And the only way to do that is to keep pumping out words. NaNoWriMo taught me that I CAN pump out those words if necessary.

NaNoWriMo also confirmed another thing for me: for a novelist, I write short. I ran out of plot for the novel at around 32K words. Because my last novel's first draft topped out around 35K, I had an inkling that this might be an issue for me again, which is why I picked a series project to tackle this month. I went in with two and a half books outlined. So when I ran out of story, I didn't have a crisis on my hands. I just rolled right on into Book 2. Which tells me another thing: either I have to plan all my books as 3 books just to get a single good story out of them. Or, I'm always going to have to build more editing time than expected into my subsequent drafts.

If you ever attempt NaNoWriMo, I highly recommend going in with a solid plan. Have an outline (or two!). Clear your schedule. The only nights I could go out were nights that weren't day job nights, i.e., evenings of the days where I'd had all day at home to write. I said no to invitations on nights that required writing. The other thing that really helps is a spouse who's willing to cook dinner every night, and doesn't mind that the mess isn't going to get cleaned up for the next 30 days.

But the other thing to know is that getting behind isn't a disaster. I spent much of the month 6K+ words behind target. But I still won NaNoWriMo. I still had a small social life. I caught up by chipping away at the daily word target. I don't know how people with children do this.

Would I do NaNoWriMo again? I'm not sure. I like having time to think about what I'm writing. On the other hand, my last first draft took me six months to write. And now I have one after only one month. There's a lot to be said for that.

Congrats to everyone who attempted NaNoWriMo, whether you hit your goal or not. Even if you didn't, I bet you learned something about your writing. And that's always a good thing.

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