What feels like a lifetime ago, I wrote about taking part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for the first time this year. That was on day two of the challenge when I was feeling super chipper and optimistic about the whole thing. Now, two days after the proverbial dust has settled, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on how things went down.
For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is an annual challenge in which writers commit to hammering out 50,000 words in the month of November. And yes, it’s exactly as batshit crazy as it sounds.
I signed up for a cheat’s version. I’ve had *the worst* writer’s block these past few months and decided to use NaNoWriMo to force myself to smash the final 30,000 words I needed for the first draft of the YA fantasy novel I’ve been stuck on, and to rewrite the first half of the book in first person present tense (I’d started in third person past tense).
Throughout NaNoWriMo, I also checked in with five writers each week to see how they were handling the challenge. Exchanging emails with them and learning about their writing process and how their novels were progressing was a huge motivator for me, and I’ll be checking back with them on Friday to see how they feel about the experience once they’ve had a few days to ice their fingers and catch up on sleep.
So, how did I do?
Short answer: I made it. I had my 30,000 words by Thursday, 19 November, and then took the final week to start reworking the first half of my manuscript. By the end of the month, I had the whole book in first person present tense. BUT. What I really wanted out this experience was a complete and cohesive first draft. And there I still have much work to do.
The downside of writing so quickly was that, as my story evolved from the original plan I’d made, the characters and plot changed, leaving the manuscript riddled with inconsistencies—there’s a lot that I need to rework before the whole thing makes sense. More than that, my narrator’s voice is still weak and the writing overall is very raw.
So a success and a failure then. But I’m counting it as a win because, thanks to NaNoWriMo, I now have a novel-length manuscript to work with. And the clunkiest most confused jumble of words on paper is still worth more than the lofty, unwritten story in my head.
Would I do NaNoWriMo again?
Yes. Working that intensely on a new piece of writing is incredible if you can make the time. I also work better under pressure and found that each day’s looming target word count was an excellent motivator and forced me to think on the fly—I couldn’t let the story stop; I had to find a way to propel my characters from scene to scene. In a way, it was incredibly freeing because I couldn’t set aside a problematic chapter for later, or mull over a plotting issue for weeks; I had to find a solution and write something, anything. While it’s likely I might have produced a better quality draft if I’d taken more time, working quickly gave me a good sense of the story’s pace and helped me identify and solve a lot of problems early on.
That said, NaNoWriMo isn’t something to take on lightly—and I went in too cocky this time around. Writing that much, day after day, is exhausting. You work hard to hit your daily word count only to have it reset at zero the following morning. More than once I found myself still at my desk, well after bedtime, with hundreds of words left to write and no idea where to find them. There were also days when I hated my story. And others when I didn’t feel worthy of it.
But then again, that’s writing. It’s hard. And tedious. Like chipping away at a monolith. And to that end, NaNoWriMo is a worthwhile exercise in self-discipline and meeting deadlines. It’s also an excellent way to sketch out a story and see if it has legs—if it’s worth investing real time in down the track. I arrived at the end of the month with the foundation of a story and a solid plan for the work that lies ahead, and for me that made NaNoWriMo worthwhile.
What advice would I give to writers thinking of taking part in NaNoWriMo 2016?
- Have a plan – Be realistic about how much time you have to write each day and allow for days when you may not be able to write at all. Let your friends and family know that you’re doing NaNoWriMo—it’s a big time commitment, and you need their support, not a guilt trip for being M.I.A. for the month.
- Bank extra words when you can – 1667 words per day doesn’t sound like a lot, but life inevitably gets in the way, and I can almost guarantee that there will be days when the universe conspires to keep you from reaching your word count.
- Don’t look back – If you’re going to reach 50k, you have to shut down your internal editor. First drafts are, by definition, imperfect. Revisiting an already-drafted scene can be demotivating if it falls short of the masterwork you envisage and reworking it only distracts you from getting the skeleton of the story down. There will be plenty of time for revision once you’ve hit your word count.
- Don’t go it alone – Writing is a lonely business, but NaNoWriMo is a particularly intensive exercise and spending that much time in your head can lead to a lot of negative self-talk. I’d really encourage anyone doing NaNoWriMo to make themselves a profile on the official website, get involved in the forums, read the author pep talks and use the site to find local NaNoWriMo events and groups.
- Self-doubt is inevitable: be ready for it – For a lot of people the hardest part of NaNoWriMo isn’t keeping up with the word count, it’s maintaining faith in yourself and your story. There are days when it feels like everyone else is just breezing through while you’re struggling to write a single sentence. You’ll question your story and your writing ability. You’ll feel like a fraud and convince yourself that no one will ever want to read your book, so what’s the point? But here’s the thing, all those other writers that seem to be blazing ahead—they have these days too. And no one will care about your story if you don’t finish it. As I said before, writing is damn hard work, and most of the time it’s not fun or romantic. It’s a slog. But there was a reason you signed up for NaNoWriMo. You believed in your story then. And you owe it to yourself and your story to see it through. A month isn’t a long time to give to a book, and if, in the end, you decide there’s not enough there to invest more time in, so what? You had the gumption to try, and you created something. No doubt you learned a few things, too. That’s a hell of a lot more than most people can say. Don’t. Give. Up.
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