Lessons From The NaNoWriMo Trenches

nanowrimo-2013-boss-flyerNational Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) takes place every November. As most of you know, the goal is to compose a first draft of your novel, roughly 50,000 words during the 30 days. It works out to be a doable 1,667 words a day, but only if you sit down and write that chunk every day. If you don’t, that word count piles up, fast! I ended up doing several marathon days trying to catch up.

The theory behind the process is that with a first draft under your belt you can spend the rest of the year finessing the project into something fantastic. The process works for lots of writers and it’s produced some impressive best sellers, Water for Elephants, Cinder, and The Night Circus to name a few. Just like all writing processes, NaNoWriMo has its fans and its critics.

I wanted to find out for myself. Since I knew some of my writing pals were taking a stab at it this year, it seemed like the perfect time to give this controversial writing gauntlet a trial run. What follows is a bit about what I learned during the process.

1. Pre-planning is key to success.

The planning phase is where I went horribly astray. I did manage to create the bones of an outline and had the key characters figured out, but I didn’t manage to get that outline solid and to run it by the other Write on Sisters until the clock had already started ticking. This lost me almost a week of valuable writing days. On the plus side, my Sisters did help me catch some small plot flaws and flesh out a better story, and I did have a story that had enough ideas to keep me going and not running out of steam at halfway mark, a common NaNoWriMo complaint.

2. You’ll need tons of motivation, so pick something that feels fresh.

I decided to storm a literary stronghold with a high stakes heist novel. This project started out as New Adult, but has since evolved into YA since the story is more about the teens and their life choices and less about a romantic love.  My characters face some life or death situations, and interact with some armed and dangerous people, so I was always excited to keep writing their story.

3. Register at least a month ahead of time and get used to the site. 

Finding an available user name/alias proved a nightmare for me. The first four names I picked were taken and I ended up with one I didn’t love. Since you only get one name for life, I wish I’d known the score ahead of time and saved myself a few headaches. Plus, it was hard for me to get used to the site mechanics, and I wasted a ton of time looking for helpful information. Also, if you want to try one of the trial versions of writing programs, do that ahead of time too. I gave Scrivener a shot the first week, and quickly realized I didn’t have time to write and learn a new program. I do plan to go back to Scrivener because it looks amazing, but later, when I have the time to learn. 

4. November is the worst month to do NaNoWriMo.

I thought about Thanksgiving when I registered, the cooking and high level of housecleaning so the place would be ready for company. The Black Friday shopping for kids toys and Christmas P.J.s. But I never counted on the leaves. The yard is awash with them. I’m starting to fear they pose a safety hazard, perhaps one of my cats (or kids) will fall into an exceptionally deep drift and never be seen again. This would be so much better for me in September.

5. Plan on getting 50,000 words of the messiest work you will ever write.

The stress of making page numbers grow makes you reckless, and sloppy. I always have a lot of editing to do after I write (who doesn’t), but this is off the charts bad. The pace of writing leaves you no time to think about how the sentences sound or if your characters are creating distinctive voices, you just have to move. One of my writing tricks is to start each session with some clean up of the last session. Without this step, I can’t stay ahead of editing. However, with NaNoWriMo cleanup is a luxury you don’t have time for. In some respects it’s good, I can’t rewrite the first five pages a thousand flipping times, but I wonder about the quality of this first draft, and how much of it will end up in the final draft.

6. Don’t let the website’s many distractions sink your plans to finish.

Honestly, the official website has too many ways to suck up your time up. Starting with the application, I left half of it blank. Add the word count validation, the friending, the inspirational emails, the local meet-ups, the fundraising, and you can spend all your time being active in the community and never get a word written. I love my fellow writers, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without my pals, but it’s just too easy to let these distractions get in the way of writing. If you want to be active in the social aspect I suggest you find one (or at most two) forums to follow. Pick them in advance and never explore the others until you’ve reached your 50,000 words.  

7. Use this time to be brave.

I found myself making decisions that I wouldn’t make with more time on the clock. The way I paced this project is completely unlike anything I’ve done before. I’ve cut abruptly, my POV is constantly shifting, and I climbed inside the head of a teenage madman with some interesting results. I don’t think I’ve ever written such an unlikable bad guy. Turning off the internal editor helped me end up with some story idea gems, if not finished prose. I’ve learned I spend far too much time second-guessing myself instead of trusting my skills as a writer. Hopefully, this month will translate into some better writing habits for the long haul.  

I can’t say the NaNoWriMo process turned out as an unqualified success for me, for here I am with only a few days left on the clock and still about 8,000 words shy of my goal. I’m not sure if you will or will not see me on the participants’ list next year. Ask me in October 2014. Nevertheless, I think it’s been well worth the experience.

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813). However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

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