Writer’s Wednesday: On opting out of NaNoWriMo

It’s time for the most sacred holiday among writers: National Novel Writing Month. Every year, the writing community comes together and pounds out millions (maybe billions) of words worldwide, all in service of finishing their novels. The idea behind NaNoWriMo is a simple: write 50,000 words (or the entire first draft of your novel, which ever comes first) in a month. The main goal behind NaNoWriMo is to discipline yourself to write everyday, no matter what distractions there are in life. Writing first! Writer’s write! Art harder!

We live in an age of constant gratification and distraction. I get it: lots of things threaten to take priority in life. Loved ones, waitressing shifts, going for a run, Steam sales, the new season of Korra…shhh, shhh I understand. I’m here for you. It’s not easy making time for creativity. Are there valid reasons to do NaNoWriMo? Yes, and here are a few:

  • Writing community. Twitter and the NaNo boards are going to be JUMPING with people frothing at the mouth to talk about their new novel this month. THEY WILL BE SO EXCITED to post word count (always word count!), discuss characters, dissect plot…all of the things we writers never have enough people on earth to talk about. (Hey, it’s why I started this blog!)
  • Discipline. Making time for writing is hard. Developing productive habits and getting in a rhythm is something you’ve got to learn, homefries, if you’re going to write things or just get things done in general. NaNoWriMo can and absolutely will teach you how long a scene should be, how many hours it takes before you want to bash your head into a wall, and most importantly, how to write consistently.
  • Getting shit done. This is a corollary to the point above, but if you’re stuck on an idea, NaNo it out. Don’t let your little brain nugget rot away. Get it out there, see what it is on paper, and move on.
  • Transitioning into a new genre. Want to experiment with writing erotica or Westerns? Never written a space opera? DO IT NOW. NaNo is the time for experimentation. Make it happen!

Still the best comic about NaNo

However, I will not be doing NaNoWriMo this year, and I’m here to talk to those of you writers who feel like you’re going to be sitting on the sidelines twiddling your metaphorical thumbs this year. I’ve done NaNo; I even ‘won’ NaNo. I’m not participating this year. Gasp! Writing Sacrilege! Wait, wait, before you click away, let me tell you my experience with NaNo, and then lay out some reasons why it’s perfectly okay to opt out of NaNoWriMo and be the black sheep of the writing community.

When I did NaNo, I had a project that was partially finished, but it needed to be rewritten from the beginning. The idea changed a lot when I started to write it (this is a common theme with my writing…), and it needed demolished completely for it to be a better story. This was several years ago, and I’d known friends who did NaNo the previous year. I checked out the website and thought, ‘Why not? Need to get this crap done someday. Why not today?’ I made my account, popped open a new Word document, and stared to pound it out. I’d written ~75k by the end of the month, and in December, I finished the new first draft. And I realized the story sucked. Hard. Even after editing, it was all over the place and just not the right story for me to tell. So I shelved it and started new projects, which never would’ve been possible until I faced the cold, hard truth about that particular story.

The 1st of November for many writers.

Am I staying away from NaNo because I wrote a bad novel using that method? Maybe, but it helped me discover things about my writing, and one of those things is that I’m just not a NaNo type person. I can pound out the words with the best of them. My PR (personal record) for words written in a single day is 15,000. My PR for fastest rough draft was 88,000 words in 10 days, with multiple days of sustained 10,000 words per day to make that happen. Getting the word count down was never the problem for me; if that’s an issue for you, NaNo will teach you how to Art Hard.

How many novels are conceived.

That said, there really is something to all the frilly talk about the ‘creative process.’ Sometimes, what that means, is not writing. Ideas are like good wine: they need time to ferment in your head. I have to tell myself the story I want to write about half a dozen different ways before I write it down. If you’ve got an idea, and you think its ripe, write it down. Do NaNo and finish; make the dream real. But here are some reasons to bench yourself during NaNoWriMo:

  • You’ve just finished a big project. I’m coming off a marathon of a writing streak from August, September, and October. Any writing I do during November is going to be more intermittent. Word count isn’t going to be a priority if I sit down and drabble out some stories.
  • You’re working on other art. Maybe it’s not conducive to the NaNo format.
  • Real life takes priority. November might be The Month From Hell for you to write your novel, even if it’s ready to meet the page. The good news is there’s a NaNo something just about every month now, so don’t feel pressured into November if it sucks for you. Hey, my birthday’s in November, and I still don’t know why my parents picked this month. (Hint: look at where Valentine’s Day is on the calender. Yes, this turned into a sex joke.)
  • You’ve got your own writing groove.
  • You don’t feel particularly inclined to participate in the NaNo specific writing community.

There are probably more reasons why you should or shouldn’t participate in NaNoWriMo, but I’m just listing some of them that have been prominent for me and those I know who’ve done NaNo. The idea of always writing, always being on point and ready to sell yourself, is so pervasive in creative culture today. Sometimes, you need to turn that off to reconnect with yourself and your stories. At least, this has been true for me. This isn’t a popular opinion, but when I turn that nebulous thing on to write, it’s like an atom bomb blowing up in my head. It’s powerful, but I can’t sustain that kind of energy indefinitely. The smart asses among you will say ‘build a nuclear plant, duh’, but that’s more like editing for me than rough draft writing. The power is there, but in a more controlled way. So write if you have to write, edit if you need to edit, and let your ideas get delicious in your head. Whatever it takes, and remember, if you’re doing NaNo or not: you’re not alone.

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The 10 Day Rough Draft

Ksenia Anske has a wonderful post up about how to write a rough draft in 20 days. I think 20 days is a very realistic goal for the average rough draft, honestly, and she makes great points about how she does this with every book. Her process in drafting that vital first run at a story is similar to the one I use for most of my stories. The post got me thinking about my PR for rough draft writing: I wrote the first draft of my 88k adult urban fantasy that got me picked as an alternate in Pitch Wars last year in 10 days.

This is how it felt to finish that story, too.

This is how it felt to finish that story, too.

Pick up your jaws, fellow writers. I wanted to share with you how I did this because, even for my fast fingers, it was an anomaly. I’ve been working on the sequels to that book, and they haven’t come as fast or furious to me. This hasn’t ultimately been a problem because 4000-6000 words a day gets the job done just fine. But let’s dive into my PR (personal record) for rough drafting, shall we?

  • It was first love. That’s ultimately how I ended up sustaining several days of writing 10,000+ words. I was more excited about writing than I had ever been since I was a wee little one churning out original fiction without a care in my parent’s basement on our old Dell PC circa 2000. I wrote and wrote and wrote without regard for who would see this work or how good even I ultimately thought it was. And I loved every minute of it. This was how this rough draft was for me. I told myself a story I needed to write, and I loved it.
  • I had an outline that I knew would work for me. I make these 8 point flow chart style outlines, and that took me through the entire story. I fleshed out the finer details for the chapters as I went along. I planned about a fourth of the book at a time, then wrote for 2-3 days, then at the end of that section, I planned the next fourth for the next 2-3 days…you get the idea. But that master outline? It kept me grounded.
  • My characters had a single phrase to sum up their life philosophy, and I expanded them from there. I’m not sure this was ultimately the best way to write these characters, but it helped me keep them consistent during the first draft.
  • Speaking of characters, the three main characters and the relationships and plot between them was something I conceived long ago. I scribbled the basic idea down in a notebook, and that was a life saver! Keep a writing notebook! DO IT. You want to keep a log of these story nuggets. I don’t have a full story for every single one of the things I’ve written in that book, and I probably never will, but there are several basic ideas in there I keep mulling over and coming back to. This story was one of those ideas, and keeping the names of the main characters and the title on hand was a life-saver when I did eventually sit down to write this behemoth.

  • The notebook was crucial in another way: I needed two more HUGE plot ideas for me to make this story happen, and those came almost two years after the initial idea I had about these three characters. But when they did? I knew exactly where they fit. The thought process was literally, ‘Well, this could be X character’s back story, and they could do Y job…and thing Z could be part of the world building…STORY TIME!’ Well, not quite. I told myself several versions of this story before I wrote it down, and I got so excited about the one version that I committed it to an outline and wrote the thing.
  • Notice how much writing I didn‘t do? This story lived a lot in my head before I made it real on paper. I needed to tell this story to myself in several different iterations before I found a version I loved (and I’m STILL working on that version). Could I have drafted an earlier version of this story? Sure. Would I have loved it the way I did when I finally wrote it? Nope. There’s a lot to be said about writing everyday, Art Harder, and grinding things out, but there’s also something to be said about creative fallow periods. Letting this idea develop while I worked on other stories (hey there, God’s Play!) was crucial for finding the version of this project I really loved. I didn’t force it, collecting the pieces as I figured them out. I’m still doing that, but if I hadn’t given myself time with the characters and the world-building initially, I’m 100% sure I would’ve written myself into a corner like I do when I jump into a project a bit too soon before I know it’s ready just to write something for the sake of getting the words down. It helps to get the words down, but having something half-baked does bother me, and it’s always a thrill to be able to tell the complete story to myself when I do write it.

  • I had tunnel vision. Someone could’ve snapped their fingers in front of my face–I wouldn’t have blinked while I was daydreaming up scenes and plots for this. I was obsessed and kept grinding out more plot because I couldn’t put my own story down; the words were flowing like booze at an open bar, and who doesn’t love one of those?
  • This story? Not perfect. The rewrite involved chancing the tense of the book from present to past, which was a HUGE pain, but necessary to make this story work. The third draft? It’s involving a bigger, more momentous chance than that! (This is because I’ve written the 2 sequels since then and realized there were things that needed to change in the first 1/3 of the book to make the entire series work.) But while writing the initial draft, I didn’t care if it was crap or not. I was on the roller coaster of insanity with my characters, and I was freaking exhausted and proud when I got off.

How I feel about my stories.

There’s not really a process here, but if you’re dreading the rough draft or ragging on yourself for not writing enough, I understand. But planning and patience can result in a killer story. This is ultimately what this book taught me: keep good records and give myself time to tell the story I want. Because that story? That’s the story I’ll love.

Let something like this sit. For months. You have to pull away from a story you love this much or else you won’t see it’s flaws. That part is hard for me, honestly, but after a month and a half, I made the changes I needed to make before submitting it to Pitch Wars. Now, I’m reworking it again, and I’m hoping you guys get to see it in 2015!