A couple of years ago, I decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month. With a shrug and then focused vigor, I dove into writing a 50,000-word story. It was an intense, frustrating, and ultimately, rewarding journey. I got to swim in the dream of my story. Set in Paris, about a cool botanist, secretive and suspenseful, with plants at the book’s heart, I wrote the tale I wanted to read. But it wasn’t easy, and there were several things I could have done differently. Here’s what I learned about the process.
1. I could indeed write a novel in 30 days!
Before 2014, I’d dismissed National Novel Writing Month because I didn’t think any literary work of high quality could be produced in 30 days. And the truth is, it can’t. But a rough, rough draft can, and that’s what you need to get to the next step: the revision process, which can take as many months as you prefer it to.
2. You have to lower your standards.
In NaNoWriMo, there’s no time for perfection. There’s no time for procrastination because you want everything to be “just so.” As I wrote my 2014 novel, I kept thinking, “This is crap, this is crap. Oh, my goodness, this is crap.” Well, it was but if you just allow your sentences to be rough, you will get into a “flow” state and put them on paper. If your inner critic leads you, you will never string words together and finish the story. That’s a worse offense than producing a work of poor quality.
3. The most time-consuming part is not knowing what to write.
If you don’t know your various characters or where your plot’s going, you may stop and ponder. Pondering takes time. I always get indecisive and indecision paralyzes. That thought time could be used to throw words onto a screen (or paper). I recommend working out at least the story arc in October.
4. Having a detailed outline helps tremendously.
In 2014, I had completed a worksheet of 20 questions I’d been given by a professor in my MFA program (at Goddard College). This was one of the best writing tools I ever received and a resource I still use today. (It’s a list that most how-to books about how to write a novel will cover.) It helped me decide everything from where the story takes place and why to what inner conflict the protagonist must overcome as they overcome their external conflict. Heavy but useful stuff.
This year, I not only answered all of the questions on that worksheet (even if I knew they were weak answers I’d change later), I also wrote a scene by scene outline. My novel ended up being about 15 chapters with 3-4 scenes in each. I’m worried it may not add up to 50,000 words but my aim is to at least write that scene skeleton before fleshing it out later. This has given me a clear direction in which to sail every day. I look at my outline and set my course.
5. You need to use every small block of time you have.
It would be dreamy if we all were independently wealthy and had all day every day in which to write. But most writers aren’t in this situation. I have flexibility in that I can set aside writing time and then schedule work time, but I still have kids and pets and a life with non-writing responsibilities.
Therefore, in November, 2014, when my kids were watching TV before bed and my husband was catching up on work, I would open my laptop and write for 15, 30 or 45 minutes. No excuses for not being inspired or not knowing what to write. If you have that scene outline, you will add to your word count. And sometimes you’ll surprise yourself with how many words you can stack up in just a half-hour.
6. You’ll gain weight if you’re not careful.
Writing is a sedentary act. This is the one thing I dislike about it. I get slothy. I get cold. My muscles turn to mush. After sitting for a couple of hours, I can feel my rear side widening at the lack of movement. So when I’m blessed with a three or four hours of solitary writing time, I have to purposefully eat low-carb and light. I have to make a point to get out and take a vigorous walk or ride my stationary bike in the basement. Exercise helps recharge the brain anyway.
7. The community is incredibly supportive.
One thing I got hooked on in 2014 was the super sweet, super energetic community that is NaNoWriMo. I went to Seattle meet ups where 5 or 6 writers would chat, get to know each other, and then sit around and write for awhile. It wasn’t as productive as if I’d stayed at home but meeting those other writers inspired me and kept me sane. I knew I wasn’t alone in this weird ambition to make up a story and tell it to others.
This year, I’m excited about the novel I’m creating. Last year, my novel, after much polishing, placed in a contest and was nearly published (it’s still under review). This year, my story’s even more thought out. It features compelling characters and a dangerous, thrilling plot. And because I’m enjoying the NaNoWriMo process more, I’m inclined to think this November will be even better than 2014’s!
Good luck, everyone. If you’ve done NaNoWriMo before, tell me what you learned from the process.