Lessons from NaNoWriMo

One benefit of National Novel Writing Month that I’ve never seen anyone mention is that it’s a controlled situation. It has strict requirements and a deadline, and it’s available every year. What this means is that it allows you to measure your writing progress from year to year. If you stick with it, it encourages you to analyze whatever problems hold you back, and find ways to deal with them.

I’d done quite a bit of preplanning for my first completed NaNo, but it proved to be not nearly enough. It was certainly nothing like what I’d do in the next two years. I tried formal outlining and found that it just wasn’t how I worked. Instead, I’ve worked out my own system, one that takes my chronic state of disorganization into account and lets me go into the high-pressure month knowing my characters, the settings, and any necessary background. It’s flexible enough to allow surprises and still keep me on track.

NaNo also forced me to pace myself so that I didn’t end the month completely burned out. One of the factors responsible for burnout was my compulsive editing. Every word had to be exactly the right word. I had to tinker with the structure of every sentence until it read clearly and easily. That perfectionism got in the way of maintaining a steady daily pace and word count, but it also got in the way of story development. I work out the details of plot and dialogue as I go along, and the compulsion to edit took time and energy away from what was really the reason for doing NaNo at all.

Since my fiction is character-driven it isn’t possible to plot out every twist and turn ahead of time. In a tightly plotted novel, the characters just follow the outline. In a character-driven novel, the plot often has to give way to the changes in the character. It usually turns out that I don’t know my characters nearly as well as I thought I did, and trying to probe deeper into who they are, how they are changing, and how they are affecting the plot is a big job to accomplish in just 30 days. Perfectionism is still a stumbling block that’s constantly getting in my way, that I have to be aware of and fight. I do quick corrections as I write, and light editing in the eventing when I can’t write another word, but serious editing has to wait until NaNo is over.

An unexpected bonus is that each year, I’ve been able to reach the 50k goal a bit earlier in the month, and go on to write an additional 20k or so to complete the novel without exhausting myself mentally and physically.

All that has fed into the writing I do the rest of the year. Except during NaNo, I don’t set word count goals, but I know I’m writing faster than I did a few years ago. That’s good, but it has nothing to do with the common attitude that you need to write faster and write more. I don’t have any ambition to have dozens of books out there. For me, the ability to write the story faster — and finish it — means that I have the remaining 11 months of the year to refine and improve what I’ve written.

Basically, NaNo has been a learning tool for me. That once-a-year effort pays off in many ways that have made me a better writer. All  this is not to suggest that everyone one who is in the process of learning the craft of writing should do the annual NaNo sprint. But there’s something to be said for rules and deadlines that someone else sets, along with the knowledge that thousands of invisible others are also laboring away at a creative project.

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