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.

500 Words a Day?

500 words a day shouldn’t be a big deal. I’ve written as much as 3,000 a day during NaNoWriMo, but I’ve also gone for weeks without writing a single word. Problem is, I get bored easily, and have so many WIPs that it’s way too easy to jump from one to another when I hit a tough spot that I don’t want to deal with. The net result is that I wind up frustrated with having too many things to work on, and end up unable to write at all.

Scrivener has been largely responsible for my becoming a writer at all, so now I’m hoping that one of its features will keep me from giving up altogether. I’ve never been one to set a daily word count goal, except during NaNo. Even then, it took being motivated to get to that 50,000 word pot of gold to keep me at it. And a big part of that was the stats page, which gave me a visual picture of how I was doing.

Scrivener’s stats aren’t as extensive as NaNo’s, but it does have a “target” feature that sets a daily count and shows a progress bar that gradually shifts from red to deep green. With the negative-count feature set, it keeps the count up to date even when I delete material. Leaving that little box on-screen is a nice motivator. I just hope that it’s a sufficient one. I started with a goal of 250 words Tuesday. Pretty pathetic, but a big step after a long dry spell. I ended the day with a little over 500 words, so Wednesday, I pulled up my writer pants, set the goal at 500 words and pushed a little beyond. Today’s goal is still 500 words, and I’m going to stick with that for a while, and try to get into a solid writing groove before upping the count any further.

The WIP that I’m dealing with right now is a short story that I’m expanding into a novella. Revision is just as mind-straining as editing, so I’m hoping that the color bar will be enough to keep me from jumping to another project to relieve the pressure. I’m also thinking about serializing it, either here or on my website, to add an extra bit of motivational push. Self-discipline isn’t one of my top characteristics, so I need all the help I can get.

Ready, Set, Go!

I finished NaNoWriMo on the 25th, with 52,600 words, and have started the complicated job of revising and editing. Since all those words have to be integrated with the original novel, there will be (already has been) much murdering of my darlings. Whole chapters have already disappeared, and other chapters are being combined in preparation for more blood-letting.

I was surprised that I could come up with an additional 50,000 words and even though I never want to do another NaNo this way, it was worth it. The challenge of writing brand new material and trying not to create new plot holes while filling in old ones was exciting, even while it was exhausting and frustrating. One of the side benefits of working on something that was written five years ago was seeing how much I’ve learned since then.

I hope to have all the pieces of the puzzle where they belong by the end of the month, and ready for more detailed editing. Also in the works is a major rewrite of New Serfdom, the novel I wrote in 2012; the completion of several partly written stories; and two nonfiction books.

Because all that isn’t enough to keep me busy (I still have time to eat and sleep!) I’m working on a proper author’s website that I hope will be ready for the public sometime in January. And I joined Kindle Write On. For anyone who’s familiar with Wattpad, it’s something like that site. More about that in a future post.

NaNo is Over – For Me

I finished up yesterday (the 17th), with 35,000 words. Now it’s on to the heavy lifting, the slicing and dicing that I hope will turn Gift of the Ancien into a successful novel. When I look over the chapters and snippets that I’ve written since November 1, I wonder why the novel I see now was invisible to me when I created it several years ago.

But having gone through the long process of thinking about it, reimagining it, and understanding my characters better, I realize that’s why good novels can take years to write. And that says a lot about the current generation of writers who are boasting about how many novels a year they are writing, and how many copies they’re selling.

It’s possible to write a decent novel in just a few weeks, one that keeps readers engaged, that doesn’t trip you up with poor grammar, and that might even have a style of its own. But I seriously question whether you can expect that novel to still be around in a couple of years. A visit to any well-stocked used-book store will impress you with the endless shelves of novels you’ve never heard of, by writers you’ve never heard of.

I know I’m a decent writer. I hope to become an excellent writer. I don’t expect to write anything that will become a classic, something that’s still being read generations from now. But it’s a worthy goal to strive for, so I don’t regret that it’s been five years since I wrote the first draft of Gift of the Ancien. It was a good idea then. It’s a better idea now.


Focus, Damn it!

I’m trying to focus. It isn’t an easy job with so many WIPs pulling at me from all directions, but I’m settled for the moment. I hope. I pulled the longest story out of the prison stories collection to expand it, then publish it separately. I’ll add it back once the rest of the stories are done.

It was finished (I thought) at just under 10,000 words, but every time I go back to it I see how my spare writing works against the drama of a story. I know that I cut corners on emotional reactions and making the settings concrete, but for some reason, it just doesn’t occur to me to put them in right at the start. Maybe that’s something I’m not going to be able to change very much and will always have to work out through several drafts.

At any rate, the story is going well. I’d like to get it up to 12,000 words, but may have to settle for less. This particular story is a challenge to build out because for most of it, there are only two characters, and the others are too peripheral to add anything to it. It takes place in a secretive, top-security prison of the future. Its purpose is to hold violent criminals for the remainder of their lives, in total isolation. My usual bare-bones approach is guaranteed to kill whatever drama is inherent in that kind of situation, so I’m trying to learn not to be a story-killer.




How Long Does it Really Take to Write a Novel?

Like my last post asking how long it should take to write a novel, this question has no answer. It takes as long as it takes. But it’s a very interesting question for me to consider at this particular moment because I’m actively working on a complete revision of the novel that I wrote for NaNoWriMo in 2012. In July of 2012, I started writing posts tracking the development of the idea up to NaNo. Somehow, that dropped by the wayside and I stopped posting about it in October. But I did write the novel.

The New Serfdom turned out to be the shortest novel I’d ever written for NaNo, and the length, just under 51,000 words, reflected my growing uncertainty about it as November went by. By the end, the novel I’d written was very different from the one I’d planned. And because I was no longer sure what kind of story I wanted to write, it was a mess. The basic idea was still there: a United States broken up into variously weak and strong local governments, survivalist enclaves, and personal fiefdoms reviving slavery, serfdom, and indentured servitude. But I didn’t know where I wanted the story to go. Which meant that I had no idea how it would get there, or how its central characters would relate to each other.

So I put it away because I can’t stand to throw away a good idea, but I didn’t think I’d ever have the heart to wrestle it into something worth reading. But there are stories that won’t let you go even if you choose to let them go. So, off and on, over the last year, I’d plug in some notes, mostly about the characters. After a few months of this, I began to see a different story coming out of it, mostly because I knew the characters a lot better than I had when I wrote the darned thing.

It’s coming along pretty well, even if there are still some questions about what kind of decisions the main character will make at the end and how that will influence what everyone else does. There’s no guarantee that I’ll finish it, but that looks like a real possibility. And if I do, there’s a load of posts about it that might just turn into something like The Evolution of A Novel.