Sunday, December 13, 2009

Things I learned from NaNoWriMo

This was the first year I participated in National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo, and I learned a great deal from this experience.

The first step, taken in October, was to sign up on the NaNoWriMo website and commit myself to writing a 50,000-word novel in November. Was I that crazy? Could I do it? Why not? Other writers--thousands of them--have become NaNoWriMo winners. I once wrote a 100-page children's book in less than three weeks to submit it to a contest. So why couldn't I write a 50,000-word novel in one month? The only way to find out was to try it and see.

My reasons for taking the plunge were different from most writers'. I've already written about a half-dozen novels. These usually take me between six months and a year. I have a habit of editing while I work, a process I like to call "back stitching," and it generally works for me. But I wanted to test what it might be like to work free of my internal editor, to just write forward without looking back. I wanted to see if I could do it--and if I could, I wanted to see if I liked working that way.

I was in the middle of one manuscript when October ended, so I decided to check the NaNoWriMo rules to see if it was okay to work on more than one novel. The answer turned out to be yes: the guidelines make it clear that as long as the words are part of a novel or novels (not random gibberish), they count toward the 50,000 words.

I decided that I would begin with the novel already in progress, counting only the words written after November first. I also decided to have two other story ideas as backups in case I got stuck. In addition, I decided to fully outline those two story ideas the week before NaNoWriMo began. With three stories to work on and outlines to show me the way, I was ready to begin on November first.

For about the first week I worked on the manuscript already in progress. I wrote forward, barely looking back at all, just as I had promised myself. But then I hit a trouble spot. I tried to make a go of it, but things clearly weren't working. The whole process was slowing down, and it wasn't fun. Instead I felt bored and frustrated. Well, this was the reason I had written two additional outlines before NaNoWriMo, wasn't it? So I moved on to story number two.

I had my outline ready, so where was I to start? "Start with dessert" one lecturer had said at a writers' conference. It sounded like fun and something that would work quite well with NaNoWriMo.

I wrote out the scenes that most inspired me as they inspired me and outlined the rest. And it worked! I was enjoying dessert so much I couldn't get enough of it. I fell in love with my characters, who kept saying and doing the funniest, most outrageous things. I loved spending time with them.

When I didn't know what would happen in this scene or that, I just wrote a loose outline for it. When I came back, I'd fill those scenes out, and it almost felt like they were writing themselves. Sometimes I would just write a note, like "Describe this room through Gilbert's eyes" or "How does Uncle Ian react here?" and when I came back a short while later, I'd know what the room looked like or what exactly Uncle Ian would do or say.

Sometimes I had to push myself to write 2,000 words a day, the goal I had set for myself to allow for non-writing days over the weekends. But most often it only took a little push to get things started. Once they started, I was raring to go and I never wanted to stop.

Another thing I learned is that I can't do NaNoWriMo alone. I need the support of my family, which basically means I need them to get out of my way, take care of the housework and other things they're fully capable of taking care of, and let me write. A few times I growled, "Not now, I'm writing." That isn't an easy thing for a wife and mother to do, but my family understood. They want me to succeed. I had to make time for them, too, of course; but when I needed writing time, they gave me writing time. And for that I am grateful.

I also Twittered my daily word counts to all my followers, and I posted Facebook statuses for my friends. The support I got there was tremendous. I don't know if I could have succeeded without it.

So in the end, I wrote 50,000 words between November first and November 25th. Yes, I won NaNoWriMo with five days to spare! Most of my writing was done at night, when things are quiet in the house, and the only one demanding my attention is the cat. And these are the things I learned:
  • I can write a 50,000-word novel in one month.
  • An outline is indispensable, even if I do change it as I go along.
  • Having a backup plan (i.e. manuscript) is a great idea.
  • Starting with dessert works--and there's always more dessert and more dessert and more...
  • I can write in a forward direction and leave editing for later. However, if I see a real problem as I'm writing, I can go back to fix it. Fixing problems and filling out weak scenes are a part of moving forward too.
  • If I don't know the answer, write the question. The answer will come to me soon enough.
  • I need to keep my writing time as my writing time. Everything else can be handled later, and I can trust my family to handle a lot of things on their own.
  • Set incremental goals, like 2,000 words a day. When I do that, I usually end up writing more.
  • Twittering and writing about my daily word counts on Facebook helps, and I need to give my fellow writers the same kind of support they gave me. We're all in this together!
  • Don't write it if I don't love it. Switch to another manuscript, one I feel passionate about now. When I return to the manuscript that troubled me, hopefully I'll be able to see more clearly where things went wrong. Writing should always be fun.
  • When I'm excited about a scene or a character--even if it's something I don't intend to use in the story I'm currently working on--I need to write it down. I need to use that excitement before it slips away.
  • And finally one thing I didn't do during NaNoWriMo that I really should have: take care of myself. Half an hour of exercise a day would have done me a world of good. I'm not being a good writer, if I'm not taking care of myself.

Also, one thing I already knew but now know with greater certainty: super-geeks turned into vampires totally rock! I love you, Gilbert Garfinkle, but in a completely platonic way. (I know how much girls scare you, so I hope this doesn't freak you out.) I love spending time with you. You make me laugh, and you make me care. I only hope readers love you at least half as much as I do. NaNoWriMo was great, and I couldn't have done it without you.