National Novel Writing Month: my experience and advice

October 23, 2011 § 7 Comments

NaNoWriMo is the time of year when thousands of people put their lives on hiatus to crank out a novel.  It’s a competition in which everyone wins who cranks out 50,000 words between November 1 and December 1 (that’s just shy of 1700 words a day).  Like anything else that has thousands of supporters, NaNoWriMo has accumulated its detractors, some of them quite vitriolic.  Their complaints range from bemoaning the inactivity of their favorite bloggers to saying that the only thing NaNoWriMo produces is one big pile of… well you get the idea.

I’ve only done NaNoWriMo once, in 2010, and I’m not going to be doing it again this year for reasons I’ll explain in a minute, but I’m still a huge supporter and I wholeheartedly recommend it. I’ve been aspiring to authordom for about four years now and have cranked out my fair share of short stories and writing prompts, but when October rolled around last year I had never committed to a novel.  It seemed like a huge undertaking and I didn’t think I had the time for it. The thing is though, unless you’re independently wealthy you’re never going to have the time for it. So I tried it.

In the end I didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo because I hit about 44,000 words and realized there was a plot hole too big to fix without a total rewrite, but I still look back at the experience as a positive one.  It taught me not only to make a habit of sitting down at my computer and cranking out some words, but also the nuts and bolts of novel writing: pre-writing, sentence variety, pacing, dialogue, etc. We talked a few weeks ago about needing 10,000 hours of practice before you gain mastery of a skill, and I can’t think of any better way to get a jump start on those hours than by committing to a couple hours of writing practice each day under an impending deadline. Thanks to the kick in the butt NaNoWriMo gave me, I decided to start writing a second novel in January and I’m just a few days away from having the fifth draft off to some trusted friends for feedback (my wife pointed out that it was just in time to start a new one for  WriMo and I just laughed at her).

A few practical pieces of advice if you participate (or if you don’t):

Pre-write. A lot.

Naming characters is the bane of my existence and naming places is even worse. Every time I introduce a new character I get bogged down, sometimes for hours, as a pore over baby naming websites. This all should be done ahead of time. When the character pops up that you didn’t plan for, don’t worry about the significance of their name; call them Joe-Bob and move on.  Pre-writing is especially important if you’re planning fantasy or science fiction or something else where you are inventing worlds and people groups and customs.

Get a schedule.

I find that writing at the same time of day, every day increases the likelihood that I’ll actually sit down and do it. Waking up early and writing in the morning works the best for me because I know that when eight o’clock rolls around I need to hit the save button and walk away.  Knowing that I have a time restraint means I spend less time tweeting or reading blogs (or searching for baby names).

Plan to revise. A lot.

Go into it with the understanding that your first draft will not be your final draft, but don’t revise at all as you’re writing. Like I said, I’m on my fifth draft of the novel I’m working on right now and that was after taking my time writing it. I’d guess that less than 10% of my first draft has survived to now and it’s incomparably stronger for it. When I’m finally done I plan to read through that first draft and just laugh. I highly recommend that you revise your novel even if you don’t ever want anyone to read it. The process will teach you a lot about how you can improve (for example I just learned today that suffer from conjunction dysfunction). Again, don’t revise as you go.  It just slows you down and you might decide to cut or rewrite the section anyhow.  On the first draft just let the words flow.

I especially recommend revisions before you even entertain the idea of publishing, whether you’re hoping for a traditional publishing house or plan to take advantage of modern self-publishing tools that allow you to create your own book.

That’s all I’ve got. My blogging schedule is changing so be sure to check out the About This Blog on the left for details. If you’ve participated in NaNoWriMo before please feel free to weigh in with your own advice, if this is your first year feel free to ask questions, and if you hate NaNoWriMo I’d love to hear your thoughts too.  And now a NaNoWriMo demotivational poster because I thought it was hilarious.

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§ 7 Responses to National Novel Writing Month: my experience and advice

  • Thanks so much for these tips! I will be participating in NaNoWriMo for the first time this year, as I have never even heard of it before a few months ago, and I am glad you have shared your opinion and advice.

    I am a pre-college student whom doesn’t start school until January and currently has no job or other daily priorities, so I know that it will be (should be) easy for me to set out a good amount of writing time each day. Should be fun and once again, thanks for sharing your article! 🙂

  • Good thoughts. I think you’re right — it’s a nice step to get people in the literary door, but I wouldn’t want to explore the house from the confines of the foyer.

  • The writers of the comic Two Lumps came up with the greatest NaNoWriMo pun last year (or the year before). I’ve never done it, but I like to participate in NaBloPoMo. It’s a good challenge for me. Either thing is a good way to get (more) people to write on a regular basis

  • Stef says:

    I’ve participated on and off in the past (meaning I’ve signed up, written a few words, then been distracted with … procrastination) but it wasn’t until 2010 that I actually hit (and exceeded) the 50,000 word goal. NaNoWriMo is a wonderful way to develop habits and last year my family was very supportive of me locking myself away to “write my novel”. It made me realise that if I use the simple phrase “I am writing” then I actually do. It’s a wonderful tool for motivation and the revision is integral. More than anything, it gets you started on something that you normally (and so easily) would put off.

    I don’t hate NaNoWriMo at all, though I know of publishers who cringe because December brings sudden submissions of “novels” that haven’t seen a red pen even once in their lives! I think it should be encouraged as a tool, as a great motivator, and anything can happen from there.

    We also need a National Clean The House Month …

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