Five mistakes I made in my first (eight) NaNoWriMo(s)

In November 2008 I wrote my first Nanowrimo novel. (Nanowrimo is National Novel Writing Month, a reason to write a 50 000 word novel in a month. There’s no prize or particular recognition, just the knowledge that you’ve done the thing and ‘won.’) I don’t remember how I found about it, but it was timely. I wrote a lot as a kid and continued into young adulthood, but other matters (ie my children) pushed it aside. By 2008, the kids were in school full-time and I had the time and mental space and had gone back to writing, more seriously this time.

That 2008 Nanowrimo novel is dreadful. I don’t say that so you can tell me that you’re sure it isn’t, but because it really is. I tried to re-read it and could not. I still like the basic premise (a group of people mysteriously contained in an abandoned theme park), but the execution was, shall we say, lacking.
And, really, how could it not be? It was the first novel I wrote. I sort of understood the basics of structure, but that was it. I read a lot, so I had absorbed certain elements of plot and character. But the truth is that, until you’ve done it, there is a lot you can’t appreciate about constructing a novel that contains all of the requisite parts. Reading isn’t enough. (It’s like if you think that you can build a car, because you drive one frequently. Sure, you know a lot of the parts, but not necessarily how you would put it together in any kind of workable way.)

Since that first Nano novel in 2008, I’ve done seven others. The last one, the one I wrote in 2016 is now a polished novel that is about to begin its journey to potential publishers.

What mistakes did I make in writing these eight novels, some readable, others most definitely not? Here are the five that have been most fundamental for me.

  1. Not having a plan. Of course, the goal is a 50 000 word novel in a month, but how are you going to get there? 50 000 words in a thirty day month is 1667 words per day. You can see it as 30 segments (or scenes or small chapters or whatever you want) of 1667 word segments and do one (or more per day). I’ve done that, but I learned that it works even better — and is less stressful — to be realistic and build in off days. You don’t know what might come up. It might be something big, like a sudden illness or unexpected overtime at work. But it can be much more benign than that. There may be days you just don’t feel like writing. My plan now is to break down my story into twenty-five 2000 word parts (usually each is a single scene, but it could be two smaller ones). That gives me five ‘free’ days. Some years I use some or all of them and some years I haven’t used any (and have finished on November 25th). Sometimes I have a really good day and write more than one of the those two thousand word parts. But no matter what, it gives me the illusion of having more time to work with. Give it some thought, consider your own writing routine (if you already have one), think about your schedule and other commitments. Is it small goals multiple times a day? Long periods a few times a week? If you’re not sure, experiment with different approaches.
  2. Not having an idea worth 50 000 words. Let’s be honest, you can write about literally anything for 50 000 words if you use enough fillers — that, very, etc. (I also added very peripheral-to-the-plot scenes of a romantic and sexual nature to one ill-fated idea.) But does that make it a story, let alone a novel? Not all ideas are created equal, some are short story ideas, others are novellas, and some are full-length novels (of varying lengths). You don’t have to do an outline — I know many people don’t like to and you certainly don’t have — but you do need to have a story that can sustain over the full month.
  3. Not having an actual story to tell. You need to take some time to think about the protagonist, the problem they are faced with, the setting in which it takes place. Do you have a lot to say about it? Can you imagine secondary characters and subplots that relate to and reinforce your story? Maybe it is a meditative, descriptive piece without a lot of other characters or plot twists. That’s fine, too (more than fine!), but it helps enormously if you are clear in your mind about what you’re going to say. Again, it doesn’t matter whether you want to meticulously plan out your entire novel along with detailed research or you want to pants (as in, go by seat of your…), as long as you have that clear idea of the story. Think about it, live in the world you want to tell readers about.
  4. Not knowing who your protagonist is. More than the story alone, you need to know who it is you are writing about — going beyond mere plot and considering the core element of your story. If you know what you want to say, it will be easier to get to 50 000 words. But the stories that I have had the most problems with, the ones where I’ve found myself adding a lot of padding to as I went (writing sentences in the most convoluted way possible, with extra unnecessary words) are the ones where I had an idea, maybe even a lot of an idea, but these were the story ideas in which I didn’t really know my protagonist and ended up fussing with the externalities instead of addressing that. I would go around in circles creating conflicts and blathering about this and that, without really getting at the core — who my protagonist was and why I was telling their story. And why the reader should care about that.
  5. Not enjoying and cherishing the process. This may sound like a tall order and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t, but that’s the thing. If you can enjoy the creation of your story, the writing of it — even 50 000 words in a month — can be a pleasure. Not that there won’t be annoyance or frustration or bumps in the road. But they will be easier to deal with if the month is approached with even a partially happy state of mind.

As we approach November, I will be looking back at these mistakes I’ve made (some of them more times than I would care to admit) and trying to avoid them this year. Maybe there will be other, new, mistakes. Maybe it won’t go smoothly. But hopefully, by the end of the month, I’ll have a first draft of a story that I want to continue to spend time with.