Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo
The NaNoWriMo challenge — for those willing to accept it — is to write a 50,000-word book in the month of November. Is completion of such a challenge possible? Yes. How do I know? I’ve done it. Twice.
I approached both attempts in different ways, but those two Novembers taught me a lot (good and bad) about novel writing.
Method 1: Total Pantsing from Scratch (2005)
The first time I accepted the challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in one month, I had done no previous work on it, other than some basic brainstorming. I knew the main character and the overall premise of the book. I had a clear outline for the first chapter. And that was it. Throughout the month, I typed and typed until I got 50,000 words in the document.
Result: Successful, yet horrible.
After printing my NaNoWriMo certificate, I also printed a copy of my manuscript. I then placed it in my desk drawer, where it has remained unseen and unedited since that day 16 years ago.
Why didn’t I edit it? Did I not want to be a published author? Oh, certainly I did, but the book was such a mess and, to be quite honest, rather boring. The work it would take to make it readable was so intimidating and overwhelming that I chose to close the desk drawer and chalk up that experience to practice.
Method 2: A Little Pantsing, A Little Plotting to Finish Draft 1 (2014)
The second time I participated in NaNoWriMo was nine years later. This time I embarked on the mission with about 20,000 words of the novel already completed. I used the month to help me focus and complete the first draft of the novel.
That time around I partially pantsed it. While I still didn’t have a full outline and I hadn’t completely plotted the novel, I had a beginning established. I had a better sense of the characters and direction of the story, even if I hadn’t taken the time to write an official outline.
Results: Another completion, but still not good.
When I completed that one, I let the book sit for a few months before I began editing. I eventually hired an editor (twice) to help me get the book in shape, so I could query agents. While I did query a few, I never got a full request and I quickly decided to tuck away this book and chalk it up to another learning experience. I knew the book had plot issues, that the protagonist was more boring than relatable, and that the book was not compelling. Plus, I had an idea for a book that I felt would have much greater appeal.
So, I turned my attention to a new WIP. Before I began writing that novel, I identified and learned from the following mistakes I had encountered when participating in NaNoWriMo:
Do your research.
I’ll be honest that I chose modern storylines in part because I was lazy and wanted to avoid having to research too much before writing. Each novel will require a different depth of research based on the setting, era, characters, plot, context, etc. The point isn’t that you need to spend months and months researching before writing. Rather, the point is that you need to be willing to roll up your sleeves and spend time digging into the minutia that is needed to bring your story to life with tangible dimension and detail.
Beware the promise of pantsing.
I have written two full novels since my last NaNoWriMo book and I’ve come to learn that the work to clarify the story will either come before you begin writing or after you’ve written. I first favored the idea of pantsing it. I liked not having to sit down and plot out the entire story before I got started. After all, wouldn’t the muse guide the story along? Uh, no. Now, I take more of a hybrid pantsing/plotting approach. I still don’t like being completely locked into an outline, but I do establish characters (their motives and backgrounds), setting and the trajectory of the story before I start chapter one.
Prepare for the long haul.
Spoiler: a book deal is not coming in December. When I chose to pants my way through November, I ended up with were two meandering hot messes that required massive amounts of editing and reworking if I wanted to get them to a place where they might have a slight hope of being published. Even if you complete NaNoWriMo, it’s only the beginning. 50,000 words is a very short novel, too short by most industry standards. While it’s an amazing feat to produce that amount of words in one month, you’ll need to expand the story, do more world building and character development, and edit multiple times before an agent or editor will consider it.
Ride the momentum.
The muse shows up when you commit to placing your fingers on the keyboard. A deadline stops you from waiting hopefully and demands that you get down to business. Once you have one chapter down, it’s easier to move on to another chapter. Once you have 50,000 words in place, it’s easier to make it to the end. And once you have a completed manuscript, it’s easier to edit ruthlessly. In other words, the drive and momentum NaNoWriMo offers can keep motivating beyond November to get your novel written and ready for the next stage of the process.
Find a community.
Writing can be lonely, but activities like NaNoWriMo can unite independent creatives. Finding fellow writers to talk to, learn from and bounce ideas off only increases the flow of creative juices. And for those of us who aren’t officially participating, we can still cheer on those who are making the commitment to stop procrastinating and actually start writing.
The novel that got me an agent, editor and two-book deal with Sourcebooks isn’t one that I spent a November cranking out. And while it may be difficult to scrap manuscripts that I spent so many hours working on, I’ve also come to learn that the failures of those books taught me more than I probably would’ve learned had they succeeded.
So, even if you complete NaNoWriMo and your hard work doesn’t end with the dream book deal, know that the time you spent was in no way wasted. If nothing else, you realized what you can accomplish when you commit to showing up, sitting down and getting to work…regardless of what month it is.
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