NaNoWriMo 2013 reflection

From Wikipedia: National Novel Writing Month, shortened as NaNoWriMo, is an annual internet-based creative writing project that takes place every November, challenging participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1 and 30.

At the beginning of November, my plan was to complete 50,000 words (translation: approximately half of novel) by the end of the month. This was a brand new novel, a sequel to a previous one, but one I hadn’t yet started writing. I had most of my characters conceived, and a very rough idea of the plot, so I dove in. My plan was to write every day, at least 1667 words per day, to reach the 50K mark by month’s end.

At the end of day one, I had written 1,900 words, leaving me optimistic about reaching my goal. On day two, I wrote zero words for my novel—but I did start a draft blog entry about how I had failed NaNoWriMo. On day three, I wrote about half my daily quota, and on day four, my daily word count soared to 3,000.

The rest of the month went something like those first four days: very up and down. I did reach my goal of 50,000 words, but it will be some time before I can assess how much of it is usable story material and how much of it is pure drivel. There is certainly both. There were times when I just didn’t feel like working—if this was a job for which someone was paying me, I’d have called in sick—but in the spirit of the project, I plowed ahead anyway, even when I felt as though I was writing like a four-year-old. See Spot run.

The half-manuscript I vomited out during November has so many characters, and so much going on, that I lost my navigation of the main plot and sub-plots. But that navigation isn’t what NaNoWriMo is about—it’s simply about getting the words down.

Will I participate again next year? It depends—on the above-mentioned assessment, and on what else is going on at the time—and I probably won’t decide until next October. But whether I do or not, here are the top 7 things I learned about myself as a writer.

  1. I’m not a write-every-day author. While many authors write every day and feel that’s necessary to keep their momentum going, I’m going to need to take at least one day a week off from writing. I’ll still be writing “in my mind”—thinking about my characters and what they’ll do next, coming up with many different plot ideas so I can pick the best one—but for at least one day each week, the extent of my actual writing will be limited to social media interactions.
  2. I’m a plotter. I knew this already, but more times than ever during November, I cursed my October self for not preparing enough. He provided me with some great characters and settings, but didn’t give me enough plot points to work toward.
  3. My writer’s block is best overcome by writing pure dialogue. I have sat before the computer numerous times, stuck as to what to write next, staring at a blank screen. I try to describe the surroundings, or what a character is doing, and it takes me an hour to write a paragraph. But if I just stick to dialogue, writing only what the characters are saying to each other, the words flow. I can turn it into a scene later, adding in description and action during revisions. A lot of this dialogue will be cut—these characters do tend to ramble on—but at least I’ll have a frame around which to build a scene.
  4. I must look back before moving forward. The idea behind NaNoWriMo is to only move forward and not review what you’ve already written. However, my memory just isn’t that good. Half of what I wrote the day before was done in a sort of trance, so I don’t even know what’s happened in the story unless I review it. At the very least, after each chapter or scene I must write a brief summary of who was involved and what happened, and over time this becomes my “map” for the novel. The trick here is to resist the temptation to revise and restructure—save it for later.
  5. Writing hurts. I mean it physically hurts, sitting in a chair for hours. I must get up and stretch. I must take the laptop off the desk and move it to another location and then write some more. This is something else I already knew, but it’s very difficult to put into practice when you’re in the trance. It’s similar to surfing on the Internet—before you know it, three hours have gone by and your shoulder is sore from the cumulative tiny movements it takes to click on the mouse or reach for the keyboard. And stop slouching!
  6. I can do this. I honestly didn’t know whether or not I had it in me to complete half of a first draft of a novel in one month’s time. Mentally, I was 50% prepared for failure, and I was OK with that. Three weeks into the month, the best NaNoWriMo advice I read was from a person nearly one-quarter my age. More on that below.
  7. I am not an overachiever. If I set a goal for myself, I will reach that goal, but just barely. At times I will fall behind my goal, wallow in self-pity and doubt, and later pick myself up and do just enough work to get back on track. If I do get ahead, it won’t last long. The beauty in this is that I can set whatever goal I want for myself, and keep increasing it little by little.

Throughout the month, the NaNoWriMo community was full of pep talks, and my favorite of these came from a 12-year-old (!!) from Oakland, CA, who is working on his 2nd novel (!!!). Tai Reichle had this to say:

“If at the end of this month, you find you haven’t written a novel (as I will probably find), and have that “Shucks, I didn’t write a novel” feeling: laugh at yourself. Seriously, think about it: you just got a little angry at yourself because you didn’t write a novel. In a month. Ha! I would have never guessed I’d ever think that. Let alone complain about it. So instead think this: ‘Shucks. I didn’t write a novel. Neither did about seven billion other people. But I tried. So there.'”

Even though I did reach the 50K-word goal, by no means do I have a new novel, or even half a novel. But I have something, and it’s a hell of a lot more than I had at the beginning of the month. Now I’m looking forward to setting it aside—probably for several months or longer—while I concentrate on whipping my first two novels into publishable shape.

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