Nanowrimo is over, and like thousands of other people, you didn’t hit the 50,000 word count this year, you didn’t hit it last year, or any other year that you attempted it. This may be your first time, or your last time because you are fed up. I am exactly the same way, but I managed to succeed this year. This year, when I started to contemplate Nanowrimo, I sat down and analyzed what went wrong every time before.
Crunching the numbers and looking for trends, the start of the month is great, hitting word counts day after day, it felt great, but then somewhere along the way, things start breaking down, the words start slipping, and soon, I’m too far behind to catch up. Sound familiar? I bet it started happening as Thanksgiving gets closer (if you are in the US). From my analysis of my own experiences, Thanksgiving was the killer, so I chose to do the 30 day novel challenge in August instead, and I learned some important lessons along the way.
I hope to share my discoveries with you, so that next year, or any month you choose to take on a 30 day writing challenge, you will have some strategies to help you accomplish this amazingly fun and rewarding goal. Will I ever publish the novella I wrote during August? Nah, probably not, but that doesn’t mean I’m not happy I finished it, so let’s dig in
It won’t be a great work of fiction
The first thing you need to realize is that your novella will not be a great work of fiction. Great works of fiction take way more than 30 days to finish. What you will have are the bones of a novella, bones that you can develop into a great work of fiction with more time and effort. If you keep this frame in mind, words will flow onto the page, words will become sentences, and all that will become a first draft.
To the end that you are not writing the next great novel, try very hard to avoid perfection. Make mistakes, write by hand, scratch things out, make notes in the margins. What you are writing is not precious. If you have to chisel it into stone, then care about perfection, but you aren’t chiseling this into stone for the centuries, and it will be ugly, full of bad grammar, bad spelling, bad puns, and just generally bad stuff, and that’s okay. Since it’s a first draft, it’s easy to let this stuff flow. Write it stream of conscious style, just get the words on the paper. Perfection is for later. For now, words, lots of them, onto the paper, into the editor.
By not obsessing over perfection, you allow your creative side of flourish. Your creative, non-linear brain loathes perfection, and blossoms in the muddy waters of the writing process. Focus all that creative energy while telling your linear and analytical grammar nazi to stuff it. For the more analytical minded people, this is going to be hard. If you agonize over every word choice, every sentence structure, every turn of phrase, you’ll never finish.
The stereotype of the substance-abusing writer is somewhat apt. While I’m not saying get drunk or high to write, you need to find a way for your analytical side of your brain to get out of the way to allow your creative mind to take charge. Alcohol and other substances are the cheap way out, so I don’t recommend them. But write when you are tired, write before you have fully awake for the day, write after intense exercise. All of these will help release yourself to the writing process.
Revising during the 30 day push is the death of the challenge. Once you start revising, you should just give up. Yes, that’s a pretty drastic reaction. This goes hand-in-hand with shutting down your analytical brain. By starting to revise, you can kiss the non-linear creative side of your though process goodbye, your inner editor has reared its ugly head, and once you let that bastard in the door, the delicate writer exits the building.
Save the revisions for after you’ve hit your word count because it will keep the inner editor who is telling you that your prose is shitty, your story is full of plot holes, or that character you loved in the beginning of the writing has turned into a complete asshole. Actually, my inner editor is an asshole, so I like to keep him shut down, shut out.
To ensure that my inner editor doesn’t show up uninvited, I refuse to read what I wrote the previous days during the 30 days, unless I specifically need to find a detail, and then I scan for that detail using search. I avoid reading it at all cost.
What do you do if you need to make a change to the story, or decide you need a character that hasn’t been introduced yet? Simple write like the change you want to make has already been made. Don’t go back and make it, but keep a notes file that says “Introduce Olivia in Chapter two” or “Change Johnny to Jane”. By keeping these notes, you are recognizing that something will need to be changed in the revision pass. You allow your inner editor a brief moment, record the comment, and move on. This way when the inner editor comes up, make note of what he says, and tell him to shut the hell up.
After the thirty days, the first thing you should do is revisit your notes file of revisions you should make. These are, hopefully, the really big edits that you need to do. Start with the biggest one, and work down to the smallest, but don’t do this under after you have hit your word count. Don’t be tempted to “just go and fix it now.”
Plotting or Pantsing, it doesn’t really matter.
It’s the eternal war between writers, to plot or to pants. There are arguments for both sides, but in the end, it does not matter. If you like plotting, then plot, but do it before the 30 days. If you are a pantser, pants your heart out for 30 days. For me, I did a little of both. I had a general idea of what I wanted to write, some general plot points, but most of that went out the window at about day ten. It happens.
I will suggest, even if you are a pantser that you create an outline. A little bit of prethinking will go a really long way to help you when you hit a writing wall. I’m not going to prescribe a specific outlining technique, or even what you should include in your outline, but before the 30 days start up, write down some ideas, brief sketches of events, characters, locations. Anything you can do to write down some ideas before you start, will pay off dividends as you get deep into the writing.
“But I’m a pantser!” I hear you scream, but that’s okay, I’m not telling you not to pants. I’m telling you to just spend some time to write down the ideas that are in your head. I’m sure you’ve been rolling ideas around in your head, acting out scenes while you shower, and dreaming of exotic locations. Write that shit down. Then when you are struggling to figure out how to describe the smell of the ocean, or the feeling of the dirt between your toes, you’ll have some things to fall back on, some prethoughtout stuff that you can dig into, pick apart, and reuse for what you are stuck on.
Even if you do write a detailed outline for your next great novella, don’t be afraid to deviate from the outline. You can’t let the outline be a chain around your neck, a weight that stymies you from exploring an interesting tangent in your story. Great stories can come from pulling on a thread that sounds interesting. It might not be your original journey, but maybe this journey is more interesting, filled with more conflict and drama. Follow the interest, and take your story where you expect it to go.
Unless you are the most hardened of plotters, you will end up pantsing. If you are like me, you know how your story starts; you know how your story ends, but what you did not figure out is how did the characters get there. It is okay, just breath, this is where pantsing comes in. If you know your characters well, and you should know them really well, then just write, and let them react how they will. Often times your characters might surprise you.
In my August project, one of my characters started off as a slapstick comedic relief character, but half way through the book, she ended up being a triple agent who was really a freedom fighter, who was totally badass. She went from making clumsy passes at the main character to a gun-wielding mastermind who took down a government and corrupt corporation. Did I plan that? Nope, the story was about a different betrayal, but at one point, she said “Fuck it” and drove into the action. Did I plan it? Nope! Did I prefer her character after the transformation? Fuck yeah I did.
You have to put in the work.
Writing anything of length is not easy. It is work, hard work, but if you are going to succeed in this challenge, you have to put in the work. This is no cake walk; it’s a war you are fighting with the procrastination monster, and the only way to win a war is to get on the battlefield.
Even if none of the previous points resonate with you, this is the real secret: show up. Set a schedule for yourself, and write. It’s going to be crap; you are going to hate the process at first, but then you will gain momentum. After you hit that point, it will feel like a magical turning point where the words come, and you aren’t sure if they are coming from you or from so alien controlling your fingers. It might come at the half way point; it might come during your favorite scene. For me, it came once I hit 10,000 words. That was the tipping point, but in order to get there, I had to show up, write the words.
It all requires dedication.
You are trying to hit 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s simple math: 1667 words per day. Your goal is to hit your word count every single day; show up and write and hit your word count. There is not magic to this, really. You have to strive, every day, to write 1667 words. There is no way around it. If you don’t hit your word count on one day, then guess what? You now have more words to write the next day, and the more days you slip, the harder it will be to catch up, so write 1667 words per day. Make them decent words, move the story forward, but get the words down into the computer or onto paper, or you’ll meet your goal.
Let’s be realistic though. There are days when you are not going to feel like writing, or you are sick, or there is too much going on. So what do you do in that case? How do you catch up when you are 5000 words behind? When I got in that situation, I dedicated 8 hours of writing time on the weekend. This may seem like a huge chunk of time, but I woke up early, and just wrote, and I did that for both days of the weekend. I didn’t wake up four hours earlier than normal, but I woke up at my normal weekday time, and would write, until I needed a break. Then I’d have breakfast, coffee, and back to writing. Once I needed that second break, I was done for the day, back again the next day.
I call this weekend power, and in the final weekend, I wrote almost 7000 words in a single day. That was power, and it felt amazing.
Did I have a life during August? Yes, I did not sacrifice anything to write my 30 day novella except a little idle time where I would have been browsing the internet, or working on some other project. I did have to limit myself to just the single project, but single-tasking is a great skill to work on, especially when you have project ADD like I do.
Now you have some tools and thoughts to help you get that 50,000 words down onto the page. Don’t wait until next November to do it. Go do it next month, or the month after. Get writing because the only way to write a novel is to get words on the page, and write.