My first NaNoWriMo is over and I didn’t make it to the 50000 words required to call yourself a winner. I crawled and clawed my way to 35595. This untidy figure is an indication of how tired I was the last night of November that I couldn’t do that extra five words to take it up to a more rounded number. Also an indication of how NaNoWriMo makes you a little obsessive about word count. The NaNo graph; the status updates from more prolific writers; the sprints where you race to get those words on the page, all make you very aware that the word count is ticking over in the bottom left of your word document (No. Not a Scrivener convert yet) Punctuation bah! Forgotten character names just put xxx. Chapter breaks – I’ll work them out later. This was my month of letting go of old habits. My practices of waiting till I was in the mood, editing for half an hour before I start each session, fiddling with each sentence, being distracted by pinterest clips of castles and costumes (for my late middle ages setting) – these had to be curbed.
So is the barrelling ever onward habit of writing better than my old ways. I have come to a conditional conclusion about that, but one thing I know for sure is that NaNoWriMo was good for my writing. Here’s why:
- The practice of writing every day is habit forming. I couldn’t make the 1667 daily word count that was required for a win. I started off quite well but then tapered off as my plot became more difficult to navigate. But, with the exception of two days, I wrote every day. Before November I would often only write once or twice a week. It is now December and I am still writing everyday. No Zero Days is my new motto and I reckon I can sustain that (I might give myself a break on Christmas day)
- Immersion in the one project. I don’t write for a living. I do part-time work unrelated to writing. So during NaNoWriMo my head was in my middle ages fantasy (ok I still had to be a mum taxi, cook, washerwoman gardener, dogwalker, holiday planner etc) but most of my waking thoughts were with my characters. This was all-consuming at times and I had to listen to a comedic podcast or blast loud music to give myself a pause from my own thoughts. But there was no extended breaks. I didn’t have to warm up to my characters or reacquaint myself with the plot by rereading previous chapters. My project was like a member of the family rather than a friend you meet for an occasional coffee. When you are immersed in a story there is more opportunity to come up with off-the-plan ideas. And I did. I think a few of these ideas really strengthened my story.
- Engaging with a community of writers. I have a long-standing writing critique group who I value immensely (later post) But NaNoWriMo connected me with a wider circle of writers via on-line platforms. I joined two facebook groups and connected with some local writers to do Skype sessions. These groups served a different purpose to my critiquing group. They focussed on encouragement, engaging in word sprints (word wars) and tips from NaNoWriMo veterans. Members bond over triumphs and struggles (I had nil obstacles compared to some) and the general craziness that is NaNo (what was that weird shit I wrote at 1.00am?). I particularly enjoyed the sprints with my Skype group. I was always the slowest but it was still fun and challenging. Many local areas organise write-ins and you can participate in twitter and NaNo website initiated word wars at various times. There is no end of advice, from planning in the pre-NaNo period, to how to stay motivated in the middle, to how to go forward post-NaNo. One of the closed facebook pages I am in has decided to continue as everybody seemed to enjoy it so much.
- Pushing forward. Turn off that inner critic that wants to change every sentence and go back and read the beginning of the last chapter. This was a lesson I really needed to learn. There is time for editing and time to just finish the damn book. I didn’t finish my book in NaNo but I am confident I will now – by my estimation I have only three chapters to go. I have no intention of editing or even printing it out until I write that last sentence. NaNo taught me that. Yes, my story is a mess but editing is mostly mechanics. I don’t lay awake at night wondering whether I will be able to edit a chapter into shape – I do lay awake wondering whether I will be able to tie up a plot or whether I have even got it in me to finish at all. Get the creative, scary part out of the way first.
- Writing at every opportunity. I fitted 500 words in while at my son’s swimming lesson, 800 words in a hospital waiting room, 200 words in my morning tea break. I became unfussy about whether I had my computer or not. I kept a note book in the car and my bag and if I had a pen I could write. Of course I had to transfer my terrible scrawl to my computer when I got back to my desk. But strangely I found hand-writing freed me up and I was able to get past difficult plot points this way. I am going to use this method when I get stuck in the future. Of course this was always difficult previously because I didn’t have Point 2. I wasn’t immersed in my novel, so I at any one time I didn’t know where I was up to. With a daily writing habit this problem is solved – you always know where you are at in your story. Some of the people in my facebook group said that dictation worked for them. I tried it briefly and couldn’t operate without being able see the sentences laid out. Maybe it is a skill that has to be developed.
As I said at the beginning I have come to a conclusion about the barrelling forward approach. In the heady days of the first week of NaNo I was able to write at a pace I have never achieved before. This was because I had my world’s calendar mapped out and the research required for those first few chapters had already being done. As I got further into my novel I realised I had to stop and do a few more weeks on my calendar I had to look up aspects of middle ages life eg the effects of poisons, herbal remedies, foods etc. Some may say that for the purpose of NaNo you should have just glossed over these and done the research later OR should have done all my research first. The problem with the first suggestion is sometimes a plot point is determined by the research eg Can they even make that journey if it is a new moon? or did they have ‘take-away’ food shops in middle ages? (turns out they did). You don’t want to waste time on an unfeasible premise. The problem with the second suggestion is you never know quite know what research you are going to require until you start writing. I didn’t know my main character was going to stop for a fish meal by the seaside. So altogether it is more efficient to do much of the research as you go. Which of course can slow you down.
My book is a fantasy so historical facts and timelines are not absolutely critical but I do want to stay true to the middle ages theme of my world. There are other genres such as non-fiction, true historical fiction or even some science fiction where research would be even more rigorous. This is where the barrelling forward method has its limitations.
I feel NaNo is more suited to contemporary fiction and pure fantasy but if you are prepared not to necessarily ‘win’ and barrel forward when you can, and stop and plan when you need to, then every writer can benefit from the experience of NaNoWriMo because of the points I’ve outlined above.
35595 words in November that is more words than I had written in the entire previous year. I have inherited a supportive community of writers and a regular writing habit. I would say that was a ‘WIN’