Most fiction writers—whether they are a serious hobbyist or committed to an authorial career—have heard of National Novel Writing Month. For the past few years, I participated unofficially as a way to establish a habit of regularly writing in the midst of a busy schedule. Despite my years of experience as a freelance editor and my dream of publishing a novel of my own, I still consider myself a hobbyist as a writer.
As a book editor, I write not only for my own joy, but also to fully understand the highs and lows that my authors experience. In doing this, I gain valuable experience that helps me give my clients the best possible service when they bring their manuscripts to me. I have finished novels and short stories, but paying the bills always has taken priority over pursuing the publication of my works. Very recently, I decided to change that.
My first tangible effort, back in 2016, was deciding to attend a writer’s conference for the first time. The second, in 2017, was committing to write one novel a year. The third, this year, was choosing to go for the “gold” in NaNoWriMo. Fifty thousand words written in thirty days. With a full-time job, a part-time job, and a household to care for, I can confidently say this was the toughest decision I’ve made thus far in my writing career.
I sacrificed time with loved ones, a clean house, and sleep to achieve something I never thought possible. And I learned many things about myself as a writer. I took a step back from a few of my ingrained habits to look at my writing in a new way. I willingly explored methods of writing that I hadn’t used before. More than just the completion of my novel was on the line. (Spoilers: It’s not finished yet.) I stretched, tore, healed, and grew. And I’d like to share some of what I gained from the experience of winning NaNoWriMo 2018.
1. First Drafts Are Meant to Be Ugly
During the month, I forced myself to write in all moods and at all times. I wrote in the car. I wrote while eating. I wrote in the middle of the night. I wrote in the ungodly hours of the morning. I wrote when I was distracted, and I wrote when I wanted to be doing literally anything but writing.
The quality of my writing, therefore, was markedly worse than most everything I have ever written in terms of grammar, sentence structure, and cohesive storytelling. Eloquence took a huge nosedive in favor of just getting the basic skeleton of the plot, character arcs, and world building down on the page in a Rorschach-esque jumble of words.
In other words, my first draft is awful.
Because I was finishing a novel rather than starting one, I didn’t think the month would require much preparation. I already had an outline. I already had significant research done. No problem, right?
I am the type of writer that edits as I go. This makes me slower and more meticulous, but I work best this way. As a result, the single most difficult thing about NaNoWriMo for me was writing a sentence, knowing it was full of clichés, sometimes improper grammar, and usually general horribleness, and having to move on to the next one anyway. Every time it was physically painful. But I kept going, and the real test of whether NaNo works for me will be revealed during the revision process.
2. Writing Consistently Makes Ideas Flow
On Day 8, I hit a storytelling wall. I learned something very important about myself when I hit this wall. I don't make plot decisions quickly. I often mull over the potential details of a plot for hours—sometimes days—before a good option clicks. During NaNo, I didn’t have this luxury.
Despite the fact that I had a basic outline, a lot of my characters motivations and smaller decisions are discovery written. To figure these smaller details out with a time crunch, I was forced to take the time I wasn’t writing to process, and then I had to make a decision fast. I didn’t like all the results of this haphazard way of writing, but some ideas I came up with were intriguing. I didn’t have time to turn them over more than once in my mind (if at all), so I closed my proverbial eyes poured them out on the page, hoping they’d turn out okay.
I forced myself to choose before I was ready, and just had to see where the scene took me. This exercise made me realize that I need more processing time to improve the quality of my writing, but taking too much time causes me to lose momentum and inspiration. This is why my first novel took eight years to write.
NaNo taught me how to make decisions fast and adjust them on the fly. I inserted many more revision suggestions and comments than I’m used to, but it helped me see a weak spot in my writing habits and make a change.
3. Writing on the Go Pays Off
Before NaNo, I had to find a writing zen—a delicate, focused state of mind—before the words would move from my mind through my fingertips and into existence. During the month of November, that strategy went out the window. I reached that zen maybe twice during the month, and the rest of my days I spent writing out of sheer determination in spare moments.
My strategy for writing on the go was my smartphone and Google Docs, with the occasional deviation to a memo app when I was without internet. When back online, I would copy and paste my memos into my NaNo document and keep going, and I backed up the cloud file whenever I could.
This tactic enabled me to write wherever I was, with whatever time I could squeeze in.
I wrote while I rode in the car, careful to avoid motion queasiness with frequent breaks to look out the window. I wrote in bed when I woke up, both before I got up (because who wants to get out of a warm bed on a cold morning?) and after I retired for the night (because otherwise I’d just be playing solitaire or scrolling through social media anyway). I wrote in hotel rooms. I wrote during walks. I wrote on my lunch break. Sometimes for hours and sometimes for seconds, I kept writing.
In previous NaNoWriMos, I used this same multitasking tactic to marvelous effect, and it was my lifesaver this year. All those wasted moments throughout the day were suddenly incredibly useful with the help of my phone and an internet connection. Sometimes during walks I could write five hundred words while getting exercise and fresh air, and I loved it. With my body moving, my mind would often fly. And there are so many ways to do it. I always walked in a place free of hazards. An elliptical track (like the ones at many middle and high schools) or a treadmill work great for this, but I used a circular pathway at my town’s university campus. If you can afford it and would rather use a computer than a phone, a treadmill desk is also an option for others who want to write on the go. Text neck is a real thing, y’all, and that stuff hurts.
4. Word Count Goals Motivate Me More than Chapter Goals
When writing my first novel, I set various chapter goals, and one of them was to write a chapter a week. Whenever my chapters ran longer than normal, I got discouraged and usually didn’t finish. During NaNo, I wrote a chapter that was fourteen thousand words.
It needs to be broken up into multiple scenes and chapters, but I didn’t know that it would become such a huge monster when I wrote its three-sentence summary. Had I been operating on the chapter method, I probably would have quit when I realized how much work that chapter would take. But, focused on word count, I just powered forward, checking my goals as I went and promising myself to go fix it later.
Word count goals helped me stay focused on the elements of the overarching story as I wrote. A scene should always achieve more than one goal, and focusing on the word count rather than the chapter number helped me to achieve that goal in however many words the scene required. I’ll probably go back and cut a ton of it, rearrange a bunch, and dress it up, but if I accomplished my goals for each scene, then I did something right.
Focusing on word counts may not work for everyone. I saw a bunch of chatter on Twitter about breaking up potentially hyphenated or closed words or contractions to hit word counts, and do you know what that tells me? Word count goals may not be the best for some writers. If you are more focused on generating words than getting your scenes and stories down coherently, find a different way to stay motivated. Fortunately for me, the word count goal helped me focus on what really was important, and I didn’t get caught up with the mechanics of my prose like I usually do. I didn’t allow myself to edit, except perhaps with the spell check feature. I focused on the voices of my characters and tried to guide them to say and act believably within the constraints of the plot.
For me, writing this way is freeing, and prevented me from getting hung up or bogged down on the stuff that didn’t matter. I kept moving forward.
5. I Probably Won’t Do This Again.
Some people are motivated by impending deadlines. It invigorates them. Pushes them to great bouts of ingenuity and productivity.
I’m not one of those people.
I write best when I break up the work into manageable chunks, spread out over a reasonable amount of time with built-in hours for brainstorming, research, and daydreaming in the shower. (Don’t laugh—everybody does it!)
During NaNo this year, I had to be on top of my game every day to write quality content, but, of course, I wasn’t. There were days that I was too busy to write a single word, and others where I desperately tapped things out on my phone while pacing in my apartment because I couldn’t afford to take the time off for a proper walk, and I couldn’t bring myself to miss my word count goal and fall another day behind.
I participated in NaNo this year because I procrastinated on my novel-a-year goal, and knew I would need to crank out the words if I wanted to finish it by the end of 2018. Spoilers, I’m not done with my novel yet. But thanks to my work this month, I will likely finish it before the end of December.
In all honesty, I will probably not go for NaNoWriMo gold again. Or at least, not the full fifty thousand. First drafts are not supposed to be perfect, but mine will need far more work than I wanted. My ideas need time to simmer so they cook to a juicy, delicious tenderness rather than a still edible but slightly dried-out version of what I intended. Next year, I will build the time into my schedule to write consistently, finish the novel, and avoid burning myself out.
And if I ever do decide to go for the gold again, I will make sure to train properly for the marathon that is NaNo. In light of this crazy journey, I am profoundly grateful. Not only for my wonderful NaNo community and the tips and encouragement I received during the process, but also for the deep passion I still have for the written word, even here, November 30, at the end of all things.
Don’t stop writing.