I have a guest post over on WrimosFTW! about how I wrote 10,000 words in a day for Nanowrimo a few years ago. These days, such an accomplishment is pretty banal; to get noticed by Nano, people now have to write 20,000 words in an hour on the back of a bus ticket while wearing a chicken suit in Times Square. In their own blood. The bar’s gotten kinda high. But back in 2005, I managed to get a brief interview and a spot on the Nanowrimo front page. And I was every bit as photogenic then as I am now, which is to say not in the least. Anyway, check it out over at WrimosFTW, and thanks to Lyn Midnight for the opportunity.
So you decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month this year. You’ve kicked around a few ideas and sworn to make an outline. Then things got busy. The kid got sick. You just had to find out if Elise was going to get kicked off Hell’s Kitchen. Your World of Warcraft raid group decided they were going to run Firelands without pants. Your muse packed up her stuff, gave you the finger, and knocked over your entire collection of Elvis commemorative plates on the way out the door. Or whatever. Long story short, you’ve burned your time like a Roman candle, Nanowrimo is a week away, and you’ve got nothing. Nothing! What do you do?
All is not lost. It might be a bit late in the game to meticulously plan ahead, but you can still throw something together in time for your inevitable November panic attack. It won’t be perfect, but you don’t want it to be perfect. Perfectionism runs contrary to the very spirit of Nanowrimo. Here, then, is a quick-and-dirty method for outlining that you can pull off in a week or less.
I call this the Hailstorm Approach, which is to say that it’s an extremely stripped-down variant of Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. (I had considered calling it the Half-Pants Approach, but that sounded kind of dirty.) If you want a proper, useful method of outlining a novel before you write, I highly recommend the Snowflake. But the Snowflake is far more thorough and time-consuming than this, and that’s time you probably don’t have with Nanowrimo only a week away.
If you’re experienced with outlining, then you probably have no need for this. But if you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer or a first-timer looking for a framework for your story, this method might help you get through Nanowrimo with your sanity intact. I broke these steps down into daily tasks, but there’s no rule saying you can’t do it all in one Herculean sitting if you’re that kind of maniac.
So here we go.
1. Pick a Genre, Write a One-Sentence Summary
Before you even start, you have to know what your story’s about. Most likely, you already have this covered; if not, well, here’s your big chance. Don’t worry too much about specifics at this point. Just boil your story down to your “elevator pitch,” the single sentence that sums up the book you want to write. You should also pick the genre(s) for your book. If you want to write a crazy, genre-mashing masterpiece for Nanowrimo, that’s fine, but it’s best if you at least know which genres you’ll be defying from the outset.
2. Better Get a Bucket
Next, make a wishlist of all the stuff you want to write about. Nanowrimo transforms November into a demanding beast, and you may find motivation and inspiration at a premium. So just write down everything you want to put in your book, no matter how off-the-wall or unlikely it might seem. Aim for one simple criterion: if the thought of writing a particular element excites you, put it on the list. You’re under no obligation to include everything on this list when the time comes to write your draft, and you can save the elements you don’t use for a later project.
3. Three Acts, Three Disasters
To keep your novel from meandering, impose a loose three-act structure for the novel. Again, don’t get really exacting about it at this point, just have a rough idea in mind. Ingermanson adds another layer onto this, called the “three-disaster” structure. These are basically three obstacles that you throw in front of your protagonists before the climax of the story:
The Three Disaster Structure says that you have three MAJOR disasters in your story and they are equally spaced. So Disaster 1 comes at the end of the first quarter. Disaster 2 comes right at half-time. Disaster 3 comes at the end of the third quarter.
Once you’ve figured these things out, you’ll have a skeletal framework for your story. This framework will almost certainly change over time and multiple drafts, so don’t sweat it too much. The goal here is not to create a rigid plan that you can’t deviate from — it’s to keep your contemporary political thriller from becoming a sci-fi epic about ninja chimps swordfighting on Mars (unless that’s your one-sentence summary, in which case, good work!)
4. Characters and Aspects
If you’ve been writing for awhile, you’re probably intimately familiar with the many intricate character charts that detail every nuance of a character’s existence. Such a thorough level of detail is probably impractical given the pace and scope of Nanowrimo, so here’s a quick compromise: for each character, come up with a name, then a set of five to ten “aspects” that describe that character. These can be anything: physical descriptors, story goals, personality traits, quotes, character tropes, a list of their diseases… anything you think sums up the characters. Don’t worry about being consistent — just make a quick sketch of each major character.
5. Relationships and Conflicts
Now that you’ve figured out your characters and their roles in the story, it’s time to start tying them together. Carve out some relationships: best friends, lovers, sworn enemies, backstabbing traitors, disapproving parental figures, whatever. If a sketch or a mind-map works better than a bulleted list, do that. Plotting out the major relationships and keeping them in front of you will lend your scenes clarity and drive, especially when characters are working at cross-purposes. Again, this is not a stone tablet to be slavishly devoted to — if you get to writing and you find something’s not working, jettison it without mercy.
6. Create Summaries for Major Characters
At a certain point in the outlining process, the Snowflake Method recommends writing the entire story from the point of view of each character. This presumes that you’ve already written a summary of the story in its entirety, though, and since this method doesn’t include that step, I recommend a slightly different approach.
Write a couple of sentences or a short paragraph describing the story arc for each major character: where they begin, how they change, and where they end up. If you’ve outlined your characters and their relationships in the previous steps, this should be pretty easy pickings. Paint with a broad brush and don’t get hung up on details — there’s plenty of time for that later.
7. Create a Rough Scene List
For the final step, break out a new text file or a spreadsheet and create a list of scenes for your novel, from beginning to end. Include the point-of-view character and a one-sentence summary of what happens in each scene. Again, this is not to be considered immutable law — just a low-level breakdown of the story.
Pick items generously from the wishlist you made above: include everything you find exciting and compelling. Try to add only scenes that move the story forward. One of the big advantages of outlining is that you cut way down on wasted scenes that go nowhere. They’ll probably still crop up during your draft, but there will be far fewer of them.
And that’s it. You now have a nice, messy framework for your Nanowrimo novel, with just enough detail to keep you going, while not detracting from the joy of the first-draft rush.
If by any chance you end up using this method, I’d love to hear about it. Criticisms, recommendations and refinements are equally welcome. Happy Nano-ing this November!
It’s no secret that writers can be a moody, temperamental lot. Often, we find ourselves approaching our craft with all the boundless verve and energy of a wrongly convicted prisoner walking the Green Mile. Sure, there are a plenty of blithe souls who seem to float through the act of writing (or editing, or revising) like a soothing zephyr, even as the rest of us sit at our keyboards, get jacked up on Red Bull, and scream into our pillows until we wonder why ever cultivated the desire to write. While making a full-time job of seething with envy at these type-A demigods might be tempting, it’s probably not the most productive approach. What might serve you better, if you are one of these guilt-ridden, type-B writers, is a shift in attitude.
Yeah, sure. Easy enough to say, right? Changing one’s attitude just isn’t that simple. We’re writers. We’re artists, and stuff. Not to mention, we have this whole self-destructive image of the “tortured writer” to live up to.
Personally, I think the “tormented” part of “toremented writer” has almost zero utility. Despite breathless assertions to the contrary, writing is not a holy bolt from the blue that transforms your life without effort or dedication, nor a raging metaphorical psycho whose savage beatings you must endure if you are to create anything of worth. If you’re lucky, such agony-driven inspiration might last long enough to see you through a single poem, or awesome paragraph, or brilliant bit of dialogue — but rarely more than that.
Self-doubt and self-recrimination are natural emotions, but giving them too much influence can amount to self-indulgence, and that time you spend being a Tormented Artist would be better spent writing. I feel I can speak with some authority here, because I’ve felt sorrier for myself than just about anyone I know, and only recently began to question (and do away with) the romanticized-but-ultimately-horseshit myths that keep aspiring writers from getting real work done. Defeating these feelings isn’t easy, especially if you’re a chronic procrastinator. There is no quick fix or easy trick that will get you over the hump. But there are ways to beat them, and they aren’t complicated.
I recently had a chat with a fellow writer planning to participate in National Novel Writing Month. I asked her what the plot of her book was going to be, and she gave me a limp response: “Science fiction, I guess. I don’t know. I’m not really happy with the plot, but I guess I’ll try anyway.”
Now, I might have simply misjudged her tone, but my first thought was: there’s no way she’s going to make it. I run into this kind of attitude a lot, particularly among aspiring writers; people who feel they should be writing a certain kind of story, but when you talk to them, you get the feeling they don’t truly want to. Granted, not every idea is going to set your world on fire, but you will have plenty of time to get discouraged and frustrated when you’re mired in your middle act — if you’re just starting out and you already feel “meh” about your story, why even write it?
Writing takes time, sacrifice, and a lot of effort. If you’re going to put in all that work, at least do yourself the favor of writing something you deeply care about. And if you can’t think of anything you care about enough to write, then maybe take up something more rewarding, like carpentry or golf. And this may eventually lead you down a difficult road: if you’d rather watch Two and a Half Men reruns than write seven days a week, then maybe writing isn’t actually you’re calling — or maybe you just have some fears about your writing that you need to face down and deal with.
Don’t half-ass it.
About a year or so ago, a close friend told me that he didn’t actually care about finishing any of his projects. This guy was (and is) bright, talented, and clever, but has a long history of abandoned projects that start out strong, pick up a pretty decent following, and then lie fallow after he shrugs and abandons them. I asked him why he didn’t finish some of these ambitious projects, and he told me that he’d just rather put in a little bit of effort and get a little bit of praise in return, then move on to the next project and repeat the cycle.
That’s high on the list of the most depressing things I’ve ever heard anyone say about their creative life.
Maybe it’s haughty of me, but I think that’s just failure and disappointment in the making. I’ve tried hard to change my attitude since reading Leo Babauta‘s inspirational Power of Less. Babauta gives some simple but potent advice: if you’re going to put your time into a project, make it something life-changing and big. If you’re getting paid to write something that bores the crap out of you, that might be one thing, but if you can’t cultivate a passion for your story, you’re sunk. Seriously, do yourself a favor and find an idea you’re in love with.
Guilt is a crap motivator.
I don’t believe in guilt-as-inspiration. Some people might find it inspirational, though I’ve yet to meet anyone who got a lot done because they hated themselves. All the successful creative types I know work from a place of passion and drive. The people who sit around saying “oh God, I really should write because I am such a lazy-ass” tend to just sit around some more — and I include myself in this. Guilt might motivate you, if you work hard enough at feeling guilty, but it’s like fueling your sports car with canola oil — there are easier ways to get moving.
Don’t get me wrong, a certain amount of guilt is natural and unavoidable. But you have to choke it out before it keeps you from getting anything done. Wrestle it to the ground and make it work for you.
This is another bit of wisdom I picked up from everybody’s favorite blogger, Seth Godin (who picked it up from Voltaire): “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
It may seem contradictory to say “get excited, no I mean really excited, COME ON I CAN’T HEAR YOU” and then say “hey, expect to suck” right afterward. But that’s just how it is. You’re going to make mistakes. Your first draft will be so far from perfect that you’ll probably consider tossing it out more than once. Just learn to accept it, because that’s reality. It would be awesome if every writer could just rattle off a brilliant, totally life-changing, flawless, consistent first draft. Big news: nobody does that. So you shouldn’t expect yourself to, much less feel bad for failing to do so.
So, what am I saying here? I’m saying don’t write anything that bores you, because it will almost certainly bore your readers. I’m saying don’t beat yourself up so much. I’m saying that giving yourself permission to suck can lead you through the Valley of Suck to the Mountain of Awesome, whereas taking the shortcut through the Cave of Guilt only leads to the Lava-Filled Grotto of Hopelessness and — well, tortured geographical metaphors aside, seriously. Get excited. Find a story you love, and if you can’t, then read someone else’s stories until inspiriation finally groin-punches you. Lock your guilt in a trunk and kick it off the pier. And when you do write, write with passion or not at all.
I’ve uploaded some new versions of my 2011 Nanowrimo calendar wallpaper page with four new color schemes. Check ’em out and enjoy! I’ll be adding more from time to time through this month and next.
I promise not to blather too much more about National Novel Writing Month before November arrives, but this blog post demanded to be written. Seriously, it came in here and started breaking all my furniture. It couldn’t be negotiated with. My hands were tied, at least until I started typing. Anyway.
Nanowrimo can be a trying, exhausting, crazy time for a writer. Whether you’re just starting out with your first book, or a salty veteran participating for the sheer joy of putting off other work, Nanowrimo is a challenge, and challenges call for inspiration. And who’s more inspiring than Jack Burton, the fearless, hapless, meat-headed protagonist of the John Carpenter’s cult classic Big Trouble in Little China? Well… probably a lot of people. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take heart from some of Jack’s gloriously Eighties dialogue.
“Are you crazy… Is that your problem?”
I love these softball questions. Yes you are, or you wouldn’t be participating. Next.
“Like I told my last wife, I says, ‘Honey, I never drive faster than I can see. Besides that, it’s all in the reflexes.'”
Jack Burton might not drive faster than he can see, but face facts — you might have to. This November, write from the gut. Trust your instincts. Don’t second-guess yourself or get bogged down in detail.
“I’m a reasonable guy. I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.”
When the heady mid-November mix of exhiliration and sheer terror hit, family and friends may come to find you unrecognizable, and eye you warily as you twitch from caffeine jitters and narrative hysteria. Assure them that your wild-eyed stares and frantic muttering are at least slightly unlikely to persist beyond November. At least until National Novel Editing Month, am I right? Haha! Oh God.
“Son of a bitch must pay!”
As hard as you try, your Nano-novel will not write itself. Believe me, I’ve tried it a dozen times. I’d watch the entire run of Supernatural and come back to the computer only to find the blank page still sitting there like an asshole. Son of a bitch must pay, or, more accurately, son of a bitch must sit in the chair and meet quota if son of a bitch doesn’t want to end up crying. Not that I’m calling you a son of a bitch. I’m sure you’re a very nice person.
“I’m gonna tell you about an accident, and I don’t wanna hear ‘act of God,’ okay?”
Accidents are going to happen. Your hard drive crashes, your word processor mangles your chapter into something resembling Atlantean Senzar, you sneeze during an attack of diptheria and when you wake up your gritty paranormal werewolf mystery is now about Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Don’t panic and roll with the gleeful groin-punches Nanowrimo will undoubtedly deliver.
“This is gonna take crackerjack timing, Wang.”
Nanowrimo is all about time. Time to write, time to sleep, time for coffee, time running out. You just have to swagger bravely into the enemy stronghold and find the central junction box. Of your story. Or your soul. Or something. Look, these metaphors seemed like a good idea at the time, okay?
“You can go off and rule the universe from beyond the grave. Or check into a psycho ward, which ever comes first, huh?”
Beware yon hubris, ye mortals, your book cannot be both a touching May-December romance betwixt Haight Street bohemians with leukemia and a sci-fi epic about immortal vampires starting their own fast-food franchise. Or can it? You’ll never know until you try, and November is the one time of the year when you’ll be surrounded by writers who will never judge you, because they’re too busy making their own bad decisions. Make it work for you.
“Well, ya see, I’m not saying that I’ve been everywhere and I’ve done everything, but I do know it’s a pretty amazing planet we live on here, and a man would have to be some kind of FOOL to think we’re alone in THIS universe.”
Just remember that when the earth quakes, and poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake, that you’re not alone. There are other writers all over Twitter, the blogoverse, and the Nanowrimo forums. Together, let the sound of your panicky screams form a soothing chorus of fellowship.
“Feel pretty good. I’m not, uh, I’m not scared at all. I just feel kind of… feel kind of invincible.”
Sooner or later, you’ll hit your stride. Your ending will lumber into view over the far horizon of aching fingers and dying brain cells, and you’ll feel the thrill of knowing that the words THE END are now within your grasp. Embrace it. Flex like the vainest of bodybuilders. Bask in the beatific glow of impending success. Then get over yourself and get back to writing.
And that’s it. Whenever doubt strikes you this November, just keep in mind what Jack Burton always says? (All together now… “Who?” “Jack Burton, me!”) Ol’ Jack always says… “what the hell?”
P.S. If you love (or love to hate) 80s movies, you might also check out my joyful lambasting of Dreamscape. Also, when the Nanowrimo web site finally gets its buddy list act together, feel free to add me.
And this November, shake the pillars of heaven.
According to the National Novel Writing Month website, I’ve been participating for eight years. No one’s more alarmed about that than I am. That’s a minimum of 400,000 words, which is at least two-thirds of your average Robert Jordan novel. Countless hours. Millions of keystrokes. Untold cups of coffee. I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things in those eight years. (I’m not saying I have, necessarily, I’m just saying I’d like to think so). But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that Nanowrimo is not without its pitfalls.
1. You’re going to piss someone off.
The spirit of Nanowrimo is one of friendship, mutual support, and unalloyed enthusiasm about writing that novel. It would be nice if family and friends always felt the same way, but they won’t. Writing takes up a lot of time, and Nanowrimo even more so, because of the high word count and short deadline. Chances are, people are going to want to spend time with you, and will be tempting you with trivial concerns like socializing, eating, or expressing affection for your loved ones. Things can get especially problematic when the people close to you try to be “supportive” by lovingly telling you you’re wasting your time.
Not everybody is going to be happy with the time you’re giving Nanowrimo this November. Not everyone is going to believe in you. Not everyone is going to care about your novel. All you can do — in fact, what you must do — is shrug it off and soldier on.
2. Much as you might want to, you can’t completely ignore life.
What would an insightful point be without another that immediately contradicts it, right? While you have to let the unhappiness and disapproval of others bounce off like a cat hitting a beach ball, you also can’t turtle up entirely. Regretfully, you’ll still have to go to work, feed your pets, pay the phone bill, and shower. Seriously, shower. That unwashed writer cachet only works on film and television because you can’t smell film or television. Some things just can’t be ignored.
All passions, and especially writing, require a balance, and Nanowrimo is great at throwing that balance out of whack. You’re going to need to cut vast swaths of time out for writing if you’re going to make it — but you can’t, and shouldn’t, cut everything.
3. You’ll want to throw it all away.
You’ve just finished writing a twenty-page chase scene in which Flash Gordon, Spike from Buffy and Jack Burton drive the Pork Chop Express into the Grand Canyon in order to escape from the UFO piloted by the mirror universe killer android double of Thomas Edison and the Force ghost of Andy Kaufman. And that’s when you realize you’ve written the worst chick-lit teen romance novel of all time.
Sometimes, even if you carefully plan ahead, things will fly off the rails. If you don’t plan, they’re almost sure to. Something is probably going to crawl out of your novel, tie the rails in knots, cover them in C4, and thumb the detonator. More than once, you’ll find yourself wanting to chuck the last five, ten, fifty, or a hundred pages and start over.
Don’t do it.
Plow ahead. See where your latest gonzo plot development takes you. Better yet, see if you can wrestle that unexpected plot development back on track. Make a challenge out of it. At the very least, sit down and really think about whether your work can’t be salvaged. Tossing out big chunks of text is one of the easiest ways to get demoralized.
4. November really is a terrible month for this.
Oh, November, you so crazy. Thanksgiving. The day after Thanksgiving. In-laws showing up and lingering around like a herpes flare-up. November is a month full of distractions, obligations, and easy excuses for giving up on Nanowrimo. But here’s the thing: so are the other twelve months of the year. After all, after Thanksgiving comes Christmas, and then New Year’s, and then you’ve got spring cleaning, and who wants to sit cooped up all summer hunched over a laptop, and suddenly, oops, it’s November again.
Writers love to wait for that moment when they’ve just slept for ten hours, the kids are at the neighbor’s house, the boss just gave them the week off, the world’s most delicious cup of coffee magically brewed itself, the Internet stopped working, and the Muse has descended from on high to whale them in the back of the skull with the wiffle-ball-bat of inspiration. If you’re lucky, a day like that comes about once a year. You can’t count on it. Writing through inconvenience is something you have to learn to do, and November’s as good a time as any.
5. Something will go wrong technically.
I used to be a system administrator at a university, and there was one teacher who was constantly plagued by technical issues: hard drive failures, CD-ROMs that would stop working, backup devices that would stop working, monitors that would stop working… I think you get the drift. She would joke about “gremlins” and being “cursed,” and we would all have a good laugh because gremlins don’t exist, haha! But by the end, it got so bad that I wasn’t so sure anymore.
Whether it be gremlins or good old reliable Murphy’s Law, Nanowrimo is a great opportunity for either to strike. Take precautions. Back up early and often. Use Dropox or email yourself a copy of your novel regularly. Don’t assume that your creaky old laptop will hang on until you’ve written THE END on the final page. You think throwing out a thousand words is demoralizing? Try losing forty thousand. Plan for disaster and hope it passes you by.
6. Something will go wrong non-technically.
This is related to the first two points, but really bears mentioning again. There’s every possibility that you might get deathly ill from Aunt Bethany’s Raw Duck Surprise or the germs off the liquid soap dispenser that claims to be antibacterial but clearly someone lied. Your car will die. Your closest friend will have a public meltdown at Burger King and need to be bailed out at four in the morning. The bank will add a minus sign to the front of your bank balance for a hilarious holiday-season sally. Something always happens, is what I’m saying.
When it seems like life is piling obstacles in front of your Nano-novel like it’s the star in a Steven Spielberg action blockbuster, just put your head down and get through it. Think of the bragging rights you’ll earn. Put the not-actually-hilarious events of your life into the book and make them actually hilarious. Make adversity work for you — or just grit your teeth. Either way, don’t let it stop you.
7. Someone’s always doing better.
There’s one every year — some clown on the forums who apparently just sits down, starts flapping at the keyboard like a chimp on horse steroids, and earns that 50K purple bar in an afternoon. “Ah, done at last!” they’ll post on the forums, all disingenuous relief and manufactured naivete. “That took forever! I thought there was no way I’d hit 150K words before brunch.” Pay no attention to these reprobates. First of all, they’re probably lying. Or, if they aren’t, their novel is even more unreadable than is usual for a product of Nanowrimo. Or maybe they really are some kind of unholy writing android named Picasso Prosaico Prolificus and they really did knock off a work of genius like it was an especially productive bowel movement.
Whatever. You’re not them, and the last thing you need is a heaping side dish of seething resentment to go with your buffet of word-count anxiety and your dessert of crushing-fatigue soufflé. Just keep working at your own pace and try to be gracious enough to congratulate those stupid jerks on their dumb stupid accomplishment. You know, like the Golden Rule says.
8. Someone’s always doing worse.
Check the Nanowrimo forums, and every year you’ll see some poor sap who seems to be writing from a condemned coldwater flat located directly beneath Satan’s butthole. His wife just divorced him, the heat got turned off, the dog ran away and only pieces of it came back, he tripped on his laptop cord and shattered his tibia, even as said laptop flew out the window and caved in the hood of the landlord’s brand-new Lexus. And if that weren’t bad enough, he’s 32,000 words behind with two days to go, and his protagonist was just vaporized in a hospital accident and he doesn’t remember how or why because he was on a lot of pain pills at the time, which he just ran out of, incidentally.
I know, you might be thinking, why do you care? Buck up, little camper, put some duct tape on that tibia, put those frostbitten fingers back on your keyboard, and get back to work. Well, it’s not quite as funny when it’s someone you know. I mean, let’s hope not. But writing buddies occasionally fall hard and need some support. It might even be some stranger on the Nano forums or on Twitter whom a fun-loving God has just swatted across the groin with the mishap stick. These moments can range from the merely amusing, to the inconvenient, to the emotionally exhausting. Do what you have to do to support your fellow Wrimo, but don’t let it become an excuse to give up.
9. You’ll start craving that purple bar.
One thing about Nanowrimo is that the little blue word-count bar will slowly creep into the center of your life and stay there, mocking you with merry japes every time you try to turn your bedraggled attention elsewhere. You’ll become obsessed with it. You seek out new and more complex widgets to post on Livejournal, or Twitter, or your blog, or the forums, or the project management software at work so everyone can see how badass you are. You’ll write a paragraph, and check your word count. You’ll write a word, and check your word count. You’ll do nothing and check it anyway, just because you might have read it wrong.
Checking your own progress toward that mythical purple bar can overshadow other goals if you let it. Don’t let it. Keep writing, resist the urge to update, and put your story first. Many are the Wrimos who hit 50K and ended their novel with “and then he was shot by the cops and died such is the price of hubris and the wages of fear OKAY THE END” and figured that was enough. Do this and the poor jokers you’ve suckered into reading your draft are going to want to beat you with a belt until you look like one of the California Raisins.
10. Word counts are not to be trusted.
I’ll be succinct. Word counts are goddamned liars. Microsoft Word will tell you one thing, OpenOffice another, Notepad something else still, and the Nanowrimo word count validator will renounce them all like Saint Peter selling out Jesus. Don’t be a chump and stop at 50K just because Clippy says you’re done. Finish the story properly. Add a denouement. Pad the thing out if you have to, because the last thing you want is to have a character recite the Declaration of Indepence for a finale because it’s ten minutes to midnight and Nanowrimo says you’re sitting pretty at 48,104. Which brings us to our next point:
11. The Nanowrimo web site will probably fail you when you need it most.
Anyone who’s ever done Nanowrimo will tell you that from the 1st to the 5th of November, and the 27th through the 30th, the two hamsters that power the Nanowrimo site will start getting tired, and it will stop functioning. Much of the time, this is a boon, as it keeps you from downloading wallpapers or browsing for overpriced coffee cups or whatever super-vital thing you’re doing that isn’t writing. However, more than one Wrimo has tried to validate their word count at the very last minute, only to find out a bunch of other people are doing the same thing, and instead of a pretty placard and a congratulatory message, their reward is a blank browser page and the sound of their own screams. Do your blood pressure a favor and finish as early as you can.
12. The Internet will eat your life.
This particular truth is not endemic to Nanowrimo, but to writing in general; at some point, it will become clear to you that you cannot in good conscience write another word without firing up Wikipedia and learning all about torture methods in Turkish prisons, or the synopses of every episode of “Super Train,” or how harshly libel laws are actually enforced in your country of origin. I’m not saying that research isn’t necessary for a successful novel. Quite the opposite. But I will suggest to you that when you’re three days behind quota and fighting off a panic attack about it, now might not be the time.
The same goes for social media and blogging. What information-age writer born with the procrastinatory gene hasn’t killed an afternoon on Twitter? I know I sure have. I’m doing it right now. But you have to wrangle that behavior into line if you’re going to finish on time. And don’t give me any of that bullroar about how you’re Twittering your novel and by OMG bizarre coincidence it features characters named @neilhimself and @ChuckWendig. I’m afraid it’s been done, Major Gimmick.
13. A Damp, Drizzly November in Your Soul
This is probably the ugliest truth to face when it comes to Nanowrimo, and when it happens to you, there isn’t anything funny about it. There will probably be moments when you’re exhausted, you’re frustrated, and it seems like there’s no one there who believes in you. You’ll wonder why you’re bothering. You’ll briefly entertain dramatic notions of Never Writing Again. And sometimes all the forlorn forum posts, despairing tweets, or maudlin blog entries in the world won’t make you feel better — even if you get a pep talk from fellow Wrimos past or present.
Nanowrimo can be a real blast, a useful experience, and a great utility for pumping out a first draft. But it’s very easy to take it too seriously and let the images of the purple bar, the winning trophy, and the approving faces of your friends coalesce into a harrowing vision of guilt and shame. When this happens, just sit back and remember, it’s just Nanowrimo. Winning is great, but it literally only means as much as you let it. Bailing out doesn’t make you a failure, or a bad writer, or a lazy no-good mutant. Sometimes, goals are just beyond our grasp for the moment.
But if you can, take the knowledge that you can walk away from Nano, consequence-free, and use it to rekindle your love of the game. You’re not here because you have to be. You’re here because you want to be. Because you love the exhilarating, exhausting, fun-as-hell rocket ride of Nanowrimo.
Then finish your book. Good luck.
November is only a month away, and that means another National Novel Writing Month. For anyone who might not be familiar, Nanowrimo is a yearly online event where amateur and professional writers try to bang out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, in between carping on the Nanowrimo forums about how they shouldn’t have taken on the unreasonable task of banging out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. The point of the exercise is to free yourself from the constraints of your “inner editor” and embracing the joys of the berserk and uneven first draft. A lot of beginning authors struggle with trying to be perfect the first time. Nanowrimo combats that with a big word count requirement, an inconvenient deadline, and hordes of other poor saps doing the same thing.
I’ve been participating in Nanowrimo since 2004, and have had a love / hate relationship with it since day one. I briefly earned my bragging rights in 2007 when I landed an interview with Nano for writing 10,000 words in a day, and even got a photo of my smug self on the front page. In the years since then, the “10,000 word day” has become dirt-common, and now people are on to writing 20,000 words in a day while dressed in a chicken suit typing on an Apple II in the middle of Times Square at midnight. On mushrooms. The bar for getting noticed on Nanowrimo has risen somewhat.
Since I’ve been at it for long enough that I consider myself a salty old Nanowrimo veteran, I now have my process down to a science:
- Swear that this year I won’t be doing Nanowrimo this year because I have no use for it
- Do it anyway
- When my friends ask me why I’m doing it again, swear devoutly this will be the last time
- Quote Godfather III (“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”), goto 1
The truth is, I participate every year because it’s a lot of fun. There’s something exhilirating about a deadline that doesn’t involve paying the rent or a pissed-off client. It’s nice to shrug off responsibility and just write like a maniac for a few weeks. But beyond the heady rush of plowing through a dreadful first-draft novella in a month, there are actually a few valuable lessons to be learned from Nanowrimo.
1. This is your big chance not to care.
One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Seth Godin: “don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.” A lot of writers I know will do anything they can to keep from actually finishing a project. They write a paragraph, then go back and edit. They write a sentence, then go back and edit. They write one word and down Jagermeister until they wake up in a dumpster not knowing their name. They agonize over insignificant plot points. I know one damned soul who’s been typing his character names into Google for the last ten years, making sure that his super-original names aren’t duplicated anywhere on the internet. It’s appallingly easy to dwell in this hapless creative purgatory forever, slouching toward perfection and never getting any closer.
Nanowrimo can help you Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Writing Crap. If you’re going to make the deadline, you won’t have time to fart around. This is your chance to pump yourself up with a do-or-die attitude and learn just how useless a first draft really is.
Granted, this isn’t exactly a spectacular lesson, since it amounts to “I learned from Nanowrimo the basic premise of Nanowrimo,” but still, it bears mentioning. Moving on.
2. Good novels need planning. This is no time to plan.
This is a bit of a sweeping generalization, so I’ll amend it to say that my novels need planning. Some people, apparently, can just bang out a draft that has a strong opening, a clear plot, a taut second act, and a finale that brings together every element into a satisfying payoff. In six years, I’ve never come within spitting distance of doing that, and I suspect these people are some kind of genetic supermen, or possibly reptoids from the planet Smartron V.
Quality takes time, preparation, and hard work. Nanowrimo is more about gleefully building a mountain of chaff and separating the wheat out later on.
3. You’re capable of great things.
One of the big roadblocks so many writers run into is the lack of time. Jobs, kids, social lives, dentist appointments, fatigue, and let’s face it, Top Gear is hardly going to watch itself. Nanowrimo is an opportunity to put aside as many responsibilities as you can, stay up too late, drink too much coffee, and write more than you’ve ever written before. Write dialogue that makes you laugh out loud! Close nagging plot holes at two in the morning by the sallow light of your Macbook! Brag on your word count like it means something! Out of nowhere, add zombies to your novel in the second act, just because you can! Ignore the bleating taunts of your unsupportive peers and family members! Take on something unreasonable and impulsive and by God, finish it. Feel good? Yeah, you know it does.
4. Excuses are eternal.
Every year I participate in Nanowrimo, I see a lot of people give up, both strangers on the forums and people I know personally. The number one excuse is always the same: November is too busy. It’s the holidays. Thanksgiving is coming up. Family is visiting. I’ve got this killer hangnail.
I’m not saying that people don’t have time obligations, or that the holidays aren’t frantic. Our lives are busy. I get that. But here’s something I’ve seen probably a dozen times: the guy or gal who complains about how inconvenient November in particular is, and announces their intention to write their one-month novel in January. Or May, or June, or whenever. Then, by the time Mythical January finally rolls around, they’ve forgotten all about it. “I want to do this, but November is too busy” has become code for “I never really intended to start in the first place.”
Waiting for the perfect time to write — some magical time of the year when you don’t have a job, a life, and other things to do — will just leave you waiting forever. If you’re going to commit to writing, then why not make a commitment at the worst possible time? Think of how easy the rest of the year will seem by comparison.
5. You’re still on your own.
This is the tough one. One of the big selling points of Nanowrimo is that you’ll be working alongside thousands of other people, all struggling along to make their Great American Writing Dream come true. While this sounds appealing in theory, in reality Nanowrimo is highly unlikely to abrogate the built-in loneliness of the writing process.
For example: a couple of years ago, I announced my intention to give Livejournal another shot, and asked some of my aspiring writer friends to participate with me. Four agreed to participate. Of those, three signed up. Of those, zero updated their word count. Although one announced he was waiting until January and wrote his book then — oh wait, no he didn’t.
I say this without rancor, because it’s extremely common. You have to be in this for yourself. You can get a little support from the forums and the ambient feeling of community that comes with knowing other people are struggling along with you — but it’s a largely useless feeling, like the vague nausea that informs you not to buy sushi off the deli counter at the supermarket. You’re still going to be by yourself, plugging away at the words on the page, frustrated and isolated and wrestling with doubt, because that’s what writing is. Nanowrimo is no antidote, and reaching out to your buddies may end up just another source of frustration.
That said, I’ve been very fortunate to have supportive people cheering me on during Nanowrimo — but those people generally weren’t writers, and they sure as hell weren’t Nano participants. The people who said they’d participate and then didn’t basically vanished for the duration. Because that’s what you do. Tilt your ear to listen for your “writing buddies” and there is only the howling wind of guilt, shame, and sixty hours of Rock Band 3.
So, just don’t worry about it. You’re on your own, and that’s okay, because that’s the way it’s got to be.
6. Your novel might be finished, but you’re not.
A few years back, while I was browsing the Nano forums and basking in the sublime, worthless glow of my own purple bar (the icon you get when you cross 50K), I saw one author breathlessly anticipating the dump trucks of cash they’d now be raking in from their finished first draft. This demigod of writing had banged out a whopping 150,000 words in a month. Look upon his works, ye mighty, and despair! Only when you actually looked upon his works, ye mighty, it was twenty-six chapters of people eating dinner, with agonizing paragraphs devoted to every meager forkful. No one responded to his post, either because no one had the heart to tell the poor clod how publishing really works on planet Earth, or they just assumed it was sarcasm.
Don’t get me wrong. Successfully thrashing out a novella in thirty days is awesome, and can be a lot of fun. But it isn’t an end. It’s a beginning. If you think your first draft is worthy of publication, there are two primary possibilities at work: you’re some kind of Martian super-genius, or you’re living in deep denial. Most likely, you have a lot of editing ahead, in which you will learn just how frustrating and useless a first draft can really be.
But that’s a December problem, really. Nanowrimo is all about running across a sun-dappled dewy meadow into the loving arms of your crapulent first pass. Enjoy it. Burn in the fire of your love. You’ll be filing for trial separation soon enough.
7. Nanowrimo is only useful for so long.
This is another broad generalization, so again, I will just append “for me.” Some writers might participate in Nanowrimo every year and learn something new and amazing every time. I’m not one of those people. For me, the primary lesson of Nanowrimo — that you can, in fact, finish a draft — holds value the first time. After that, it’s redundant. That’s not to say that Nanowrimo still isn’t fun — it can be a complete blast. But it really is only the first step on the terrifying, winding stair that leads up to actually finishing a book.
Some people will tell you that Nanowrimo isn’t even useful the first time, and that you not only needn’t bother, but shouldn’t. Laura Miller got lots of pageviews around this time last year by declaring that the world doesn’t need more novels or novelists. I’d argue that the world doesn’t need more trollish pop-culture pundits, either, and yet they keep showing up. But screeds like Miller’s actually do serve a valuable purpose: this is exactly the sort of dismissive attitude you have to learn to shrug off.
So if you are doing Nanowrimo this year, I wish you the best of luck. Go nuts. Write crap. Have a good time. We can even be writing buddies if you like. Just don’t talk to me about January.