5 Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo 2016

I’ve said before on the site that 2016 has been a year of significant change for us. From the wedding to the move to the girls’ new school to the mess that is world events, 2016 has brought with it not only change, but a new resolve and determination to stop talking about the things that are important and actually do them. (I think that Hamilton: An American Musical has a lot to do with that, too, but that’s going to have to be another post, otherwise we’ll be here all day.) One of the things I decided to do was to prove to myself that I can, in fact, write a novel. Enter National Novel Writing Month, a November event where tons of people worldwide sprint to write 50 000 words on a new project by the end of the month. And this year, NaNoWriMo 2016, I did it.

NaNoWriMo 2016

Proof I made it!

I squeaked by the 50 000 word limit, and am continuing to write. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’d have been even further along if I’d learned the five following things before I started.

These are personal lessons, so your mileage may vary, but I think you’ll find a couple of universal truths in here.

1. Writing Doesn’t Always Mean Typing

It has to involve writing the stuff down (otherwise, see #2). But sometimes the fingers aren’t going to move in the ways you want them to. One night of NaNo, high on the previous day’s 3000-word sprint, I wrote a sentence. Then I slowly, grudgingly wrote another. Then I stopped. I pushed my chair back, looked over at NJ, and said, “I have to stop. I just wrote the worst two sentences I think I’ve ever written.”

Keyboard

Right here is where I wrote 20 abjectly horrible words and 50k pretty good ones.

And I stopped typing, but I didn’t stop writing. I grabbed one of the books I’d borrowed from the library, grabbed my phone, chewed through content about my setting and the themes I needed to address. I wasn’t typing, but you best believe I was working the content over in my head to make sure that, next time I sat down, they wouldn’t be the worst sentences I’d written. They’d be solid.

Even if you’re not churning out text, don’t stop. Don’t. Stop.

2. Safe and Content Is a Lie

Not writing things down is safe. Not having things committed to text, having just the pure idea of a story, is safe. The enthrallment of keeping your ideas brewing and roiling, an ecstatic ideal, is comfortable. But you know what? Once you start rolling, once your idea is validated through the act of recording it, once it all starts hanging together and doing justice to your ideal – that’s contentment. You will not be satisfied so long as you’re refusing to write it down.

Ultimately, what feels good or fine while you’re waiting for your book to start, will feel dreamlike and ephemeral in hindsight. The real good time is ahead, once you’ve written. Dive in.

3. No Output Without Input

This goes back to number 1. You’re eventually going to squeeze yourself dry if you just push words out nonstop. And if you’re only in your own head and not looking around you at what other people are also doing in that space, you’re going to write badly. You’re going to reproduce cliché without realizing it. You’re going to retread other work. So read stuff. Read while you’re not typing. Watch YouTube videos. Watch movies and television. Listen to music.

I lived on a diet of reference books and Hannibal and Aaron Sorkin and tech podcasts and video of Arctic expeditions and Hamilton and Stephen King interviews while I wrote in November. I fed myself with good, dense writing while trying to produce the same. It was what I needed, because there was always something inspiring I could draw on for the next thing.

Keep your tank full, or you’ll stall out.

4. If You’re Starting, Start Small

If I could create a NaNo drinking game, it would be this: look through the #nanowrimo hashtag on Twitter and take a drink for every unpublished writer saying “Author of ______ YA dystopian fantasy series” in their bio.

This isn’t to disparage dystopian YA fiction series. I hear that a couple of those have been real successful. But I keep seeing writers – novices – embarking on these massive projects that they’re clearly technically unqualified to tackle (seriously, look at some of the excerpts and quotes being tweeted) and that they will never complete. Why? Because they’re building an Everest out of other Everests.

Keen observers will note that this is not Everest, but isn’t it imposing? Don’t build one of these for yourself.

You’re doing an awful lot of work writing a novel. You’re doing considerably more to make it good. Most people never get there. And you’re committing to doing that seven times over for a concept you haven’t proven yet?

The previous two times I tried to do NaNo, I set out to write sweeping epics. The first was a post-apocalyptic political epic, a punk riff on Game of Thrones via Fallout and The West Wing. The second was an exercise to inflate concepts in Plato’s Republic to the scale of a Playstation 1-era Final Fantasy game.

Guess how far I got with those?

Neither of those ideas are bad. In fact, I think that as concepts go, they’re pretty solid, and I want to revisit both. But realistic goal-setting is important. This year, I planned a suspense novel, a castaway story, limited in its scope. I hit my 50 000 words handily, and I’m still going on it. It’ll top out around eighty thousand words, but it could have been told in fifty. A sweeping epic cannot. And a seven-instalment YA series most certainly cannot.

Understand the time you have, understand the scope of the project you’re taking on, and aim within it.

5. Use Your Process, Not the One That “Works”

There are an incredible number of blogs out there that will tell you how to write. Especially in the lead-up to NaNoWriMo 2016, I felt like the internet was rotten with how-to’s and strategy guides and explainers.

Let’s be real. NaNo is a very specific type of intensive writing that requires a very specific set of writing muscles. But as any trainer will tell you, no single exercise is suited for everybody.

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom out there about NaNo. People will tell you to draft, not edit. To write whatever makes sense, rather than to go in a linear fashion. To hit your word count and keep on going, to push words out even if they were bad, because words are better than no words. And you know what? I tried. I tried to do that.

I was not ready at first. I struggled a bit. I hit my word counts, but it wasn’t until I stepped back and embraced the way I like to write that I felt comfortable in my story.

This was something that I credit my wife for (and it was such a profound thing for me that has had such an effect on how I think and work, that I’m pretty sure I referenced it in my wedding proposal). Sometimes, you need to accept that you work best a particular way and that you should just work that way and get the hell out of your own way so that the work gets done.

An example from my own experience: I like the idea of making movies. There was a very real point, about halfway through my BA, when I seriously considered going to college to pursue film production and visual effects. As a product of this fascination, I have a habit of thinking in terms of shots, and further, I’ll build the shots in my head, from production design to performance to special effects. Am I ever personally going to be doing effects for a film version of my novel? No. But you can bet that in designing those shots as part of my process, I’ll have a real strong sense of the visual imagery in that scene, and a very good sense of atmosphere and geography. Colour grading a shot in my head will help me describe the mood of the scene. Compositing elements together in my head forces me to consider what’s in the scene and focus on what’s going to be important to the end product, and it’s given the novel a strong throughline of compelling imagery.

The short version is this: even if your process, the one that works best and feels best for you, is not what everyone’s telling you will work – embrace it anyway. The against-the-grain thing that works well is better than the supposedly-ideal one that does not.

Those are the key things I took away from NaNoWriMo 2016. Did you learn anything? What was your project this year?

Until next time, folks, paddle your own canoe.

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