I have had a number of successes with National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo. I wrote a novel with only a drawing to guide me, learned some lessons, lost, and won. I’m getting practiced now, and have completed three novels in five years.
My hands-down best performance came in April 2021, during Camp NaNoWriMo. I set a word count goal of 25 000 words – to double the length of the manuscript I started last November during NaNo 2020. Instead of 25 000 words, I wrote almost 50 000 and finished the first draft.
I was facing many of the same challenges in April that I did in November 2020. Baby not sleeping? Check. Busy at work? Check. Big kids in virtual school? Check. And yet, here we are, crushing the word count and finishing the book. And not only that, but this is the third novel I’ve written in five years and it’s measurably better than the others. It’s not just better because I’ve practiced writing a bunch, though that’s part of it. It’s better because it’s a better book. So what went right? How did I write faster and better than I thought I would – or even could?
Before I dive in, let me explain what we’re talking about here. Persephone’s Champion is a middle-grade mythological fantasy adventure set in ancient Greece. I’ve linked our NaNo2020 micro-podcast about it in the doobly-doo if you want to hear more about the story.
Finally, a note about NaNoWriMo. I’m doing this video because it is Preptober and I think most of these lessons are applicable generally. However! NaNo is a really specificmode of writing. It requires sustained, kind of frenetic output. As a result some of the things I mention here are not going to be applicable to writing outside a crunch period and are actually not sustainable long-term. I will flag those as I go.
OK, enough intro. Here are the 10 things that made Persephone’s Champion a goal-surpassing success and the strongest first draft I’ve done yet, and I hope that you can
I knew the story really well.
I did extensive plotting in October 2020 prior to NaNo. When I burned out about halfway through November, I reorganized and went back to research & planning. Even when I wasn’t putting words on the page I kept on developing the story, the beats, the characters, and the outline. I imagined dialogue and moments and descriptions. Plotting and structuring and prepping gave me not just a finished draft but a strong, intentional draft. I now prefer to do the work up front rather than on the back end. That way, the words come faster and easier when I’m drafting. As a bonus, I get to improve a strong first draft instead of fixing a garbage zero draft when I get to editing.
I get that there are people who identify really strongly as “pantsers” or “discovery writers” and I think we need to stop talking about this as a plotter/pantser binary or even a spectrum. My best discovery writing has happened when I’ve built on good ideas that I found while planning. Plotting and pre-work takes literally nothing away from the thrill of writing, as long as you are excited about your story. Which leads me to:
I picked this story because it’s fun.
I love this story. I love Trista and Baahir and Solon and all the other characters who are unique and magical and powerful and strange. I love the plot, because it’s a rollicking chase across a mythologized ancient Greece. I love it thematically, because it deals with interpretations of stories and how humans adapt narratives to suit them and how being a leader means more than being the smartest person in the room. And I love it emotionally, because it’s an exciting fantasy adventure with laughter and tears and heartache and triumph.
It’s not a “heart book”. It’s not the capital-B Book I’ve always wanted to write. But I managed to create characters that I (and I hope my audience) would want to spend time with and learn more about. That makes spending time with them to write the book an absolute blast. I also frequently made storytelling choices for maximum fun.
For a sustained writing sprint like NaNo, those choices were the correct ones. I found that writing with fun as a guiding motivation resulted in me wanting to spend time in that world telling that story with those characters. It made it easy to sit down and do it because I really wanted to.
I’m not just writing for me.
Persephone’s Champion wasn’t a solo project. I’m writing for and with my beloved middle child, who you can also hear in that podcast I mentioned earlier. Their fascination with mythology informed every aspect of the novel, from the setting to the premise to the way we structured the story . The things they are thinking about and the troubles they face informed what I challenged the main character with. Handing them new chapters to read was dizzyingly exciting. Having such a clear audience in mind (namely, my kid and people like them) guided the voice and amped up the desire to produce.Write the thing you want to write – but write it for someone else.
I chose a story I could research.
I have yet to get writer’s block on one of these projects and there’s a reason for that. I build my stories around things I want to learn more about, ideas I want to explore. If I start to hit a wall, I can research a location, a myth, some politics, some adjacent detail, art and design, or whatever. It means there’s always fuel waiting to be put in the tank.
For Persephone’s Champion, I chose a specific period of history and mostly real-world locations for this story. Even when the fantasy genre elements kick into high gear, I laid enough of a real-world foundation that I could go back to my research and then layer on more and more fantastical detail. Good input makes good output.
My writing was just writing, not aesthetics.
This is going to be the closest thing to a call-out I can do. I see you, writers during NaNo who are meticulously staging your Instagram photos and sharing inspirational quotes on Twitter three to five times a day. I see you with your Spotify soundtrack and your Pinterest inspo board and vision board and mood board. I see you building your author brand. I see you enjoying the trappings of being an author.
Listen, there’s nothing wrong with that, but in a crunch like NaNoWriMo if you want to pursue the aesthetics of writing, you’re on your own. I can’t go there with you. I tracked my words, did periodic updates to Insta with my word count, and that’s about it. Oh, and I made a mock cover for the e-book version I was updating for my kid. Even that, though, was part of the process – it was right at the beginning when I needed to find the tone and voice again. That 20-minute design process helped centre me in the story.
Spending next to zero time on the ancillary stuff that’s associated with writing in the digital age, I made more time for the writing itself. All killer, no filler.
When I wasn’t writing, I was still working on the draft.
I talked about this a bit on the Board Game Design Lab podcast. A great deal of writing happens before you ever sit down at a keyboard. What that means is interrogating your story in your head, thinking about what you’ve written, and planning out what you’re going to write. This can be through the creative visualization of scenes or moments or actually full-on planning what words you’re going to use. I do both – I’ll refer to my outline and then while doing household chores or if there’s, like, data entry to do for work or whatever I’ll play out ideas and visualize my scenes.
Part of this is something I do naturally when I’m thinking about the work and part of it is intentional – you’ll see elite athletes talk about visualization as a tool to help their later performance. So I’ll run the scene over and over again, try and build a sense of space, tweak and refine dialogue, refining it until I’m happy with it.
By the time I sit down at a computer to actually write, I’ll know almost down to the word what it is I’m going to write. This way, my “zero draft” has kind of already gone through a few rounds of edits before I start typing, and – to restate a previous point – I’m very familiar with the work. I do this not just for writing but if I’m tinkering with game design or doing 3D modeling or drawing or whatever, even visualizing how I’m going to use tools or software so that I’m more efficient when I start to work. If time is at a premium, and as the parent of a toddler time is always at a premium, then I need to optimize the keyboard time I do have.
I chose writing music that could be a trigger.
Let’s talk music. I didn’t assemble a Spotify playlist, there’s no genre-spanning soundtrack for my book. I use music in a utilitarian way. I listen to a lot of instrumental music while I’m working and from time to time while planning a project I’ll land on a particular song that captures the tone I’m looking for. With a little luck, the rest of that song’s album will more or less tonally fit what I’m going for too. So, when I sit down to write, I I put on the music & I’m in.
Devoting that album only to that project means that there are no other associations to the songs, no distraction. It becomes a trigger to return to the place I am in the book. Even now, I can put on the key songs for any of my recent successful NaNo novels and get back into the voice and headspace I need to work on them.
I talked out the plot.
I can’t understate the importance of talking out loud about elements of the story. Having a close collaborator in my kid is one thing, but just hearing plot points out loud can be an amazing way to identify problems. Talk to someone, talk to yourself. Just vocalize it. You can hear when something works or doesn’t work out loud in a way that you just simply cannot in your head. It’s also an early test: if you can’t articulate an idea out loud, it might not work on the page as well as you want it to, either.
I limited other distractions.
I put most other distractions on ice during NaNo, except for family activities. (Such as they are during COVID.) But I was motivated and had a full head of steam, so I cleared my path and just went for it. TV, video games, other projects, all of it I just put aside to focus on the work. I stretched my days when I needed to, working longer and harder to keep driving the story forward. I also pushed myself to think and write in chapters instead of words, which generally led to higher word counts.
I can’t stress enough that constant crunch output is not sustainable, don’t do it. Like I said, NaNo is a unique type of writing. You can sustain elevated output for a while but it will be draining and it is not for everyone. You need to make choices for your physical and mental health that make sense for you. Please, please don’t think that all it takes to push out complete drafts is less living your life and less sleep and more coffee and more keyboard time, that is unhealthy and bad. But for a brief stretch? If the project is worth a little sacrifice, and you set clear boundaries after a set period of time? It can be worth it. Just don’t push it too hard for too long.
I wrote a story I thought was good.
So, I have written three complete novels at various levels of polish in five years. It feels WILD to say that. While I felt that the last one might have been the one that was my break-in book, I am convinced that this one is actually the one. Not every book is going to be that, so this isn’t necessarily replicable, but when you feel that, GO HARD AT IT. I feel a little giddy about it, not gonna lie.
It’s common knowledge in online writing communities that your first draft will be bad and you will hate it. I’m here to… politely disagree with that. If you genuinely hate what you’re doing, I think that’s a problem. I don’t know how you could expect other people to respond positively to your book if even you hate it. You can have problems with what you’ve done, but if you actually hate what you’re doing then maybe your problem is that you chose a bad project for you to write. Choose something you like.
This is another place where planning and plotting come in really handy. You can audit the work before you invest a whole month trying to write it. You can figure out if you like the story and the characters and you can figure out in advance if it’s got the legs it needs to sustain your interest.
Every single thing we added to Persephone’s planning document made me more excited about the book. Every character introduced, every twist, every bit of lore and mythology, every map we doodled on. And we Marie Kondo’d it, too. If something didn’t spark joy, we excised it, over and over, until the plan was a roadmap to a destination where we wanted to go.
I swear I didn’t get into this to make a big appeal for the value of planning, but here we are, I guess.
I am taking a NaNo break myself this November in order to focus on work-life balance and work on some other projects, including editing Persephone’s Champion on my own timetable. But I had such success with this approach that I wanted to share it, so hopefully it’s motivating, maybe challenges some conventional authortube and writing blog wisdom, and helps you approach your writing project a little bit more intentionally.
Please do tell me what you think about all this. I would especially love to hear if you’ve traditionally been a plotter or a pantser, but you’ve dabbled on the other side, what your results were like.
Until next time, I’m Trevor, thank you for watching Love Make Share. I hope you learned something, hope you’ve been inspired, now – go make something.