A month ago, I was prepping for NaNoWriMo. I’d never participated in it before and really wasn’t sure what to expect from it, or from myself. The exercise was a good one. I was way more disciplined than I usually am, and reached the 50k milestone on November 13. I ended up with a finished first draft on the 25th, at 67,600 words.
So what did I learn? A few things. First and foremost, I learned that if I set my mind to it, I can write a lot of words in a short amount of time. In general I’m a perfectionist when I write and like to go back and reread, edit, take things slowly and make it what I want it to be before I move on to the next day’s work. In November I didn’t take the time to do that. I just wrote for word count.
I’m sure the main reason I was able to do this had a lot to do with advance planning. I had the whole story outlined and knew the major characters and their roles, although a lot of that changed over the course of writing (more on that later). I knew the way I wanted the story paced. I knew where the gaps were in my planning and what needed to be filled in. So while the actual writing began on November 1, the planning took place before that. Without it, I don’t know that I would have been able to finish.
A second reason I was able to write so much was that I treated writing as my day job. I woke up in the morning and went to work. I wrote consistently, for hours daily. To get to 50,000 words in 30 days requires a daily word count of 1,667 words. I set a minimum daily goal of 2,000 words and a more consistent goal of 4,000 words. One reason I was so motivated to write to such a high word count was that the advance planning felt like a tease. I was itching to get writing, but I had to wait until the first of November to let the characters out to play.
Working with an outline was an interesting exercise in discipline for me. I’m used to writing in a more organic manner, where I start with a concept or an image or a sentence and see where it takes me. With NaNo and a foray away from literary fiction into a young adult soft scifi novel, I knew pretty much what kinds of things had to happen. The young adult world is filled with drama and trauma, with awkwardness and inexperience ripe for the plucking. Like a lot of people I have a tendency to want to protect my characters from bad things. This time, I dropped that. I mean, I still wanted to protect them but I didn’t. On the other hand, I didn’t throw every bad thing that could have happened at them either.
I’d like to say I went to work every day knowing exactly what I wanted to accomplish. I didn’t, even though my goal was to complete a chapter per day. For the most part I worked the story in a linear fashion, but when inspiration struck about a later point in the book, I went ahead and wrote that. About 2/3 of the way through a scene presented itself to me that I knew would make the right ending, so I skipped ahead and crafted that, then worked at filling in the remaining portions. I’ve seen people say they think this seems like cheating, but I can’t see how. Readers generally approach the book in a linear fashion and it doesn’t matter to them if I started at the end and wrote backwards, so long as the story I wove makes sense and has consistent details.
Usually in writing fiction there’s a moment when, for better or worse, the characters take over (I call that “when the magic happens”). During the course of the month I kept wondering when this would happen. I’d gone into this project firm on one thing: it wasn’t going to have a romance arc. That was completely out of the question. When it turned out that some of my characters had different opinions on that, we butted heads. I’m not going to tell you who won. I will say that a good number of the characters surprised me with their depth or their deviousness or their perspective on things, and there were connections between some of them that I hadn’t known about going in. So much for the author being in charge! That is magic, though, and the fun and freeing part of writing a novel.
Now I get to the really tough part: sending the draft out to first readers and finding out what I did wrong and, to be fair, what I did right. In the meantime, while I wait for feedback, I’d like to keep the momentum going and start something new. Why not! Downtime is only another form of procrastination, and that’s something else I learned in November.