We’re gutting pumpkins and mixing up fresh brain, so that can mean only one thing: It’s almost time for NaNoWriMo.
Ok, maybe Halloween is in there somewhere too, but if you’re in the writing field, you can’t help but know that November brings us National Novel Writing Month. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, NaNoWriMo is somewhere between a writing contest and a mutual support group for folks trying to write that novel they’ve always wanted to write. The idea is to write 50,000 words of a novel in the 30 days of November.
I have done NaNoWriMo four times and reached the 50,000 word goal three of those times. The one time I didn’t make wasn’t even close. I abandoned it by the fifth day as a story I just wasn’t emotionally ready to write yet. Of the three times I “won”, only two of those turned into completed stories. One of them is in the final copy-edit pass, and the other is currently going through red-lines. (Although technically the red lines are purple this time since my red pen died on page 22.) All of this to say, I have some experience at this, so my advice is 3% more valid than the next guy’s.
So, here is my list of…
Ten Things You Need to Know about NaNoWriMo
1. It’s not easy, but it gets easier. The necessary word count per day is 1666 (a.k.a. the word count OF THE BEAST!), and that’s nothing to sneeze at. I have heard a number of professional “working” writers who talk about doing 1000 words a day or sometimes as little as “a page” a day which is probably closer to 300-500 words. On the other hand, they manage it day after day after day, not just for 30 days in the fall. Still, practice helps, and after three wins, the word count grind has gotten easier. If this is your first time, well, see number 2.
2. It’s all about putting your butt in the chair and writing. Writing is not about finding your muse (though she helps) or opening yourself to the inspiration that will surely descend from the heavens (it might not) or even writing when you feel like it (because inevitably you won’t). Writing is work, and that means grinding it out even when you’re not in the mood. NaNoWriMo is mostly just an exercise in forcing yourself to sit at the desk and write, write, WRITE! You didn’t really need to watch Dr. Who this month, did you?
3. 50,000 words is not a novel. Novel length varies from genre to genre, but I think the shortest (mystery and romance) are at least 60-65,000. Science fiction and fantasy tend to start around 80,000 and can go as far as 150,000 for some authors – how long was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince anyway? If you do make it to 50,000 words by the end of November, don’t be surprised if your story has not reached its end. Just keep writing. You’ll get there. On the other hand, if you reach 50,000 words and your story hasn’t really started yet, just stop. It’s probably not worth the editing effort. Start again next year and try to get to the point.
4. November is a crappy month to hold this contest in. About the only thing it has going for it is that in much of the country, the weather is finally getting to the point that you want to stay in. Apart from that, it also has the biggest national travel holiday right during NaNo-crunch-time: Thanksgiving. Plus, you will likely get sick. Or your kids will get sick. Or your spouse will get sick and wonder why you’re off at the keyboard instead of making her soup. Some variation of those has happened to me every year. My only advice is don’t be surprised when these things happen. Plan on it.
5. Your best hope is to get ahead and stay ahead. The best way to manage the word count of the beast is to beat it every single day. If you beat it by 30 words on the first day, then your required daily word count drops by one word. If you beat it by 300, it goes down by 10. If you beat by so many thousands of words that it crawls off into the closet and cries, well, you get the idea. Get ahead of the curve, and the curve stops being so steep.
6. When you ignore that advice and fall behind… well, it’s the same advice. See how big the beast has grown and start beating it again. Has it climbed to 2000 words? 4000? 50,000? I’m sorry, but if you get to November 30 and haven’t started, it’s time to start saying, “Oh, that was THIS month?” Personally, I have let the beast get as big as a 4500 word daily count, and I’ve still managed to beat it into submission simply be beating it down a little each day.
7. Your work will not be perfect. In fact, it may very well be crap. However, it strongly advise against editing it as you go. Do NOT go back and revise yesterday’s writing. Do NOT go back and fix that problem in chapter three. Do NOT even go back to change the fact that her mother has actually been dead for the last eight chapters. Today you have to focus on today’s writing. If there was something wrong in the previous day’s or week’s writing, then just make a note and move on. I have literally killed someone’s mother fifteen years retroactively with a simple note, “You know, let’s just say the mother died years ago. I’ll get more mileage out of the dead mother than the live one.”
8. On December 1st, you will have a 50,000 word pile of stinking crap. You vomited that draft out with missing words, bad grammar, characters who change gender three times, and tons of little notes like “vomit? I thought it was crap… pick a metaphor and stick with it.” Even when you get to the end of the story at 60-100,000 words, the pile of crap/vomit is merely bigger. That’s OK. That’s what rewriting is for. Do NOT think that you have a publishable novel in your hands. Do NOT send it out to agents proclaiming it to be the next Barry Motter, or something. Do NOT upload it to Amazon as the latest 99-cent Kindle book. Do NOT even show it to anyone. Simply bask in the glory of having excised that cancerous mass of story from your brain. [Note: really, stick to one metaphor!]
9. At some point (like in March), you’ve got to go back and edit it. Well, either that or just toss in the trunk and call it a learning experience, but even then, it’s worth going through it with a red (or in my case purple) pen. You’ll see all the mistakes you made, both big and small, but you’ll also see a few little gems. Maybe it’s that descriptive passage that really captured the stillness of the lake the morning after Sarah’s disappearance, or maybe it’s the forceful tirade of the vengeful lieutenant, or maybe it’s just a really good use of the word “brutal”. Trust me, if you care enough about your story to crank out 50,000 words of it, there will be a few little gems scattered through the crap, or vomit, or whatever. Save those. Fix up the rest. Feel free to rewrite large swaths from scratch, but do remember how good those few little gems were. Your November won’t seem like such a waste after all.
10. Fuck. I mean it, literally. And if sex isn’t a realistic option for you this November, at least do something fun and meaningful with the people you love. Battling the word count beast every day can be very depressing at times. You know your writing isn’t as good as the stuff you read. You can’t see those gems yet. It all seems kind of pointless, and that word count beast is getting bigger. Go get some hugs. Be with people. You have to give up a lot of stuff to put your butt in the chair and write, but don’t give up the people. The TV can go. The kitchen floor can stay dirty. Even the job can do with a little less overtime. But don’t miss out on bedtime snuggles with the wife, or Eskimo kisses with your daughter, or even a bit of fetch with the dog. Remind yourself of life before you go back to the dark office and start writing about it.
No one says you have to try it, but if you do, I wish you the best of luck. And a bottle of super-glue to hold your butt to the chair.