The graphic says it all:
I won my first National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge, hitting the 50,000-word goal on Thanksgiving Day. It’s a giddy accomplishment…especially since that wasn’t my primary NaNoWriMo goal. Rewards of completion aside, my biggest motivation for participating this year was to explore my writing process and conduct a time-limited experiment in a new genre. So what did I learn?
I can write a lot faster than I thought…
Anxiety over the average daily word count required to win NaNoWriMo (1,667) left me sleepless the last few nights of October. With a full-time Day Job, 800 words is a strong weeknight output for me. And I had to double that. The forced re-evaluation of my writing habits revealed a lot. I discovered that one uninterrupted hour at the keyboard produces about a thousand words. Weekends offered room for multiple sessions throughout the day: one magical Saturday I pounded out more than 5,000 words. Every night I stared at the word count, shocked at the volume that poured from my fingers. I never imagined I could draft so quickly.
…But I don’t necessarily want to.
I wrote 50,000 words in November…and that’s about all I did. Worked all day, crammed in exercise and dinner, then wrote until bedtime. All other areas of my life atrophied. I didn’t touch a musical instrument, play any board games with my Laddie, or go much of anywhere except the grocery store. (Okay, and the liquor store. I was trying to write a novel in a month, people–I apologize for nothing.) I prefer working at a pace that doesn’t neglect the rest of my world. With my next project, I’ll seek a balance by applying NaNoWriMo-level focus to a less compressed schedule.
Having a story outline provides essential direction…
NaNoWriMo validated my dedication to the “plotter” writing style: the only reason I won is because I already knew the shape of the story. Sitting down to write 1,667 words on a busy evening is scary enough without having to plunge in blind. My outline, research, and character sketches gave me a place to start every session and ensured I wrote towards some coherent purpose.
…but treasure lies in the blank spots of the map.
I committed to the challenge at the last minute with I dove into a story idea I’d been nursing for years, but hadn’t developed in detail. So I had to improvise more than usual. Letting the scenes flow organically unearthed a lot of hidden gems in the story. Moments of “wow, I just discovered this supporting character’s tragic backstory!” or “ooh, this is perfect foreshadowing!” delighted me. I might never have thought of those things staring at a chart on a whiteboard. The forced march of NaNoWriMo led me to a new appreciation for how stories enrich themselves as they’re told.
Non-linear drafting helps momentum…
I’d always been a strict beginning-to-end writer until this summer, with the final installment of my Syzygy series. Leaping around the story’s timeline generated a 35,000-word novella in three weeks (not quite NaNoWriMo levels of productivity, but close). Suspicious it might be a fluke, I tested that approach again with my NaNo project. And it worked. Every night I’d fire up the laptop, thinking “ugh, I have no idea how I’m going to get 2,000 words tonight. Guess I’ll just jot down that bit of dialogue that came to me in the shower this morning….” I’d hop in wherever I had something to add and before I knew it, I’d hit my goal. This is where having an outline proved indispensable: knowing the story’s arc enabled me to slide easily along it as needed.
…if I can avoid premature editing.
Improvising scenes and hopping around the story’s timeline inevitably produces some redundancy. Halfway through I’d get a great idea that contradicted something I’d written earlier, or I’d resume work on a scene begun the previous day and spot a few things that needed fixing…red alert! There’s a time for that, but NaNoWriMo is not it. In the interest of preserving my word count and my sanity, I forbade myself to edit the discrepancies that popped up along the way. I’d make a note to fix it and move on. This helped me focus on getting the story down. I plan to carry the practice forward to my next project.
And what about that genre experiment?
My biggest goal for NaNoWriMo was to try writing historical fiction, my second-favorite genre. How’d that go? I can only describe it accurately in terms of music. Writing historical versus sci-fi feels like singing in classical soprano style versus gutsy rock and roll: I can do both, but I have to consciously craft every note of the former while the latter flows out of me as naturally as my own blood. Maybe I just need more practice. But I suspect that writing historical fiction the way I think it should be–an impeccably researched yet gripping story that weaves little-known facts into a masterful blend of period reenactment and contemporary resonance–takes more resources than I can currently command. (See Day Job, above.) Realizing that solved, at least temporarily, my author identity crisis about genre branding. I plan to stick with sci-fi for now and hope to expand with the historical novels either more intermittently if/when I have the luxury of writing full time.
So what now?
I don’t plan to complete or revise my NaNo novel right away. Syzygy VI: Right Ascension languishes for revision (I really missed my characters during November!) and I have two intriguing standalone ideas lurking in the wings of my imagination’s stage. But my NaNoWriMo proved a lot more fun than I expected. Better still, it taught me a lot about my own writing, and those insights will inform my projects for the new year.
Fellow NaNo nerds reading this, how was your experience? Let me know in the comments!