National Novel Writing Month: A Retrospective

by on 04/12/2012
 

WARNING: The following article is one big wall o’text. I’ve tried to break it up with some completely unrelated pictures of ponies and pokemon, but there’s only so much to be done with that. Sorry.

I’ve just finished National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as the pros call it. Basically, the aim of NaNoWriMo is to write the first draft of a novel, over 50,000 words, in 30 day. I think the principle behind it is a similar one to new year’s resolutions- if everyone picks a date to start something, the combination of excitement and peer pressure will see that you do in fact start it. Sadly, like most resolutions, not all of them last that long. It seems appealing because everyone likes the idea that there’s a secret, easy way to get something written. You come up with an idea, do a bit of planning, and then write the whole entire thing in a month. But of course it’s not that simple. We know that. So if it’s not a sure-fire way to get your work of art published by 2013, is it worth it?

It’s not a “real” competition in the sense that the word count isn’t exactly the goal. The goal is to get you off your butt (or, actually, on it, who writes standing up?) and writing that novel you always said would be a best-seller if you just got around to it. As cheesy as it sounds, you participate for the satisfaction in writing a novel, not for any sort of prize. This is good because it allows for some flexibility in what you write. For example, and I say this with only a minimal amount of shame, I am a cheater. I didn’t pen the first words of my story on November 1st. I wrote the first chapter two and a half years ago. And I came up with the idea and characters long before that. I started NaNoWriMo with around 10,000 words already under my belt, though I didn’t add them to be counted for my final score.  But the lack of structure means this is OK, you can work on an existing idea if you want, because at the end of it, you’re not conning them out of a grand prize, or even submitting your work for a quality test. The grand prize is the first draft of a novel, that you’ve written. Go you.

Depending on the NaNoWriMo group in your area, it can also provide you with a good support network to help you through the long, harsh month. I was lucky enough to have a really active group that met up down the road from my house, so that helped the process a lot. This is a double-edged sword, however- in the week before it starts and the first week of the event, it’s a great boost to see everyone else getting excited about it. You start buzzing with new ideas, and that first week is spent with a shower of words flying off your keyboard, fingers on fire. And the second week rolls around, and you realise that you can’t work a full-time job and carry on with your studies and do your weekly comic reviews and learn German and still write a novel. But there’s still plenty of time left. And then the third week hits, and you don’t have plenty of time left, and the reams of people saying that they’ve hit the magical 50k and are still going gets demoralising, and you ignore every notification from the Facebook support group in case it’s another person succeeding where you’ve epically failed. It was nice to meet a few of my fellow NaNos at the coffee shop write-ins, but other than that I didn’t get too much out of it since a) I have no laptop (and thus have to suffer writer’s cramp when away from my computer, and slow down the process considerably as I write in longhand) and b) I have an aversion to writing in front of people that is so bad I have only just been able to write while my husband’s in the room, and we’ve been together for four-and-a-half years.

On the good side, that first week gives you a whole lot of information on how you work. Whilst you’re still in the super-motivated, wanting-to-write period, you learn a lot about when you are most productive, and this can definitely help when writing in future. For example, I learnt that first thing in the morning I am good for nothing except defending my Angry Birds highscore, and that if I don’t put clothes on and leave the house -even if it’s just for the two minutes it takes to pop down the garage for juice- I will not do anything productive that day. I also learnt that mid-afternoon is the best time for me to do my coursework and comic reviews, but I can’t start inventing fiction until it’s dark outside. So now NaNoWriMo is over and I’m still trying to hash out my novel, I have a better idea of how to do it, rather than waking up and staring at the screen in my dressing gown at 9am wondering why words aren’t forming and declaring myself a pathetic useless failure. Plus, the “write by the seat of your pants” attitude is a good one- with a deadline this big and looming, you have less time to spend meticulously planning and pretending it’s productive work towards your book. (It’s not, it never is, writing is the only productive thing) This gives you more chances for unexpected plot twists, the kind that only arise when you let the story take you wherever.

So, NaNoWriMo definitely has its uses. But it’s not a definitive strategy- if it was, professional writers would have no excuse for writing the first draft of a new novel each November, since they don’t have to factor in any other work or study commitments. And as we all know, this is not the case. Hitting the magical and elusive 50k is no good if all the words are terrible, and even if you do “win”, there’s still a lot of work to be done editing and re-editing and showing it to people and taking criticisms and re-re-editing. Even a NaNoWriMo winner has to do a buttload of work come December 1st.

If you’re thinking of taking part next year, I would highly recommend it. I mean, whether I win or lose this time, I’ll still do the next one. Don’t think of it as an easy-peasy fast-track to fame and fortune; think of it like a free creative writing course- it can help you see problems in your own work, come up with a writing schedule to help you work more efficiently, and give you a network of people who are all as worried as you are that you suck but will cheer you on regardless.

So what did I learn about myself during NaNoWriMo? Well, several things:

  • I am addicted to adverbs
  • Cliches are a plague that infects my work like cockroaches
  • My characters spend a lot of time sighing and/or taking deep breaths
  • My characters also spend a lot of time glaring at each other
  • Lots of things go beep
  • I have no business writing sex scenes, ever, under any circumstances

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