Oct 29 2009
Last year, leading up to NaNoWriMo, I did a series of posts covering what I learned about writing from doing the contest the year prior.
Here is a reprint of that entire series all as a single post.
What I learned about writing from NaNoWriMo . . .
If you have never done (or won) NaNo before, this should give you some tips that helped me or, if you are writing in a context outside of NaNo, these lessons apply in tons of cases outside of the contest.
Oh and if you still don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, it’s a “contest” where you challenge yourself to write a novel (defined as 50,000 words) between Nov 1st and 30th. It’s hard. But when you accomplish it, it’s awesome! You can get more info on this at http://www.nanowrimo.org.
These will be coming in no particular order. . .
#1 Never look back
This helped me more in my writing than anything I have ever done. Do NOT go back and reread what you have written before. This is a huge rule and you must not break it, especially with NaNo. Even if you don’t remember a detail or realize that you put in a huge plot hole. Write yourself a note and go back and fix it later. You will make more progress in your story if you just keep tearing through to the end.
This used to be a huge crutch of mine. I used to go back and re-read the entire story before I started each new writing session. Not only is this a waste of time but I ended up changing things over and over again as the story moved on.
Trust me, there are an infinite number of things to fix. You might as well get all the way to the end because even the things you “fix” will change again before your story is done. As Dory says, “Just keep swimming!”
#2 Don’t bother with naming characters, places or anything for that matter.
I used to waste so much time looking at a baby name site trying to find character names, especially because I wanted them to mean something. Nothing sped up my writing faster than when I stopped naming things. Now, if you have a character name in mind, by all means use it but if it takes more than a few seconds to come up with one, move on.
My stories read like “Well,” said GUARD1 to SLAVE3, “Do you think the SPECIAL ARMY NAME will make it through EVIL SCARY PLACE?” Find and replace will be your friend later when you come up with the names for things but, for now, just give them a placeholder name and move on with the story.
Story is king. The names of places aren’t as important as they feel.
#3 Get ahead early.
There are two reasons to get ahead on your word count and stock pile a lot of extra words in the beginning. The first is that things come up and you may need these words to make up for days you have to take off later on. Crisis happen unannounced and this way a crisis won’t totally cripple your word count.
Also, in the beginning of the month, you are all inspired and full of fire. Take advantage of that and write as much as possible. This way, when you start to feel ready to quit as you drag into the later weeks, you will already be farther along in your story and the later you are in your story, the easier and more fun it is to write.
#4 Save the pep talks.
One of the best things about NaNo is the pep talks. They get best selling authors and NaNo alumni to write up inspirational letters to make you want to keep working on your books and email them to you. They are really well written and a huge help. It’s nice to hear from someone who is good enough to do this for a living and know that they were once right where you are.
These arrive in your email somewhat randomly. Don’t automatically read them as soon as they arrive. Wait until you need them and, trust me, you will need them. Wait until that day when you are so sick of your book and totally ready to quit to crack those emails open. They will do you much more good if you do.
#5 Don’t get discouraged by other people’s word counts.
Some people like to look at where other people are in comparison to them. I like to look at friends because then it’s personal and I can be like, Bob has 10,000 words more than me? The hell he does! and then it inspires me to write more.
However, there are going to be people with over 50,000 words in the first 24 hours. There are actually going to be people with over 100,000 words in the first 24 hours. These people will make you sad. Don’t let this get to you.
Tell yourself that they are writing grocery store pulp and yours is going for the Pulitzer. Tell yourself that they are making the numbers up (sadly, they aren’t). Tell yourself whatever you want but don’t let it discourage you into stopping, no matter what.
If you want to compare Word Counts with me (with the understanding that you will neither get upset if I am beating you nor mock me if you are kicking my butt, you can NaNo buddy me here).
#6 Do tell people that you are doing NaNoWriMo.
There are two great motivators in play when you tell/brag about doing NaNoWriMo. The first is that you will have cheerleaders to root you on. My husband and friends Katie and Grace get huge gold stars for last year for not only sending me little pep talks but for caring, even if they were pretending. It’s nice to have people care and it makes what you are doing feel less stupid.
But you know what motivates better than positive reinforcement? Shame. Embarrassment. If I don’t finish NaNo this year after going on about it all this time on my blog, I will feel like an idiot. Don’t think for a second that isn’t going on in my head while I am writing. I am much more likely to finish no matter how much I want to quit because I don’t want to look dumb.
Tell everyone you know. Post your word count every day. Even if no one around you actually cares, you will think they care and if you fail, you will feel like they all are mocking you. Trust me, that will motivate the heck out of you.
#7 Try to finish the book, not just the contest.
I failed miserably at this last year and am still kicking myself. November is this crazy creative storm where you have lots of inspiration, support and inspiration. You’d be stupid to not take advantage of that spirit and get the entire book done. Forget about your 49,999th and 50,000th words being The and End, just work on getting your story done no matter what.
This is another reason to get ahead early. If you realize right away that you are writing a 75,000 word novel, you can pace yourself accordingly.
Writing 50,000 words of your 100,000 word novel is a great start, but finishing the novel is much better. Take advantage of the frenzy of writing to get the whole project done, not just part of it. You’ll thank me later, trust me. This is from someone who wrote my first 60,000 words in November and took the entire rest of the year to write another 20,000 words. You will never be more productive than you’ll be during NaNo so don’t let that opportunity pass you by.
#8 Skip around.
If the part that you are writing is really hard or really boring, skip it! You have my permission to jump ahead to that cool fight scene that you are dying to write. Getting the book done is the point and writing it in order is not necessarily the way to get there. If you are feeling excited about a certain scene, go ahead and get it down and go back and plod through the annoying parts later.
#9 Don’t wait for the muse.
The best advice I ever read was in a writing book so old that the author recommend that, if you were serious about writing, you really ought get a typewriter (no lie). The advice was that the stuff you write when you are totally inspired, when put side by side with the stuff you wrote when it was very slow going and you forced yourself, are the same quality. Sure, writing is easier when you are inspired, but, in the end, if you only wait to write when you are inspired, you will never get anything done.
If you don’t want to write or don’t feel like writing, do it anyway. Take that chance to plod through those scenes you aren’t excited about. As you write them, they will feel terrible. Don’t worry about it. When you go back and read later, they will be better than you remember and you will have moved the plot of your book along which is all that matters.
The muse is a fickle bitch. You don’t need her.
#10 Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.
I used to take months off from writing and, when I started again, it took me forever to get started with my book again. When you write a little bit each day, even if only a few words, you are more familiar with your story and its easier to keep going. The more momentum you build by working on the book all the time, the more you will have the momentum to keep going.
Even if its only to write a sentence or two, never take more than a day or two off from the book otherwise you may never pick it back up again.
This is, incidentally, why NaNo is possible. By giving you a compressed time period, they force you to work on the book everyday which gives you the momentum to finish the whole thing in so short a time.
#11 Write what you like.
Forget about writing what you know. Write what you like. No Plot No Problem suggests writing up a list of your favorite things from the very specific (sassy old people who may be wiser than you might think) to the more general (love triangles, kittens) from books, movies, TV whatever. The stuff on this list is what you will be good at writing. If you get stuck, pick something from that list and throw it into the story. Your love for the topic will be like a cheat sheet for writing about it.
By the same token, don’t write in things you hate. I cannot stand movies where the guy falls in love with another girl right before he is about to get married to the first girl and then decided to just marry the original girl because she is the safe choice. I HATE that. Hence, I would be terrible at writing it because, since I don’t like it, I don’t understand it and thus would not be good at writing it.
Writing what you know is also handy. It is much easier to write about a cubicle monkey if you are one but it can also be creatively stifling if you feel like your character cannot do anything you yourself have experienced. Use your personal experience to get in a good paragraph of description of the main character’s room but don’t let it hold you down if you feel like the room should eat him.
#12 Have fun!
I know, cheesy, right? Not so.
There is something completely ludicrous about proposing to write a book at all, let alone writing an entire book with no plan and in 30 days. Embrace that ridiculousness. It is much easier to write something light and fun in a situation like this than War and Peace, so keep that in mind. This isn’t to say that you should steer away from high drama or horror or whatever is your bliss. But make sure that you are writing something that you are enjoying writing, not something that you feel like you should be writing because its good for you or whatever. I have a great idea for this really depressing book about child abuse. I am definitely not even considering that as an option for NaNo.
In the end, NaNo is not about producing good fiction (though sometimes it does). It is about proving to yourself that you can do it, that you can write a book. It doesn’t have to be a good book, that will come later in revisions. All that matters is that you set out to do this near impossible task and accomplished it which is something to be totally proud of.
If a book about crime fighting monkeys is what gets you to 50,000 words while your intellectual allegory about rape stalls you at 5,000 words, go with the monkeys. Pulitzer will forgive you.
Thanks for reading this guide all the way through! Please feel free to share your additional writing tips below.