Three lessons from NaNoWriMo

I tried NaNoWriMo this year. (For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, when you marathon write for the month of November in an attempt to get to a 50,000 word first draft.) I felt a little hokey doing it, but I was hoping to get back in the habit of writing regularly at home. I’ve been so busy writing at work the last few years that I’m usually pretty burnt out when I get home, but as my role has shifted to focus on planning and strategy instead of actual writing, I’m finding that I need a bit more an outlet for creative energy.

So, did I get a solid first draft of a novel? No! Not by a long shot. I didn’t even make it to 50,000 words. Most of what I wrote is utter crap that will be completely deleted or rewritten during the revision process. So why am I even telling you about this? A few reasons.

  1. Butt in chair is how drafts get written.
    I’ve been out of the habit of writing at home for a long time (example: When was this blog last updated?), and this was a great way to submerse myself in a creative project I’d been mulling over for a long time. It gave me a specific goal and deadline and it got me to sit in the chair morning and night after morning and night and actually write. And that felt good. It’s kind of like running again after years of not running. You’re uncomfortable at first and then muscle memory kicks in and you think “This feels great! Why haven’t I been doing this?!”Like I said, I didn’t meet the goal. I’m fine with that. My story is not a 50,000 word novel and that was pretty clear by the end of Chapter 4. I knew I might reach 50,000 words but I would not have a completed draft. I am happy with where I am, at the end of Part 1 because I have something to revisit and think over and grow.
  2. Trying to write in a new way is a useful creative stretch.
    NaNoWriMo forced me to write at a sprint and not self edit — this is very far from my normal approach, where I mull over each sentence, edit as I go, revisit the previous day’s writing before starting a new page, etc. It forced me to keep going, even I knew something was off or wasn’t going to work. But it also forced me to find out what was going to happen. I had a very thorough outline before I started and I was surprised at how things evolved as I wrote. Two characters that didn’t actually have a solid place in my outline suddenly emerged as a driving force of action. A character that I thought was a villain of sorts was a potential hero. And my protagonist started to have a distinct voice.Breaking creative habits can be really healthy and productive, and I’m glad I tried this approach. I found myself willing to try some experiments as I went, because I knew at the speed I was going, quality wasn’t so much the goal as quantity. Write a scene with just dialog? Check. Write a scene with no dialog? Check. Try different narrators. Try different tenses. Run as many experiments as you can as you go and see what’s working and what isn’t.
  3. A sprint is a great way to find out if a project has potential.
    One of the things that emerged as I approached the end of the month is that I’m not writing the genre I thought I was writing. There were certain conventions I expected to follow and that’s just not how the story is unwinding. So now, at the end of this first part, I need to figure out where to go. Do I want to explore making the story more genre-specific? If I don’t, how does the style need to evolve to make the story work for a different audience?While I want to stick with this story, at the same time, I’m grateful that I spent a specific, dedicated amount of time playing with it. I didn’t spend months and months on a story that might not work. I spent a very defined, relatively short period on it, and I have enough material that with a little thought, I should be able to tell if it’s worth continuing or if my time would be better spent on a different project.

Even if NaNoWriMo isn’t your thing, I’d encourage you to try a writing sprint. Set a goal for time and words, be it 1,000 words a night for a week or 50,000 words in a month, sit down and draft like crazy. Break from your normal habits and see if you can find a style, an idea, a habit, or a voice that’s going to help you with your writing in the future.

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