I wrote over 55,000 words last month, which makes me a National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Winner.
(I don’t have firework emojis so here are some bubbling beakers instead)
This was my first year doing NaNoWriMo, which is odd, since I’ve known about it for many years. I guess I thought it wasn’t for me. I had several reasons for believing this, but all of those reasons turned out to be false assumptions. In this post, I’ll go over all those assumptions and debunk them.
Here were my initial assumptions:
Assumption 1- NaNoWriMo is for noobs, not something serious writers do.
Assumption 2- The quality of the hastily written manuscript will be poor.
Assumption 3- It’s impossible to find time for NaNoWriMo working a full-time job.
Assumption 4- It’s hard to be motivated to write when there’s no real prize for winning.
Assumption 5- You have to have a book completely plotted out before starting.
Now this is where I tell you how stupid I was to believe all that.
Debunking Assumption 1- It turns out NaNoWriMo isn’t just for newbies. Now that I’m on Twitter (@PhilipKramer9), I’ve noticed all kinds of NaNoWriMo-related posts from big-shot published authors, some of which have been participating for years. It didn’t even occur to me that these heavyweights sometimes needed a bit of motivation too.
A couple months ago, Dan Koboldt contacted me and other contributors from Putting the Science in Fiction, and asked if we could run a blog tour the month of October. He suggested we put together some writing prompts to help give writers inspiration for NaNoWriMo. But after a little bit of research, I realized just how many people were doing the same thing. It’s as if the entire world was preparing for NaNoWrimo. So I put together a post with some writing prompts and was surprised by the reception. A lot of people were planning to participate, indeed. The success of the blog tour and the book, which were targeted toward writers, really emphasized that.
Side-note: The book is going to become an audiobook, published by Tantor Media.
It wasn’t until the end of the month, a day or two before NaNoWriMo was supposed to start, that I decided to join. Imagine my surprise when I saw there were 120 novelists just in my local area, with ten local forums, and a huge number of online and in-person events planned. I met several of these authors in person at some of the WriteIns over then next month, and many had already published several books and were full-time authors. Together, the region wrote over 2 million words in November. NaNoWriMo definitely isn’t for newbies.
Debunking Assumption 2- Let’s face it, the quality of any first draft is usually pretty terrible. That means a book written over the course of a month and one written over the course of a year, will both require large amounts of editing. I would argue that a book written in a shorter time will probably have fewer inconsistencies, since you are less likely to have forgotten the details of what you’ve just written. I experienced this personally. I was forced to write and think about the story so much, I rarely forgot even the smaller details I’d written just days before. The other advantage it that your writing style and voice is less likely to change over the course of the novel.
There is some truth to this assumption though. When you’re forced to write an average of 1,667 words a day, you’ll occasionally get ahead of yourself and your story, digging a plot hole too deep to crawl out of. That’s why pre-plotting is important, or if you are a pantser, regular brainstorming.
One of the most common pieces of advice I hear from people doing NaNoWriMo is to keep writing and don’t edit. In general, this is decent advice, as it keeps the forward momentum going, but don’t pass up the opportunity to highlight a section that needs work or leave yourself a note to add more detail to a specific sentence or paragraph. All too often writers say they’ll catch something later in editing, but it ends up getting overlooked or forgotten.
Debunking Assumption 3- It takes time to write a novel, and it’s not easy if you have no time to spare. Truth is, we all have a little time to spare in our schedules. If you enjoy writing (which you should), it is relatively easy to cut down on other enjoyable things like reading or watching TV. Sometimes, if you aren’t in the mood to write, forcing yourself to sit down for twenty minutes is all that’s necessary to get you sucked back into the story. On multiple occasions, I ended up losing track of time and writing for several hours straight without any breaks.
I eventually decided to participate in NaNoWriMo, not because I thought it would work out, but because I really had nothing to lose. After several months of writing next to nothing, I decided the worst that could happen was I’d write a few thousand words before giving up. But hey, that’s a few thousand words I probably wouldn’t have written. So it’s a win-win. Not only did I find the time to complete the 50k words, I developed some good writing habits, and have already written another 10k more in the first couple weeks of December. It really gave me hope that one day I might actually have what it takes to be a successful full-time author, cranking out several books a year.
Debunking Assumption 4- Motivation is a tricky beast to tame. It’s hard to predict what will motivate me or give me the inspiration to write. Fortunately, I chose to write a book on a topic I was passionate about. Still, NaNoWriMo was asking me to write half of the book in a single month without giving me anything in return. What was there to compel me to write that much in such a short time?
It turns out there are multiple prizes for winning. You get a 50k word novel out of it, better writing habits, new writer friends, discounts on Writer’s resources, and even a nice little certificate.
The NaNoWriMo website had a lot to offer to help you with motivation. It connects you with other people in you region, gives you access to forums, and a blog filled with writing tips. Check out one of my early posts on the Science of Motivation.
Their graphs and stats also really helped. It might not work for everyone, and maybe it’s just the scientist in me, but the ability to see how much I’ve written and how much is left in a line and column chart made all the difference. I really wanted to stay above that stupid gray line.
Debunking Assumption 5- I’ve always been more of a plotter than a pantser, but NaNoWriMo changed where I fell on that scale. I already had a couple books lined up and plotted out, ready to be written, but things didn’t go exactly as planned. Because I was writing so much in such a short time, I started thinking about the story every waking moment of the day, and the more I did, the more I realized my plot was imperfect. After a few brainstorming sessions, I decided to restructure it, and am now much more satisfied with the story-line.
I hate to say it, but it’s impossible to pre-plot so well that you plug all the plot holes before they appear. When you write, you’ll have to fill in all the finer details, painting a picture of the setting for your readers, and give your characters life. Steering those now-living characters across your now-detailed world will inevitably result in some plot deviations. Humans are unpredictable, even fictional ones, and it’s hard to know what goes on in their heads until you’re right there with them, experiencing what they are experiencing. Those little overlooked details become even more complicated when you’re writing hard science fiction. As an example, trapping a person on Mars in their spacesuit for several days sounds like an interesting plot point, but the moment you realize they can’t go to the bathroom in their suit or lift their face-shield for a drink of water, you’ll have to either create a shelter for them, or shorten that timescale from three days to one. When writing during NaNoWriMo, you don’t have weeks or months to agonize and fret over how to fix things, you are forced to sit down and brainstorm until you figure it out. You don’t have time for writer’s block. Don’t get me wrong, if I hadn’t been thinking about this plot long in advance, I would probably have stuck with my first version of it, which was garbage. So it’s best to write a story you’ve been thinking about for a while, just be prepared for the story to change as you write.
Hopefully I’ve convinced at least a couple of people to give NaNoWriMo a try and dispelled some of your false assumptions about it. I suggest, however, that you don’t just take my word for it. This was my first NaNoWriMo after all. What works for me might not work for you. As always, Do Your Research!
Until next time, Write Well and Science Hard.