Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Five Best Lessons I've Learned From Nanowrimo

8:00 AM Posted by Tara 2 comments
Each year I've participated in Nanowrimo, I've come away from the experience not only with 50,000 words, but with a deeper understanding of my own writing process and the art of writing itself. While every lesson I've learned from Nanowrimo is priceless, there are a few things in particular that I wish I'd known before my very first foray into month-long noveling.

1. You have to devote yourself to your novel.

Writing a novel in a month is an enormous undertaking. It isn't something you can spend a few minutes a day on, or shrug off if you find something better to do. It requires a higher level of commitment, responsibility, and self-discipline than most of us have ever given a creative endeavor. You need to make your novel a priority, or else you'll never get around to writing it.

That means making sacrifices. The first couple of years I participated in Nanowrimo, I tried to juggle way too many things at once, and it caused me a lot of stress and exhaustion. Now that I know I won't have much time to spare in November, I schedule what time I do have accordingly. I get up at least an hour early every morning to write, even if it means setting my alarm for a time usually classified as the middle of the night. I don't commit myself to social plans in case I end up needing that night to catch up on my word count. And when I'm tired and frustrated and I just want one day off to relax, I push myself to keep writing, because I know I have to if I'm going to win.

You will want to quit at some point in November. You'll decide writing a novel is too hard, or that it's too much work. But if you truly want something, you have to work for it. So don't give up! Make a commitment to writing your novel, and do whatever it takes to keep it. You'll be glad you did come the end of the month.

2. Writing is easier with an outline... but outlines aren't set in stone.

Outlines aren't for everyone, but I believe that all writers can benefit by giving at least some forethought to their plots. I learned this the hard way—by not giving enough to mine. I went into my first Nanowrimo with a vague premise and a couple of ideas, but no plot points, no story arc, not even a culprit for my murder mystery! It was like running through a maze in the dark: I wandered aimlessly, took a lot of wrong turns, and never found my way out. I spent a lot of time wondering what to do next, and wrote a lot of words that said very little in an effort to keep the story going when I didn't know where it was going. The 50,000 words I finished the month with didn't resemble anything close to an actual novel.

I've come around to outlining in the years since, and it's made all the difference in the world. Outlines provide a destination for my journey, a map to guide me through that maze. They force me to address major problems in my plot before I'm halfway through writing it. They show me what needs to happen in the beginning to set up the end. They turn a jumble of ideas into a cohesive story.

But I also know that I'm not chained to my outline—nor would I want to be. An outline should provide guidance, but not stifle your creativity. Sometimes your story takes you in a direction you hadn't anticipated while outlining, and sometimes that direction is even better than the one you had planned. If you have a brilliant idea for a plot twist knee-deep into writing your novel, run with it! If it doesn't pan out, you can always cut it later... but it might just end up being exactly what your novel needed.

3. The higher you aim, the higher you'll fly.

Some people can hammer out 1,667 words in an under hour. I am not one of those people. It can take me several hours of work to reach the day's goal, and even then, I sometimes fall short. I gape in awe at those who can write 10,000 words in a single day or cross the finish line halfway through the month, and I doubt I will ever join their ranks.

Last year, however, I decided to raise my month's goal to 60,000 words, which means I would have to write 2,000 words a day. Considering how much I struggled to write 1,667 words a day the past five years I'd participated in Nanowrimo, I worried that I was setting myself up for failure. But, surprisingly... I found I could do it. In fact, some days I wrote well over 2,000 words. My momentum waned by the end of the month and I didn't reach the 60,000 words I'd aimed for, but I did hit 50,000 words on November 27—a huge achievement for someone who usually races for the finish line in the final hours of November 30!

This taught me that if you aim low, you'll have no reason to fly high. If you aim for 1,667 words a day, you'll only push yourself enough to get there... but if you set the bar higher, you'll push yourself harder. So if you too have struggled to get those 1,667 words down every day, try writing more, not less. You might be surprised by what you can do when you try!

4. The more you write, the better you'll write.

You wouldn't be able to play Beethoven's Fifth the first time you ever touched a piano, but you might with enough training and practice. It's much the same with writing. If you've never written a single word of fiction in your life, you probably aren't going to pen a masterpiece next month. But you neverwill if you never start writing! The more you write, the more you'll learn—and there's no better classroom than Nanowrimo. A month of furious, exuberant writing, of exploring your plot and your characters, of letting your ideas take you where they will... it will teach you more about how to write than any how-to book ever could.

When I compare what I'm writing now to what I wrote on my first rollercoaster ride of month-long noveling, the improvement is obvious, and vast. Not only has the quality of my prose grown by leaps and bounds, but I've figured out how plot structure works, how to outline a novel, and how to show rather than tell. I no longer have to consciously work foreshadowing and theme and subplot into my novels; it just happens, because after enough practice, it's become a reflex. But I wouldn't have learned any of these things if I hadn't written my way to them.

I used to balk at the idea of writing a novel, thinking I should wait until I became a better writer. I know now that the only way to do that is to write.

5. November is only the beginning.

Despite writing 50,000 words almost every year I've participated in Nanowrimo, I've never truly felt that I'd won, because I've never actually finished my novels. At the end of November, I have a mess of a draft riddled with plot holes and underdeveloped characters, and missing an ending. Of course, I always intend to continue it... but as intimidating as writing a first draft can be, the prospect of revising it—especially if it's incomplete—is a hundred times worse. So my unfinished novels collect dust while I start anew every November in hopes that this time, I'll succeed.

Last year, however, was different. The story I wanted to tell could not be told in only 50,000 words, so I went into Nanowrimo knowing I wouldn't be able to finish it in a month—and I didn't feel as though I'd failed when I didn't. That made it easier to continue working on it after Nanowrimo. But this first draft, too, was riddled with plot holes and underdeveloped characters, so instead of continuing to write, I decided to solve those problems first. I gave my outline a complete overhaul, wrote more detailed character profiles than I ever have before, and put a lot of thought into the story's theme and symbolism and my characters' internal arcs. And I decided to devote this November to writing 50,000 new words towards the second draft of The Broken Brick Road.

I look back at last November as a very long brainstorming session. I played around with the plot, I got acquainted with my characters, I roughed out my setting. I identified what areas needed work, and why. I gathered a whole slew of new ideas that I never would've thought of had I not written those first 50,000 words. When I start writing the second draft, it will be a much more focused and informed effort. Yet I know that my novel will still need work when the month is done. And I'm already looking forward to my third draft, and fourth, and fifth.

If you expect perfection right out of the gate, you will inevitably be disappointed. You simply can't go from blank page to bestseller in a month. You may not even go from blank page to finished first draft in a month. But don't let that discourage you. Whether what you write over the next month is training and practice, or a very long brainstorming session, or the bare bones of a first draft, it's more than you started with, and it is absolutely worth something. You can—and should—take your novel further than Nanowrimo. November is only the beginning.

There is always more to learn

Nanowrimo has already taught me so much, and I can't wait to see what golden nuggets of wisdom I dig up this year. This will be the first time I've spent November revising and continuing a work in progress instead of starting from scratch, and I'm sure the new experience will lead to new discoveries. That is, after all, how we learn: by trying something new.

What's the best lesson you've taken from Nanowrimo? Leave a comment and let me know!


  1. Sitting right next to my comp on my writing desk this year is a little box I picked up from...Michaels, maybe? I think? earlier in October. This 4 in by 4 in box is completely decorative and states, "Actually, I can."

    I knew immediately that if I had nothing else, I needed this box.

    Every time I look at it, I am taken back to my accomplishments over my quarter of a century: getting into and graduating from an arts school, winning my first NaNo, getting into a fantastic college AND graduating, finding a good, stable relationship with someone I love and who loves me. Every time I feel like something I am chasing (read: writing a novel) feels like a pipe dream, I look at this box and remember -- actually, I can.

    Winning NaNo in 2012, which remains my only win in 10 years of participating, made me feel so incredibly good and confident in my abilities to do just about anything. I KNOW I am a good writer; I KNOW I can create compelling stories; I KNOW that when I put butt in chair, great things happen. But I get so plagued by self-doubt and full of "shoulda coulda woulda" that I tear myself down and don't do anything.

    But actually, I can.

    And the great thing is, everyone else can too.

    1. I love this! I think I might make "I can" my new Nanowrimo mantra. So simple, yet so powerful. Thanks for sharing!