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What I Learned From National Novel Writing Month 2015

November 30, 2015

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), happens every November. It has been around since 1999, when 21 people decided that by banding together, they could generate enough peer pressure to motivate each to pop out a novel in a month. A novel, as they defined it, was at least 50,000 words. The goal was to write a novel in thirty days, or a little under 1700 words a day.

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My fear is that NaNoWriMo is a little like the marathon. Every year, millions of non-runners limp their way through 26.2 miles so they can say they did it. Which, of course, causes the predictable backlash from “real” runners who insist that a marathon time of 6+ hours is not really running a marathon. Likewise, NaNoWriMo has its bahumbuggers.

Whatever. My buddy Greg suggested we try it. We both tinker with fiction and have considered NaNoWriMo in the past. So I thought I’d give it a try. Here are a few things I discovered.

It’s easier than I thought. It’s not that easy, but I was surprised that it wasn’t terribly painful either. The key for me was to maintain a good pace. 1700 words a day is about an hour of writing. On my best day, November 20, I wrote 4,250 words. My worst day was 68 words. That day, I was tired and hung over from poker night. I forced myself to just sit down for a few minutes and get something on the page before bed.

But in general, I wrote in the 1000-2000 range. I found that after I got over the hump of 20 minutes, I could get into a zone and, time permitting, could go for an hour or more pretty easily.

My main commitment was to write every day. Because the key to writing something long is to get something down every day. 68 words a day over any period of time is infinitely more words than zero words per day. You can write a novel by writing one word a day. You cannot write a novel by writing zero words per day. So I forced at least a little out every day.

I made a new document for each day. I put the date at the top, pasted the last sentence from the previous day, and then started to write. This prevented me from going back over what I’d written the day before, which inevitably would lead to editing and re-writing. That comes later. This month was about plowing through a first draft.

I filled in the gaps of my day. Because it’s not always easy to find a solid hour of time, I wrote whenever I could find a few minutes. I wrote on the bus (bless traffic). I wrote before dinner. I wrote right after story time when the kids went to bed. I wrote during tubby time. Whenever I could find 5 minutes or more, I pulled out the laptop. This meant that when I sat down at night to do the bulk of the writing, I’d usually find that I only had 800 words left to write instead of the full 1700. Much less daunting.

When I could, I ended on the downslope. Meaning I tried to stop when I had a little momentum instead of when I was stuck. It made it easier to start the next day.

I tracked my progress. I made a spreadsheet to record my daily numbers. It almost became a distraction in itself. I would make little charts from my spreadsheet. Here’s my chart for the full month. As you can see, I kept pretty close to the pace car, never falling too far behind.

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I got encouragement from Greg. Mostly I did this by texting him to see how he was doing. What I really wanted was for him to ask how I was doing. Doesn’t matter. Selfish, but helpful (Greg, btw, also hit 50,000 today).

I wrote for speed. I wanted to feel momentum. Caffeine helped a few times. But also dumb tricks. Like to create the illusion of speed, I formatted my pages with a single 4-inch column down the middle and 1.5 line spacing. I wanted to feel like I was really making headway. Cheap, but it works.

I wrote to music. For me, creating a mood/tone for what I’m working on is very important. I didn’t want to waste time trying to find the right mood every day, so I created a playlist that captured the feeling (the story also has a lot of music in it, so it was research too).

I left the research for later. I have a lot of historical research I need to do. Part of my story takes place in the Pacific theater in WWII, in San Quentin prison, in San Francisco 1949, in St. Louis and Memphis and Kansas City in the 1950s, and in San Francisco in 1978. All times and places I know very little about. I need to go back and do a lot of research. I need to look up popular luxury cars of the time, names of ships, names of battles, names of Army divisions, names of songs and musicians. These are all important, but they can be snakeholes of distraction. When I got to something I needed to research, if I thought it would take more than a minute, I’d put an XXXXXXXXXXX and highlight it for later, then keep moving forward.

In the same spirit, I kept a loose running doc of names, dates, etc. I wanted to avoid wasting time sifting through my own pages looking for a name, like the name of that guy Pearl dated before she met Tom back in chapter 2, or 3 or was it 4?

I had a plan and a loose outline, but not too much of one. I need to know my final destination but want to leave room for surprises and discovery along the way. I want my characters to do things that catch me off guard. Part of the fun is to have to solve narrative problems caused by characters going rogue. This can be very time consuming if you write yourself into a corner, but it can also lead to more interesting narrative arcs. The hardest part of working without a tight outline was filling in the connective tissue between big events. The only way to get through those murky parts was to just write it. When I read back through everything, I’m sure those sections will be the most clunky. But I’d rather have to deal with those issues than get bored or feel like I’m just dressing a skeleton.

Finally, I made it a priority. I didn’t watch much TV. I neglected other things. If I had emails to answer, I did them after I’d finished my writing. I didn’t write any book reviews in November. I fell off my goal of reading and reviewing a short story every week. All that extra time was used for this. And well used, I might add. I don’t regret not seeing my fantasy football teams get thrashed every Sunday.

So here I am. 50,193 words that I didn’t have at the beginning of November. For a novel that has been called, at times, Egg In A Nest, The Nobody, Night Owls, and Nob Hill. It’s not a complete novel. I imagine I’m about 80% through the first draft. But this month has been more about the process than the finished product. Lots more writing to do, then a bunch of research, then more writing and re-writing. Maybe I’ll have it finished by NaNoWriMo 2016.

Hey, Greg, let’s do this again next year.

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