January 22, 2016

Six things I learned from five NaNoWriMo wins and one loss

I've published a number of books, none of which was written during NaNoWriMo. I have "won" NaNo five times, most recently this past November. That means that five different times, I wrote 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. None of those has been published.

This year, my November total was 62,000 words. Today I'll write the final few paragraphs of the rough draft of that story, totaling out around 77,000 words, and I will not be publishing this book. That doesn't mean it was a waste of time, though. I learned some important things about myself, my writing process, and writing in general.

As I look back at the nine novels I've written in the past decade-plus, here are the top six things I've learned. Your mileage may vary, but there's truth in these lessons for every writer.

1. It is possible
My first NaNoWriMo, in 2005, taught me that I could actually complete a novel-length manuscript. It was brutal after the first week. By mid month I hated the story, hated the characters, felt a little lost in the plot. But I kept with it because I'd never written a complete novel before. 2005 taught me I could, if only I kept focused on daily goals and the idea of the ultimate product.

2. It never gets easier
I expected my second NaNoWriMo, the very next year, to be a breeze. After all, if I'd done it once. I could do it again. How charmingly naïve I was! That November was brutal. I wrote more than the previous year, but neither the story nor the writing were as good as before. And there was nothing easy about this year, my 9th novel and 5th NaNoWriMo. Every day requires discipline, hard work, focus. Even producing this year's very mediocre manuscript was brutal.

3. It's okay to quit
One year I managed about 12,000 words on a NaNo novel before quitting mid month. I hated quitting at the time. I always hate quitting. That year, I knew the story actually stunk, the book had no future, and I was only writing to try to get a NaNo Winner badge. To me, that was no longer a worthy goal, not when I had another story brewing in my mind that I really wanted to write. (That idea eventually turned into Semper.) Quitting NaNo that year allowed me to grow more than finishing the crappy novel would have.

4. A cheering section helps
Part of NaNo's strength is belonging to a community of people all struggling through the same brutal schedule toward a shared goal. Cheering each other on, meeting other writers--these things help when writing gets hard. This is true for me even when I'm writing on a more reasonable pace. Having a couple of trusted friends or critique partners to keep tabs on me and occasionally offer validation stokes the fading embers back into a blaze when necessary.

5. Crap makes for good fertilizer
After that first win in 2005, I waited six months and then read that novel back. I didn't hate it nearly as much as I had while writing it. In fact, it had a lot of promise. This year, I started with an idea and characters I loved. Somewhere along the way, in striving for word count and just to pound out the draft, my writing got weak. The characters got predictable. The plot became linear and shallow. It's crap. But crap can make great fertilizer, and the sheer effort of completing the story has enriched the original idea and deepened it to the point were I can build something really good from it, eventually.

6. This is not a race
When I slow down and take a year to write a first draft, that draft is nearly complete. By that I mean it includes subtle foreshadowing, rich symbolism, clever echoes and intricate interconnections, and characters that have some depth. It still needs revision, but it doesn't need to be thrown out and rewritten. When I write fast, I get what amounts to 70,000 words of detailed plot summary. This novel I'm finishing today has little foreshadowing, a whif of symbolism, some intricacy that happened mostly by accident, and characters whose depth rarely makes it to the page.

And I think that's the key: a gripping story in a complete fictional world with intricate politics and deep-seated social issues is there in my mind. It took NaNoWrimo to help me see that world and work through its details, but it will take me a year to put that world, that story, and those characters onto the page so a reader can see them the way that I do.