Lessons learned from my sixth NaNoWriMo

Winner-2014-Square-ButtonAround the world, NaNoWriMo, the event in which over 300 000 participants attempt to write a 50 000 word novel in 30 days, is about to come to a close. Here in Europe there is a little over 28 (edit: 26 hours, because Sleepless in Seattle is on television and I haven’t seen this movie as a grown adult before) hours left; back in Australia where I completed my first 5 NaNo novels, there is just over 16 hours left. Some people will scramble to perform catch ups of the most epic nature in this time, while others will decide to be content with what they have. And whether or not you have written 10 words or 1 million words, whether you are aiming to write 10 000 words on your last day or you’re kicking back with a nice glass of wine and laughing in the face of the very concept of writing on this last day, there is one important thing to matter:

  1. You’re already a winner.

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. You gave it a shot. You hopefully learned something from it all. If you got to your goals, that’s a nice bonus, but the main point of it all is that you sat down and wrote something towards some kind of a novel or similar creative project. You wrote something which you might not have otherwise written and that is a victory. I think it is so important to remember that in these final hours.

As for me, I have indeed notched my sixth consecutive NaNoWriMo win, jumping over the 50 000 word hurdle on the 21st of the month (which may be my quickest so far because I tend to procrastinate a lot in the early parts of the month). I was aiming for 100 000 words, and I had a lot of reasons for it too. The last two years’ attempts at NaNoWriMo have felt a little forced and lacklustre – thanks to a bit of routine reaching 50 000 was almost too easy, a bit like I’ve done it all before (which to be fair I have). So I wanted to see what would happen when I aimed higher, without a plan, to see what might come out of my own head.

I stopped a few days ago, at 67 000 words. I did write harder and faster than ever before, and I came up with some frankly bizarre but interesting things in my story. I learned a lot about keeping my story funny more consistently (I was trying comedy yet again) and I learned just how complex I can make my plots without even trying. But at this point, a little behind schedule, I realised that I had no idea where to take the story to finish it. While I enjoyed writing it and being silly, while I learned a lot, I felt no personal attachment to my story this time. If I continued, I’d only be stubborn as if I were trying to prove a point that no longer needed to be proved. So I decided to stop and to be honest I am not only glad I’m did, but I’m a little bit proud that for once I didn’t let my ambition drive me into the ground as it so often can.

I guess that’s the main lesson I have learned this year. I need to have the correct motivation behind my writing, especially once I clear that NaNoWriMo baseline of 50 000 words. Often I have motivations beyond my own story ideas and writing too. Almost every year since I began I’ve had other writers who I am competing against or helping egg along to their first victory. Last year it was a very young student (who kicked my butt), this year it was a good friend who I cheered on (well…nagged) on various social media until she suddenly also kicked my butt and reached the goal in just 15 days (yes, you know who you are if you read this). So I think that also gives me a reason to do this crazy thing each year. Seeing somebody else I know reach that goal for the first time is one of the best feelings I know.

I for one am looking forward to returning to writing in other forms, like my blogs (yes, that food blog is starting up very soon) but also my short stories and poetry. I’m also looking forward to reading A LOT in December! BUT if you are still scrambling to finish you novels, I wish you lots of luck! It is always amazing what you can do with that final-day pressure! Just sit down and do your best, and whatever happens will happen. Whatever happens, be proud of it!

NaNoWriMo tips from a madman

Participant-2014-Square-ButtonI meant to write this before the last day of October, mere hours away from the beginning of NaNoWriMo (Australia and New Zealand have already started, while the rest of us around the world eagerly count down). But typically I found myself suddenly busy this month so finding time to blog was a bit trickier than I thought. Which, um, bodes well for NaNoWriMo, right?

Still. I have slayed this beast for the last five years, so apparently I’m doing something right even if I don’t know for sure what it is. Last year I wrote a list of tips as well, but then last year’s event for me was a bit of a let down – I reached the word count but was totally uninspired by my own writing, which is a shame after the amount of planning I put into it. And that perhaps leads me to tip number 1…

  1. Don’t worry TOO much about the planning. I’m not saying “don’t plan” nor am I saying “you must plan every scene or else doom will befall you!” What I am saying is don’t worry too much about it either way. Some of you will be pantsers, running into it with no real planning year after year, and for many of you this works great. For some of you, the thought of not planning terrifies you – it’s perfectly fine to be an articulate planner too if that helps you to write. But either way, at this point just go with what you have. You’d be surprised how it can come together regardless.
  2. Stock up on coffee/tea/cola/something caffeinated. I really feel this one is self-explanatory, but I can tell you there will be times where you just want to go for a little sleep instead of writing. If you pep yourself back up, sometimes those moments can be your best moments of writing.
  3. Tell everybody you’re doing it! I think I said this last year, actually. Anyway, the more people you tell, the more people you’ll have to nag encourage you to keep at it. Of course, if you think this kind of pressure won’t help you, maybe just tell a few people. But I know personally I like to shout it out from the rooftops while live streaming the whole thing!*
  4. Expect your story to not follow your orders. No, I’m being serious. Once you start writing, your story will take on a life of its own which you are only trying to control. But, like any loving creator, you can only control it so much. Sometimes you’ll write a scene or kill off a character or something dramatic and think to yourself “wait a minute, I wasn’t supposed to do that!” Do you keep this twist that even you, the author, didn’t expect? Well, that’s the part you control. Sometimes a sudden new direction can be refreshing, but you won’t know if you don’t try.
  5. Don’t have six subplots. Probably not even five. I’m saying this because last year I rather ambitiously aimed for six but my story became more tangled than the world championships of Twister (the board game, not the destructive weather event). For a novel at least one is usually needed, but two or three are probably manageable if you can think of a way of tying them altogether.
  6. Remember it’s a first draft. A very first draft. Don’t get too caught up on it being perfect – you’re just trying to get the story out of your head and onto the page at this point (albeit at an insane speed). The thing is, nobody writes a great first draft of a story regardless of the speed at which you write it (and if you think you do you’re either a freak genius or deeply disillusioned). So don’t judge yourself too much – that’s for December.
  7. Remove the backspace/delete buttons from your keyboard. Or, you know, pretend they aren’t there if you’re a bit more normal. The point is, don’t delete what you’ve written. Don’t even read it. Again, deletions are for December.
  8. If you can find some friendly competition, use it to your advantage. Maybe someone in your local writing group wants to race you? Go for it. Maybe you find the word sprints in the forums and on social media help you? Use them. A little competitive spirit never hurt, but please please please be nice to one another when you do this! On the odd occasion I’ve seen this turn into fighting and that’s not what this whole event is about.**
  9. If you fall behind, it’s not the end of the world. My favourite novels I’ve written so far for NaNoWriMo were the ones where I had to catch up massively towards the end (I think my record was writing 11k in one day, 19k over the final 3 days). Last year I stayed on track the whole month and my writing was bore galore! Obviously this isn’t the case for everybody, but either way don’t panic – it’s not over until it’s over, as they say.
  10. HAVE FUN! Because this is so vital to the whole thing. Yes, part of this is about the challenge, about pushing yourself with your writing to see what you can come up with. But it should also be about having fun, meeting new writers, sharing your experiences. No matter whether you get to 1k, 10k or 50k, you’ve written something this month and that is still an achievement!

And lastly, I shouldn’t have to point this out but I’m going to anyway. As many of you know I often encourage as many people as I can to give NaNoWriMo a go. I think it’s a lot of fun and most people who have tried it tend to agree with me. But if you don’t like it, if you think this sort of writing isn’t for you, that’s absolutely fine. It’s not for everybody. Some people just don’t and can’t write like that, and that doesn’t make them a lesser writer either. I guess it comes back to what I mentioned in point 8 – be respectful to everyone, those writers participating and those who are not. We’re all writers here, people!

For those of you who are joining in, I wish you luck! If you want to add me as a buddy on NaNo, let me know in the comments!

I have to go think about how I’m going to write something that will last 100 000 words starting tomorrow!***

You can do it, everyone!

 

*Not really. But I do tell everybody I know.

**If that’s what you’re after you probably want to try NaNoFiMo – National Novel Fighting Month.

***Oh yeah, did I even tell you guys that? I’m aiming for 100 000 words this year. No idea why. I’m a lunatic I suspect.

NaNoWriMo beckons once more…

NaNoWriMo LogoWell, that sounded a bit ominous! Anyway, those who have followed my blog the past few years probably know all about NaNoWriMo, because I babble about it every year around October and November. Newer followers might also know about it because, well, it’s a pretty massive event (about 300 000 participants globally last year).

But first, let’s refresh our memories on what this lunacy actually is (or perhaps even learn about it for the first time)! NaNoWriMo is an event in which participants from all walks of life attempt to write a 50 000 word (or more) novel entirely in the space of November. This sounds like a crazy challenge, and it really is, but the idea behind it is quite an important one. We all know the old saying that everybody has a book in them (as in one they want to write, not literally a book they are digesting because they mistook War and Peace for an apple). A lot of people often say that they want to write a novel, but they don’t have the time. This is where NaNoWriMo comes in – by forcing yourself to write the story at great speed (an average of 1667 words a day) you’ll get that book written within a month. Sure, it’ll be a bit rough around the edges. But, from my experience at least, it’ll have some gems in there too. Just the act of finishing a draft is a big step for any budding writer, published or unpublished, and no matter how hard it sounds once you get the momentum going it’s pretty hard to stop. Also, a huge community to encourage you and share all your trials and tribulations always helps – with hundreds of regions all around the world organising online and physical meet-ups, it can become quite a social event too.

For me personally, my NaNoWriMo story goes right back to 2009. I discovered the event at the last minute, with a couple of days to spare if my memory serves me correct. I remember thinking that first time “this is ludicrous, I have no idea what to write, I don’t have time to do this with university assignments due and my work and blah blah blah” and then I attempted it. That first year was filled with setbacks – at one point I was 20 000 words behind, while right at the end of the month a friend died which shook up my friends and I no end (as you’d expect) – but somehow I pulled through and hit the 50 000 words.

But that first NaNo novel, in the genre of dystopian fantasy, was awful and I’ve promised myself never to look at it again. The second year I attempted historical fiction and discovered the challenge of trying to fit 200 000 words of story into a quarter as much with far too little research. I also had a car crash that month so writing wasn’t exactly the most comfortable thing. The third year, in 2011, was my first year of being a teacher, so not only did I have to juggle novel writing with report writing and teaching, but I also stupidly decided to aim for 75 000 words. Despite overloading on caffeine repeatedly (at one point I drank 14 coffee in about 7 or 8 hours, and then oddly had an afternoon nap), the psychological thriller I wrote that year has been the only story thus far that I actually kind of liked (I intend on rewriting it soon). The next two years I attempted comedy and literary fiction, and while I found hitting the word goal easier than ever I ended up deeply disappointed with my stories.

So now, in 2014, I face my sixth consecutive NaNoWriMo going for a sixth consecutive win. A lot has changed for me this year, as I migrated from Australia to Sweden back in January, and I have a feeling my new surroundings and my experiences over this year will have some influence over my story. I am going to tackle comedy a second time, and earlier this year I wrote some comedy short stories that I actually liked and in which I think I started to find my own style of humorous writing. I am playing around with different ideas (time travel and bathtubs seem to be key themes at the moment, thanks to a certain friend on Twitter (you know who you are…)), but I hope to write something a bit more coherent than my comedy novel from 2012. I also plan on tapping into my influences more, from my general British comedy influences (especially Monty Python) but also all my writing influences from both now (both comedic and serious) and from my childhood (especially Roald Dahl). We’ll see what I come up with, I guess, in a few weeks time.

But enough about me! The NaNoWriMo website is running a little bit late in rebooting for this year’s event (it’s going up next week apparently), but now is the time to decide whether or not you’re going to attempt it, and if you are, to consider planning it (unless you like to write by the seat of your pants, which statistically speaking I do about 60% of the time so far). But, some things to consider:

  • If you’ve never done this before but love writing stories, you absolutely should give this a go – it is way more fun that you might think and it will definitely help you grow as a writer.
  • If you’ve tried this before but didn’t make the 50 000 word goal – try it again! Maybe a different story and different circumstances will enable you to reach it this time, and even if you still don’t you might get a lot written and that’s never a bad thing.
  • If you’ve won this before, whether it’s once or many times, do it again! After five wins, one thing I am certain of is that every year I do NaNoWriMo my writing improves and I learn more about my own writing abilities and style.

I’ll probably do another “tips on surviving” type post a little later in the month (don’t expect any profound advice other than to drink coffee though), but in the meantime I’d love to hear from you if you are doing NaNoWriMo or even if you’re just considering it. Also if you want to add me as a writing buddy on there, let me know.

23 days to go and counting!