writing advice: tackling national novel writing month

Every Friday, I answer a reader’s question about writing, editing, or the writing process. I’m happy to take submissions via comments or email, so if you have a question you’d like me to answer, send it in!

Today’s question:

I’ve never really written anything seriously my entire life. But I have what I think is a pretty good idea for a story, and I’ve been thinking about doing NaNoWriMo for a couple of years now. I think I might take the plunge this year. Have you worked with anyone who wrote a book during NaNoWriMo? Any wisdom you can share?

-Gary

Absolutely! I think NaNoWriMo is a great motivational tool to get people writing, and I would definitely recommend that you give it a shot. In my experience, the key is to manage your expectations of yourself and the outcome. If you can start the process with patience and realistic goals, you will be a lot more likely to end the month with a positive result.

Getting The Words

Churning out 1,667 words a day is no small task for any writer, and you have to be patient with the process, especially as a new writer. During the course of the month, there will be some days you hit your target and some days you don’t. Some days you’ll blow away three days at once. Some days you won’t write a word. This is okay. If you expect the month to run like clockwork, you’ll be disappointed in yourself, and this disappointment will make it more likely that you’ll bail halfway through November. Obviously, you can’t write 100 words a day and hit your target, but not every day is going to be perfect. That being said, you do have to write every day. This isn’t a joyride. Writing a novel is work.

Another preconception that you need to leave behind right now: this book does not have to be written chronologically. NaNoWriMo is not about getting 50,000 words out in order from beginning to end. It’s about getting 50,000 words. Many established writers write their books in sections, sometimes out of order, sometimes backwards. If you’re going to pin yourself to the chair and crank out your story in a month, don’t sit there for four hours trying to figure out the perfect turn of phrase. If something is hanging you up, drop a couple of brackets and a description (e.g., [everyone needs to have a wicked dance party here]) and move on.

Finally, you might want to consider making an outline now. At the end of November, I can virtually guarantee that your manuscript is going to be a hot mess (more on that later). Still, having some general idea about where you’re going and how you’d like to get there can be a huge help, especially on the days where you get stuck. (Here are some outlining resources, if you’re interested.) Plus, you’ll have a better chance of ending up with some words you can actually work with if you know what your story is about before you begin. That being said, there are people who write very successful books without an outline. If that’s your thing, I won’t cramp your style.

NaNoWriMo Does Not a Novel Make

To avoid frustration down the line, figure out what you want to accomplish by participating in NaNoWriMo before you even start. Are you just looking to write 50,000 words? Do you want to tell a complete story? Do you want to have the opportunity to query publishers or try to self publish in the future? Most of the novels I work with come in between 70,000 and 100,000 words. Understand that you may not tell your entire story during the course of November, even if you hit your target. If you’re looking for word count, this might be okay with you. If you want to write a book, expect to still be working on it in December or January (or next November). Writing a book is a process, and it’s going to take a bit of time.

Also, while cranking out a bunch of content in November is a fantastic idea, a novel is crafted, not born. If you are looking to produce something you can shop around or sell, understand that your first draft is not going to be salable.  I would never discourage you from writing in the first place, but it’s easy to see the glamour of content-production and overlook the incredible amount of time and effort that revising a novel requires. Don’t be disappointed when you look over your book in December. It may not make sense. You may think it’s terrible. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you should never write again. It just means that it’s time to start revising your work. Congratulate yourself. And consider sending me an email. I know a thing or two about revising novels. :)

Comments

  1. I wrote a short horror novel. One problem: it’s fanfiction. What do I do?

    I can’t seem to get off my fanfic streak. All the beta readers are ignoring my emails (I sent messages to about a dozen at the beginning of my second draft, but haven’t even started my third, and the second is still languishing on my profile). I’m up to my neck in plot holes even ignoring the melodrama. I know enough to realize that it’s a good story, but I can’t seem to focus on revising it, and there isn’t a chance of getting it published, so should I even be trying?

    I guess I’m just at kind of a low point. Any advice?

    • Well, I think it really depends on what you want to do with the work after it’s finished. I mean, what’s your ideal outcome? You’re right that you wouldn’t be able to get it published without revision (and likely wouldn’t be able to self-publish either because of copyright), but if you’re not looking to sell, then that might not be a concern. If you’re looking to write a great story in a universe you love, or if you’re looking to become a better writer, or looking to develop a fanfic fan base, those are still worthwhile reasons to revise and engage with a piece of fiction that you might not be able to sell.

      Plus, we have the recent phenomenon of the Twilight / Fifty Shades of Gray business–FSoG was originally BDSM Twilight fanfiction…so there is some crossover.

      The thing is, though, what makes fanfiction fanfiction? If you have a great story and you’re willing to work out the plot holes, you always have the option of doing a lateral slide to a different “universe” and different but related characters. I think it might help to get clear about whether you want to write story in general or stories for this particular universe in specific.

      And many, many authors get stuck in places like this. I think it’s part of the natural ebb and flow of writing. But if you can get clear about what your ideal outcome would be and what you would like to do eventually, it might be easier to drum up the motivation to keep working. Plus, there are plenty of people out there who write fiction that is very clearly inspired by something else (LoTR, Star Wars, Terminator, Buffy, WoW, etc. etc.). If that’s what you need to do to write, then do it!

      As far as the beta readers are concerned…good luck. :)

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