03 December 2009

Lessons from NaNoWriMo

For the past couple of days I've had time to think about this whole NaNoWriMo experience and what it has meant to me. I think it is a wonderful, crazy idea to get authors from around the world to write a new novel in 30 days. To be honest, NaNoWriMo 2009 turned out to be an enjoyable, challenging, and -- at times -- frustrating experience for me. I'm glad it did it. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

NaNoWriMo made for a most memorable November, and one I'll likely not forget for a number of reasons. But the main reason is simply this: I have a first draft of my first novel. That was my goal for the month, and reaching it has given me an incredible sense of fulfillment -- as well as expectation for what I will do next with this story of Snakebit. It made me feel like I can be a writer, if I just sit down and do the work. It's a fantastic feeling. I imagine many of the other participants feel similarly; at least I hope they do.

And there were a lot of participants. I remain amazed at the sheer scale of the entire enterprise. If NaNoWriMo signifies anything, it's that there are a whole lot of people out there who want to write. The final numbers weren't up on the NaNoWriMo site the last time I checked (and please don't hold me to my recollection), but I think something like 170,000 people took part in the madness with around 16,000 people "winning" by hitting the 50,000 word mark. In total, there were more than TWO BILLION words written for NaNoWriMo. In a single month.


It felt good to be a part of that enterprise, sharing a common goal with so many people around the world. I enjoyed seeing what other writers had to say about the experience, how they were faring, what techniques they used during the month. It was enlightening and informative, and a learning experience in many ways.

Lessons learned

The most important thing I think I learned is that I actually can can start and finish a first draft of a novel in a month. I can have completion, as long as I work for it. This has been a problem for me for years. My writing, before November, was generally a long, drawn-out process. For example, I've been working on my other major project, Committed, for nearly three years -- and I think I've only hit about 80,000 words in that epic. To start something like Snakebit -- almost on a whim, I might add -- and finish it in 30 days is incredibly encouraging for my writing career.

Also, NaNoWriMo hammered it into my thick skull that there is no substitute for sitting at the keyboard and writing. You write even when it's not fun, even when it's not easy; you just keep writing, one word after another. This sounds ridiculously simple (and it is), but I only really got the point this month. The ideas in my head are not going to magically transfer themselves into engaging prose in the computer. It's up to me to sit down and do the work. And it is work. Hard work. But I like this work, and NaNoWriMo reminded me why.

Imperfection is okay

The pieces on this blog may not always be evidence of the following, but I am pretty picky about how I write what I write. It's not the just the story I want to tell, but I want to tell it in an engaging and entertaining way, using just the right words to get my ideas across. This pretty much hampers any pretense of productivity, and such behavior is completely useless during NaNoWriMo. Learning that I can tell my inner editor to take a hike for a month is probably the most liberating thing I discovered in November.

Ditching my inner editor allowed me to get my story down, and that was the important thing. Good prose can wait. The draft I have now is undoubtedly a mess; there are holes in the plot the size of Connecticut, my main characters sometimes seem to be no more than cardboard cutouts, much of my descriptive work has all the flair of and vigor of cold oatmeal, and much of what I wrote is quite likely gramatically offensive. I can accept that. This is a first draft. I will edit, rewrite, and edit some more until the story is told exactly how I want to tell it. A good story isn't at its best with the first telling. Only after the tale has been retold, perhaps many times with details and embellishments added with each telling, does it get better. I have a foundation to build upon, and that is exactly what I wanted out of this adventure called NaNoWriMo.

I could not have finished the draft had it not been for some serious planning and scheduling. This point was driven home right at the beginning when I took off five straight days from writing at the start of November. I planned for the days off and I eventually overcame the word deficit, but not without some serious ass-busting at the end.

So why was the plan so important if I still had to pull off the literary equivalent of a cramming for an exam during the last three days of the month? Because without that plan, I wouldn't have been in position to pull off those last three days. I didn't always stick to the plan, but I worked with it and tweaked it as circumstances dictated. I will continue to use this kind of planning both for major projects and daily work.

All in all, I have to say NaNoWriMo 2009 was an overwhelmingly positive experience, and one that I will remember. I accomplished much and I learned much. I liked it so much that I plan to do it again in 2010.

But that's a year away. What do I do now?

What's Next?

For the time being, I'm going to let Snakebit settle. I plan to leave it alone for the month of December, at least for the most part. I'll walk away from it and come back to it for editing and rewriting when January comes. I'll admit that I probably won't walk too far away from it; I had an idea while I was taking shower this morning that filled up a big plot hole and I ran to the computer, still dripping wet, to get it down before it flitted away. I have committed to not reading the draft until at least January 1. Then I'll get back to work, and I'm shooting to have a manuscript ready to submit to potential publishers by March 1.

I'll also be getting back to work on Committed, putting up episodes on a more regular basis than readers have been used to seeing in the past. I learned quickly during NaNoWriMo that I can crank out some verbage when I just sit down and type. This should help a lot with the episodic nature of Committed. And that story is about to start being all kinds of silly fun, not only to read, but also to write. I sense some serious craziness about to happen for Tal and Liv and the bunch.

I'm also considering making some changes to my website; it's been static for too long, and I want to try some new ideas to get things hopping over there. Content will be a priority, but I also want to look at some technical things. I'm also considering changing the site so that Committed is available only to registered users -- this might be a way to save my rights of first publication when I get the story ready to submit to publishers, but it may be too late for that now. I'll be doing some more study on that issue soon.

Another avenue I want to explore is getting some paid freelance work. Momma needs a new pair of shoes, you know? I'm looking to do some short story work (I've got one idea for a story about a new arrival to heaven that tickles my funnybone) and possibly some other articles for submission to a variety of publications.

So that's that. One project done, another begun. I'm looking forward to the rest of December and the upcoming New Year. Should be a good one.

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