Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What I Learned From NaNoWriMo 2015


Along Lake Michigan's eastern shore is a large, steep sand dune officially named Mt. Baldhead, but affectionately called Mt. Baldy. My grandparents took us there as kids. If you climb the 282 stairs up one side, you are treated to a spectacular view and the opportunity to run pell-mell down the other side of the dune to Oval Beach. As kids, we loved nothing more than to let physics take over, pulling us down that dune, legs flying as fast as they could go because if we didn't run, we wiped out, which probably would have hurt. I wouldn't know. I never fell. I ran, giving myself over to the out of control feet frenzy as I was pulled inexorably downward.

That is how National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) felt this year. 

This was not my first novel, I've written several, and writing a novel isn't nearly as hard as it might sound. In fact, as a published author of a number of short stories, what I usually hear is "How do you make it so short?" It's easy to spend 100 pages developing one character, writers are quite verbose, but to devote 30 pages to not one, but several characters and a complete plotline? What? An interesting NaNoWriMo twist for some would be not to reach 50,000 words in one month, but to restrain yourself to 50,000 words! 

This was also not my first NaNoWriMo. A friend challenged me to do it with her in 2009. She was more successful than me. I learned that a full time job as a grocer in November in the U.S. is not compatible with marathon novel writing, so I did not repeat the challenge in ensuing years. 

But I am no longer a grocer, I work in a bookstore, literally surrounded by inspiration and motivation 20+ hours a week, I've had success with quite a few short stories since then, and my article deadlines are all passed for the winter issue of the Journal. November is now a great month to write! I thought.

I did meet the goal finishing November 30th at 50,025 words, but November was not a great month to write. Work stress from October and early November conspired against me in the form of mono. It's difficult to write 1666 words a day when you're sleeping for 14 hours and still managing to work full time. I almost fell asleep on the drive to work one day when I rested my eyes at a red light, no joke, and napped a lot at work. I still wrote something every day, but at times, it was only 200 words. This lasted about two weeks.

Then, on Thanksgiving, I started to get a frog in my throat. The next morning I woke up without a voice. My voice would not return for 4 days. The nasty cold that had felled many friends and coworkers got me, too. Sitting at my desktop computer for hours was painful. Even writing on my tablet proved difficult. All I wanted to do was lie on the couch and watch Star Trek: the Next Generation. But I forced myself to write, and honestly, it made my body feel worse. I hurt more, felt more exhausted, and ate and drank less. It was a tough business!

As I said, though, I did it. I wrote up until the last second and I completed my goal. The novel isn't finished, but most of the key scenes are down, and I have a clear path to completion. How did I do it? I ran:

1) Normally when I write, there is no initial rough draft. I edit, revise, and rewrite as I go. Edit-as-you-go is practically a death sentence for NaNoWriMo. You might end up deleting an entire scene that takes away valuable word counts, for one. Second, every minute spent revising is a minute taken away from writing. You aren't producing anything new, and the story is not progressing. 

2) I also stopped worrying about dialogue. Who cares if a conversation is lagging, or you're repeating a similar conversation from earlier? Keep them both and decide which you like better later. Same with the dialogue itself. Write everything, sort it and cut it later. You never know when your character might say something brilliant that may give you insight or change the course of the plot. Stream of consciousness that stuff and let the words fly! 

3) Dialogue is also a great word eater. If you're having trouble meeting your word goal, sit your characters down and make them have a conversation. I breezed through 2,000 words one day doing this. This novel so far is extremely dialogue heavy. That comes from running. I just wanted to get it out, chugging along like a high speed train that ain't got time to stop at every station. I'll fill in the pretty details later. Description takes time and a lot of thought because you want to get it just right. Dialogue is more intuitive. You're basically just having a conversation with yourself, which many-to-most of us do all the time in our heads anyway, especially us writers. 

4) Seriously, the biggest thing I learned was to keep running. I did have to stop for minimal amounts of research, but I eventually convinced myself that I didn't have to get it right the first time and could change what I got wrong later. Trust me when I say this really took a lot of convincing. It is truly painful to move on from a scene with details that I know I got wrong. I did it anyway.

Writing like a maniac every day for a month also creates a powerful habit. My day no longer feels complete without writing something. So even if you don't reach your goal in the allotted time, keep going. You will learn a lot.

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