Two weeks ago, I shared about my NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) success in November. I enjoyed the process of participating in NaNo, and ended up loving my story even more by the end. As I considered the things that made NaNo work for me this time, I also thought of many things that might trip up a NaNo participant. NaNo is not for everyone, and it may help you to know at the outset if you’re better off writing your novel in a different way.
I tried NaNo twice before it stuck. My first attempt, in 2016, I pooped out at about 10,000 words of a novel that is now written and awaiting editing. The second time was 2018, and I got to about 3,000 words on a story whose concept I still love but hasn’t captured my dedicated attention. Both times I started and quit it was not the fault of the story concept or idea. It was about me, my life at the time, and most importantly, my dedication to the work. In those past years, I wrote when it was convenient, when I had an hour or two to dedicate to writing. I spent “writing time” researching facts and playing with outlines. I wasn’t laying down new words.
Obviously, if you don’t care about writing book-length works NaNo is not for you. There are other challenges for poets and short story writers that work similarly, just not with the high word counts. Although, writing a short story a day could easily get one up to the 1,667-word mark. So, if you don’t have a crushing need to write a novel, don’t torture yourself.
If you suffer from extreme guilt or self-condemnation, don’t do it. Because one way or another you will feel guilty. Either about your low wordcounts or the things that you feel you’re neglecting. But remember, unless you live alone at the top of a mountain and fairies bring you food and do your chores, there’s always something needful that you could be doing instead of writing, no matter the day or time.
As all writers know, we make choices every time we sit at the keyboard. Writing will get done no other way. But – if your max is 500 or 200 words daily squeezed in-between other life responsibilities (and that’s completely acceptable) then please don’t stress yourself out. It’s like deciding to run a marathon when three-mile walks are your perfect comfort zone. Probably it’s not going to happen, and you’ll just feel bad.
Writing a novel is not the ultimate writing pinnacle. It’s just one experience that some of us want to have (like running a marathon is for some). Writing picture books, short stories, poetry, non-fiction, informational articles, screenplays, plays, and much more are forms of the craft that are equally challenging, in different ways.
If you don’t have a story you care about, don’t try NaNo. I don’t even know how you could get more than a page or two in on a story you don’t care about. If you really want to do NaNo but you don’t have a novel-sized idea Chris Baty, one of the founders of NaNoWriMo, wrote a book to give you ideas. No Plot, No Problem is an easy read that can help even if you do have a solid idea for a novel. Also, there’s the option of writing short stories or essays or blog posts every day to succeed at NaNo. It’s a different approach, but that would definitely help stretch your word building skills.
If you can’t write without editing NaNo will be excruciating. It is recommended that you don’t edit. You just fly through and let the story come out of your fingers until you’ve hit your 50,000-word count. Some writers read through everything they wrote the day before when they sit down to write each day. That may be a good practice when you don’t have a hard goal. But I can see it really bogging a writer down if they have to rehash each previous day’s 1667-plus words. I find myself second-guessing too much and rewriting and then taking forever to move forward. My practice is to read the last page I wrote (about 250 words) to get back into the scene and remind myself what we’re doing. But that’s it. January is for editing NaNo projects.
If you can’t write without researching NaNo will be even more challenging. If every new topic that comes up is an excuse to search the Internet or peruse your bookshelves for that perfect fact or quote, you will NEVER get this project done. One of the founders of NaNo suggests the “three click research trip”. That means that once you search something, you’re allowed a maximum of three clicks to get whatever information you’re looking for. No rabbit holes, no what-ifs, no “I didn’t know that’s!” Research is for pre-writing or filling in the second draft. You can always put in a place-holder like “xxx” or [brackets] to remind you what you need to look for later.
My NaNo story stars a spider; the other main character has leukemia. The story has lots of stuff about space and leukemia treatments (sounds weird, I know, but it’s a great story – really). Anyway, I am not an expert on any of those topics, so I put in what I know about spiders (with a teeny bit of fact-checking along the way – three clicks, remember?), space (I’m pretty dumb on that subject but unless you’re pretending to be an expert it’s easy to find basic information), and leukemia (which I know as much about as the average former adult oncology nurse that I am). I know enough to get by and not sound too idiotic. And that’s okay.
The facts that are in the story are place holders to keep my story moving along. Later, I can get all the real facts like “Does the astrological sign of Capricorn actually look like a goat in the night sky?” or “How far can a house spider actually see?” If he’s magical and can hear, does it really matter? Not for writing the first draft. For publishing it, yes. These are real questions that need answering, but not while I’m cruising through NaNo. You get my drift. Don’t waste time. If you do, it will hurt you.
I’m sure there are other reasons to avoid NaNoWriMo. These are the ones that jumped out at me as I was tempted to feel guilty, waste time on unnecessary (at the time) research, or edit my previous day’s work. I hope that if you’d like to participate in NaNo you will create a story you love, commit to knocking these hang-ups off the block, and ignore the naysayers.
So, sometime this year, I plan for my middle grade magical realism story starring a spider to be released. Maybe no one will love it as much as I do, but if one person does, it will be totally worth it.
Now, go write. Or read. Or at the very least, dream. Peace.
Note: All photos courtesy of Pixabay stock photos.