National Novel Writing Month
It’s that time of year again, when my Twitter stream is going to fill up with the hash-tag #nanowrimo; and a good few of you, if not most, if not all, will know exactly what that means. In case there are a handful out there who, like I was the first time around, are staring at this strange hash-tag in bewilderment, let me summarise: November has been declared (for reasons that someone can explain to me) National Novel Writing Month. The challenge is to write 50,000 words towards a novel during the course of November.
This year, November happens to fit with my work schedule so I’m going to join in and show you all how a trained professional deals with a challenge like this. It will be slick (not), smooth (not), seamless (not), insightful (ha!) and there will be no swearing at the laptop AT ALL . . . possibly I might manage to be occasionally vaguely helpful. If I can do that then there was a point to this.
My own personal challenge is going to be to complete an entire novel in November, which will be rather more than 50,000 words. However, I reckon that’s probably less of a challenge than most of you will be taking on because:
A) Most of you have jobs you have to go to in order to earn a living. So I’m going to be aiming to write 5000 words in a day against your 2,500, but you’re going to have to wrap that around an ordinary working day and I’m going to be wrapping it around finishing Bioshock Infinite at last and catching up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. When I used to work full-time and do my writing around that, I used to aim for about 1000 words a day. I’d find it a pretty severe challenge to write 2,500 words after a full working day. I’ll have one or two tips to share about dealing with this.
B) I’ve been through this a lot of times. I know what to expect from a first draft. I know that by the end of November, if I finish that first draft, it will be a bit shit in places. It will probably have grinding plot faults. It will have jarring character inconsistencies. If past experience is anything to go by, at least one secondary character I haven’t even thought of yet will try to steal the show. There will be passages of prose that make me want to curl up and die with shame. The phrase “clenched his fists” and other such clichés will occur a bazillion times. And I’ll know that this is all fine, because a first draft is a first draft and that’s about two fifths of the work I’ll usually put in to a novel before I submit it, and I’ve done enough rewrites on enough novels to know that all these problems can be made to go away.
That last point. From what I’ve seen, heard and read, one of the hardest things for an inexperienced writer to really grasp is how imperfect a first draft can be. If you sweat blood over every line then it’s going to take five times as long to write that first draft. I can’t stop you from doing that sweating but I really, really advise against it. The more each sentence, paragraph, scene and chapter was a labour of love and an expression of prose perfection, the more it’s going to suck when you have to cut it during the rewrites because it turned out that entire scene was a bad idea. And that will happen. Entire chapters sometimes. For nearly everyone I’ve met and talked about this, it’s far more valuable to have a completed novel that’s a bit crap and needs a lot of work than it is to have three perfectly rendered chapters.
Before November comes around and any of us launch into this madness, here are some notions about planning ahead and a few tricks that I’ve found useful to keep the momentum going.
Do Your Prep Work
Do as much preparation work as you feel comfortable with. Consider writing an outline of the story you’re going to write. I’ve tried attacking this from all sorts of angles over the years. I’ve had chapter-by-chapter breakdowns of scenes and events. I’ve started with a vague notion of who the characters are and what they’re trying to achieve and where it’s supposed to end and nothing more.
Frankly, I’ve not noticed one approach work any better than any other. In this case, I have the most detailed chapter-by-chapter breakdown I’ve ever done of what’s supposed to happen and where and why and right now it’s still full of holes. Other times I don’t bother because I know the characters will develop lives of their own and want to do different things.
The last time I did a chapter-by-chapter breakdown before I started (Cold Redemption), two characters who originally had very minor roles (Oribas and Achista) ended up having a good stab at taking over the story. There was also a scene that was quite important to the plot that, when I came to write it, didn’t actually make any sense for most of the characters involved, was probably impossible and certainly looked ridiculously implausible for a variety of reasons, at least as I’d first conceived it (the avalanche scene). I was still trying to get that scene right on the third rewrite (hint: if your plot involves your heroes being chased by some bad guys across some a steep mountainside, and all of your heroes except one cross a rope bridge over a ravine and then cut the bridge and then the one who stayed behind sets off an avalanche that sweeps all the bad guys off the mountainside and into the ravine to their doom, the hero who did that is now ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE RAVINE. It’s amazing how little things like that can utterly bugger your plot).
I’ll say some more about that in later posts but it’s best to spot stuff like that before it happens. Overall, I guess the best advice I can give here is to write down what you know about your story and look for the problems and the fuzzy bits where “some stuff happens” and give those as much thought as you can before the start of November. I’ll say more about that as we go.
Plan Your Month Sensibly
Some of you are going to be organic writers who don’t count words and will just write when the opportunity comes and not get too bothered about word count. If, like me, you check your word count progress every five minutes (I have the brain equivalent of a keyboard shortcut for ALT-T, down-arrow twice, hit enter twice and carry on writing that’s so fast and autonomous that sometimes I don’t even realise I’ve done it) then be realistic.
November has thirty days. You are not going to write 1666 words on each and every day. Some days are work days, some days aren’t. On the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of November, I’m going to be at World Fantasy Con and I know damn well I’ll write precisely nothing. Starting on the 4th already appearing to be 10000 words behind schedule would, for me, be immensely dumb.
Look at your calendar, figure out where your spare time lies and where it doesn’t and write a schedule accordingly. Allow yourself some days off, if only because they’ll be useful if you fall behind schedule (I’ll be planning around 5000 words every weekday and nothing at the weekends. If I fall behind, there goes my Saturday evening, but at least I have a chance to catch up). Allow for the possibility that there will be a couple of days where you’re hungover or have a migraine or just don’t want to or some wonderful opportunity comes up that you don’t want to miss.
Really, really do this. If you’ve already got a chapter one, let that be your first 2500 words or whatever it is. If you know what chapter one is going to be, write it in advance. If the enthusiasm grips you before the 1st November, start writing straight away. How you count the words aside, you can do no wrong by hitting the ground running with some momentum already behind you. In this, the end justifies the means entirely.
Know Your Own Psychology
Do you work better when you’re struggling to keep up with your targets or do you work better when you’re comfortably ahead of your targets or do targets just totally suck and no thanks? As best you can, set up your approach based on manipulating your own psychology for the outcome you want. Irritatingly, I have to be realistic that I’ll slack off as soon as I hit my targets and get immensely crotchety if I slip much behind, but that’s just me.
There are no winners at the end of National Novel Writing Month. If you’ve done this before, you know why you’re doing it again. Take some time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t before and adjust accordingly. If this is your first time doing this in anger, understand it’s as much about learning how your own writing process works as anything else.
Good luck, and if you want to use the comments section below to ask questions, go ahead and I’ll try to give the best answers I can. Just bear in mind that all the advice I give is based on what works for me and what I know works for a handful of other writers and that doesn’t mean it works for you.