Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo

Well, the good news is that I did complete 50K words and am therefore considered a NaNoWriMo winner!!

The bad news is that what I’ve written does not in any way constitute an actual novel. If I do want to do something with this story (ie, self-publish or publish), I’m going to need to do some major reworking. For one, in its form, my “novel” is basically a random collection of scenes with no real action taking place. I have a lot of speeches, a lot of character development, and a pretty good ending scene which I wrote on the last day to get my 50K with a sense of closure.

The problem is, I went into this challenge with a very small scattering of an idea for a story that needed to be a lot more fleshed out. I should have thought the whole thing through and wrote an outline–at least mentally. I don’t usually “write” an outline; it’s usually in my head. But I didn’t even have that. But in reworking this story, I definitely plan to write an outline. More on that in a few paragraphs.

When I started NaNo, I was sure everything would just start to flow out of my head. The first couple days were easy because the only thing I had for this story were what I considered then to be the opening scenes. I gathered from the immediate surge of words from my fellow NaNos that this is generally the case for everyone in those first couple days. Most likely, most writers have the start and end for the story already, too; it’s how to get from the great opening scene to the awesome ending scene that is often the murky area.

It was a struggle for me to get the 1,600 word count at first, though, because I was still trying to write like every single word counts. Which is how I always write. Which is probably why nothing I start ever gets done. That internal editor always nags me about word choice while I’m just struggling to get an idea on “paper.” I think a part of me always feels like every thing I write–from shopping lists to this blog–has to have substance and be brilliant.

The internal editor really restricts more than it allows you to create. And I know this from my writing classes in college. From reading the patron goddess of creative writing, Natalie Goldberg, I know that I’m supposed to just sit down and let ideas spew out of my head unrestricted, that doing such freewriting daily will actually build my writing muscle and free me from blocking myself with criticism.

But did I ever let myself actually write that way? Well, to some degree on this blog, in the entries I wrote in my journal when I had one in the past, and letters to my pen pals Sarah and Mr. Kincaid. And that’s because I’ve allowed myself to let go in those forms because it seems “okay” whereas when I’m trying to write a story it does not seem “okay.”

It took me about a week to figure out that I needed to say goodbye to my internal editor. She’s good for helping me craft my words, but she’s really lousy when it comes to trying to write 1600 words every single day. So every day that I sat down to write for NaNo, I had to come to terms with the fact that whatever I felt compelled to write at that particular moment was going into the word count regardless of quality. To do this, I had to give myself permission to write something that I knew might only help me understand the characters and may not ever be used in a finished final product.

I can’t describe to you how hard it was for me to do just that apparently simple task. It was a real struggle to tell myself I could just write a bunch of scenes because I was inspired to write them and it didn’t matter if I’d used them later. Of course, to a writer, these characters are real. So I had to remind myself that whether or not these scenes are usable, my characters were channeling through me events that really took place in their lives. It’s my job to sort through the rubble to string together a story.

I really am impressed how well I managed to keep it going despite the fact that I had no direction and I got behind twice for several days. As you can imagine, 1,600 words is not a lot by itself; however, two days behind puts you 3200 words behind. It adds up FAST. And before you know it, you feel overwhelmed. It’s when you’re behind that you really have to tell the editor to take a vacation so that you can just write.

I managed to write through Thanksgiving which was a real challenge. In my past as a single woman, Thanksgiving weekend was a big break for me to relax and enjoy myself. I usually wrote my annual Christmas letter and designed the card I would use. I would turn on a tv channel playing Christmas movies and start decorating my house. It was laid back and relaxed. But now that I am engaged (to a wonderful man, let us not forget), I must visit both my own family and his. Since his family lives near Bowling Green, approximately 2 hours away from home, a visit usually involves staying a few days.

I started that weekend behind (for the second time). But I was determined to drive up my word count and have fun visiting our families. So on Thanksgiving Day while Crow was driving from my parents’ house to his family’s house, I was typing away on my computer in the passenger seat. I wrote Friday evening after an entire day of shopping. I wrote on the way to and from Frankenmuth. I not only caught up, but I got a little ahead. And I never got behind again for the rest of the month. I’d say that was an accomplishment. If anything, it was a real testimony to my determination. At least I have that, if not actual talent!

Ironically, on the last day of writing, a real plot burst through my muddled brain for the first time since I started NaNoWriMo. The new idea actually invalidated how the novel started and many of the scenes I’d written during the month. I actually wasn’t depressed about this development because I think that the exercise of NaNoWriMo showed me that the direction I was going with the novel was not going to work. The new plot with the new setup I imagined is a lot more exciting, fun, and thrilling. I can’t believe it never occurred to me in the first place. And now, honestly, I can’t wait to start writing this novel again.

I wrote the ending scene as though the first half of the novel had actually been written with the new plotline. When I validated my word count online after writing that scene, I found I was just 200 words short of 50K. So I then wrote a scene for the very beginning of the novel using the new plot. That got me across the finish line with words to spare.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to work on the novel since. I had a lot of catching up on housework to do since my absolutely wonderful, sweet, supportive fiance took the brunt of the labor for the entire month of November. I love him for not begrudging me or making me feel bad about not pulling my weight with getting the house together. To top it off, he kept telling me NOT to quit. He gave me the confidence I needed to realize I could finish NaNoWriMo. And I love him so much for wanting me to succeed as a writer because he knows how important this dream is to me. Crow is not a man who believes that goals are impossible; he’s the type of person to just do what he wants, which is evidenced by the fact that he’s self-employed running his own business. He’s reminding me that dreams are still attainable and that if I want something badly enough, I really can reach for it. Where has this support been all my life? I’m so glad I’ve found it in him!

I also found a great support network in joining the local Akron NaNo group for write-ins. We’d go to Panera Bread on Mondays and Nervous Dog (a local coffee house chain) on Wednesdays. I missed all of the weekend write-ins due to commitments with the house, but one weekend Crow and I both sat in a Panera–he worked on stuff related to his job while I wrote–for several hours after running errands. It was so refreshing to be around other writers. We speak the same language! (Which primarily consists of talking about our characters as though they are real people which is crazy-talk to non-writers.)

At one of the last write-ins I attended, we had two writing “sprints”–10 and 20 minute time periods where we just had to write without thinking at all about content to boost the word count. It was a lot of fun and, again, a lesson in just getting the scene out of your head instead of toiling over every minute detail.

We also had a Facebook page where we cheered each other on virtually. That was great too because I was able to get ideas from other writers. One fellow writer even came up with the name for the rival band in my story! If I ever do get something published, I definitely have to write a dedication to these people because they helped me so much with just their conversations, questions, and often panicked chatter. Whenever someone felt down or defeated, and they posted on the page, everyone chimed in to motivate them to keep going. It was a real group effort to get us all to keep going and I was also motivated to get keep writing as I saw each of them hitting the 50K finish line.

Another inspiration I’ve had along the way is a band called Blondfire. I downloaded their Where The Kids Are EP and played it repeatedly for the last two weeks of NaNo because for some reason their sound really reminds me of how I envision the band in my story to sound. The lead singer is female–as is the lead singer in my fictional band–and she just has the sound of a space-age singer. The words to Where The Kids Are and Hide And Seek both sound kind like the kind of thing a young band would write about: hopes and dreams and trying to accomplish stardom. That EP got my juices flowing and still does when I play it. Music and writing to me go hand in hand; I’ve always been inspired to write from certain songs and albums. Music draws pictures in my head. (Past influences for stories I’ve written have been Depeche Mode’s Policy Of Truth and Duran Duran’s Rio! These both inspired novels I wrote in high school.)

So. Lessons learned? I think next year (oh, yes, there will be a next year for sure, this was too much fun) I will come into NaNo with a better developed story. I will need to think about my story longer, perhaps in October, and then start jotting down some notes. I think I can do a better job of actually having something somewhat coherent if given a complete plot. If I had used NaNo to write my rock star story (which, incidentally, was left unfinished at 27K words), I could have probably finished the whole novel, though, of course, it would have required some heavy editing. But the full story would be there.

Also: Next year I will hopefully not have major upgrades to do on my house. And I cannot book up my schedule very much in November.

Whether I ever write anything that is publishable is not the point. The point is, I had fun. And I finally stopped bemoaning the fact that I want to write and I actually sat down and wrote. That was definitely worth the whole exercise. I needed NaNoWriMo to motivate me to make action out of my talk. And now I can say I’m a novelist and no one can dispute it. Yup. (Published novelist, however, is another thing all together.)

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3 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo

    • Jennifer, you’re so capable of doing the same thing. You wrote as long novels as I did back in the day! Maybe after your kids get older, you’ll have more time. You could write some really cool thrillers or science-fiction using your medical knowledge to come up with something pretty awesome. And then you can call me on the phone as you write each chapter and read them to me like the old days. :)

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