Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Why I'm not a fan of NaNoWriMo (And how YOU can succeed at it)

I'll be honest, there's no national novel writing month for me, mainly because I write everyday unless I have a reason not to, which even this is suspect because what excuses can you make NOT to do a job you love? Even so, every November comes the flood of posts, the good intentions, and the massive cottage industry that seeks to exploit those who take part. I could gripe about this for an entire blogpost, but instead of griping, I should be helping. So let me state some things clearly before I begin.

NaNoWriMo in itself is not a problem. The idea that you dedicate yourself to writing 50,000 words over the month of November is a great goal, even though it is often presented in an incredibly obtuse manner that doesn't really help those who try, especially those who have never done it before.

Here's why I say that: I have written, to date, seventeen different novels, having only completed six of them, and having only sold one that didn't even make it to print at a very tiny press. I started writing in earnest when I was 19, and the average time it takes me to really put out a novel-length manuscript that I'm willing to put my name on is six months to a year--and that is only on the rough draft. The drafts that follow it will take as long as they need to take. Some have taken six weeks. Others, three years. Part of this is because I try to work on three to five different manuscripts at once, but that's me, and I'm getting help for it!

Novel writing is not easy in any sense of the word, so the idea that someone like me, who has sold stories and written novel-length manuscripts before, looks at NaNoWriMo with a bit of trepidation should be telling. But I've seen how the sausage is made, which also means I can imagine someone else sitting down, never written anything ever before, and seeing something else that is completely different--and I don't want to downplay that. I know people put a lot of love into their work this month, and that should be celebrated. But remember:

The only pat on the back you deserve is the one you get when you sign that publishing contract and sell that work.

With that said, I could be a fan of NaNoWriMo and its output if it was presented in a realistic, meaningful way that helps instead of pressures. There is a way of doing this that helps new writers learn the craft, helps experienced writers edit their work, and helps those who are already prepared to create the manuscript they will one day send out to publishers/agents/alpha-beta readers. This will be my attempt to provide that path with these five tips for making NaNoWriMo work.

Jay's Five Tips for succeeding at NaNoWriMo

1. Outline

There are two concrete ways of going about writing your manuscript, though you can usually play between them. The first is "Pantsing", where you essentially write your story as it comes to you, with no planning whatsoever, until you reach THE END. That works for some people, and for short stories, it is usually a doable model. 50,000 words, however, is a completely different beast. A lot can happen in those words, so it often important to "Outline", and thankfully there are a lot of great outlines and methodologies available on the internet to help get you started. At the very least, you should know four things:

A) Your Beginning - Where does your story start? (Characters, setting, problem, plot)

B) Your Middle - Where are we when the reader hits your story at its dead center? (Character growth, resetting the board, new problems, fresh solutions)

C) Your End - Where does the story end? (Resolution, Growth achievement, Landing, Seeding the next book if there is one...)

D) Your Climax - What is the big thing that happens before THE END that ties it all together?

Knowing these four points, at the very least, gives you a road map where to go, even if you are pantsing it. Knowing where you are going gives you time to formulate how your scenes will play out, how you will sequence events, characters arcs, etc. This leads us to...

2. Word count

Let's do the math: 50,000 words/30 days in November equals 1,666 words a day. For new writers, that can be daunting, but the fact that you're attempting NaNoWriMo is daunting in the first place. With those considerations, I would suggest that everyone employ Stephen King's Word Count "rule" that he enumerates better than I will within his memoir, On Writing.

Hit 2,000 words a day.

Yes. That many. By shooting for that number, you can realistically hit the magic 50,000 words, even if you have to miss a few days, which you will, because...

3. Hitting 50,000 words is not the point. Getting writing done is.

I see every year people lament and complain that they didn't hit 50,000 words for the month, but if 50,000 is the point of this month in the first place, stop. Word counts don't equal publishing contracts, and neither does bitching about the fact that you couldn't hit some arbitrary number that nobody is ever going to get mad at you over for not hitting. Things WILL get in the way that may cause you to not reach 50,000 words--work, school, kids, drugs, the apocalypse, John Hartness--anything and everything can and will stop you.

And that's fine!

Great writing is not made on an assembly line or on schedule. Great writing is made through dedication, time, work, destroying your own ego for the sake of your story, and revising again and again and again until the manuscript is sold. NaNoWriMo is the opportunity to get started, because there is often one thing that people forget: there are not a lot of traditional or small press publishers out there that are taking 50k manuscripts who are going to get you into a bookstore. And that shouldn't be your goal this month. The real goal is much more simple.

4. Focus on writing a great rough draft.

Depending on the genre your write in and the path to publishing you want to take, having 50,000 words at the end of November may only get you so far. In some genres, it won't get you anywhere. Now, if you are self-publishing your NaNo project, none of this really applies to you, and I wish you nothing but the best. However, if I was a publisher or an agent and I received a query letter that said "this is the manuscript I wrote for NaNoWriMo, and I am submitting it to you" and that query letter is dated on December 1st, good bloody luck!

Take this time to write the best story you can. NaNoWriMo should be about the process, not just the completion, and if you are writing in a genre that often requires more than 50,000 words for acceptance, you owe to yourself to give you a break from any sort of pressure that writers who partake in this month usually put themselves under. There has only ever been one author that I have known who set out to write a complete novel during NaNoWriMo, and he's a North Carolina Laureate. I'm guessing those reading this are not him, and neither am I, so why pressure yourself into doing something that results in work that is not your best?

The words will show you how important it is to just to take your time. Make this the best rough draft you can.

5. Commit

Here's where the real pressure is: 1,666 to 2,000 words. For some, that is a steep mountain to climb every day, while for others, it is a walk in the park. Speaking for myself, I usually hit an average of 1700-2000, but that took YEARS to get to. Just like climbing a real mountain, you have to train for it.

Allow me to repeat myself: you don't have to hit 50,000 words by November 30th.

You do, however, have to sit down and write everyday. You will lose sleep. You won't be able to go out for drinks with your friends. You might not be able to watch your favorite show on Wednesday night. That's because your butt needs to be in a chair, in front of whatever you use to write on.

Set goals on word counts. Follow your outlines. And remember--this isn't about the word count, it is about the creative process of writing. Enjoy what you are doing. That is what this month should be about: enjoying the process of writing fiction and getting it done.

Now go to work, stay safe, and if you have any gripes with what I have said here, I'd be happy to hear from you in the comments below. Bye now!

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