Lessons from the NaNoWriMo Trenches

Hey PubCrawlers! So, you participated in NaNoWriMo. First, congratulations on what you accomplished, even if you didn’t (technically) finish. That takes a lot of work, a lot of guts, and a lot of stubbornness. So…what’s next? Let me start by telling you what I’ve learned over my years of participation (and also as a literary assistant).

1. Sometimes the book you’ve written isn’t one you end up loving enough to keep.

It can hurt to write that many words, only to realize it’s not a story we want to show to the world. But it’s okay to feel this way – every word written is important, regardless of what happens after. Even if it stays in a drawer for years, you accomplished something that helped you grow and learn as a writer. Even the most prolific writers learn something new about themselves every time they write.

A lot of us have this tendency to believe that everything we write should be work-shopped and queried and edited and shaped. But I’ll be honest – I have at least two NaNo novels that have never seen the light of day. They’re not great – structure-wise, they fall apart halfway through. The characters are inconsistent. The story is so-so. And I love that I am the only one who has the privilege of reading them and seeing just how far I’ve come.

Getting to know who you are as a writer is never a bad thing – it’s one of my favorite aspects of this contest.

2. Don’t query the book on December 1st (or even in December, period).

This one comes from the agency side of my experience. Agents get an influx of queries those first few days after NaNo and it’s usually a sign that a writer is querying his/her NaNo draft fresh out of the contest. I get it – finishing a novel is incredibly excited, and lots of us are guilty of querying too early, NaNoWriMo or no. But if you decide to revise the book and query later, querying too soon means rejections, which means you’ve crossed a handful of agents off your query-able list when it comes to that project.

3. When revising, an outline works wonders, even (or especially, if you’re a pantser) when the draft is already on paper.

When you write 200 pages or more in a matter of weeks, plot lines can get crossed, characters can disappear, motivations can get muddied, and epiphanies can change the entire trajectory of your book. But what can you do? If you want to finish, you have to keep writing. That is, after all, what NaNo is about – disengaging the part of your writing brain that tells you to edit as you go, and getting the words on paper.

When you outline after the fact, you can see where the events you might have missed should go, where the characters who faded away might re-emerge (or that they aren’t needed, period), and where the dead-ends can be smoothed back into roads.

This tends to be the first thing I do with NaNo novels – it’s the easiest way for me to get on track with revision.

4. Apply what you learned to future projects.

Before finishing my first NaNoWriMo years ago, I had a hard time finishing a novel. I constantly went back on passages I had just written and edited them, making them absolutely perfect. I felt like, if I could just make this chapter perfect, the rest would follow more easily than if I just wrote anything and everything on my mind.

I was…not entirely correct. Because I spent so much time smoothing and perfecting and correcting, I lost sight of the story itself. Writing another chapter became even harder, because suddenly nothing was as perfect as the chapter I’d spent all that time fixing. So I’d spend just as much time fixing the next one. And the next. And the next. Until finally, the process became boring and tedious and I’d give up.

NaNoWriMo gave me the freedom to simply do what I had to do to finish the race. To get the words out. To write “The End”. And I realized that editing and perfecting and smoothing is so much easier and so much more satisfying when you’re doing it to a finished product. Sometimes you end up rewriting half the book. Sometimes you don’t. But until you make that lump of clay, there’s really nothing to shape anyway.

5. There are whole communities of people who want to write with you.

And you don’t have to stop when NaNo ends. If you have trouble finding beta readers, critique partners, or just other writers to commiserate with, NaNoWriMo is a wonderful place to meet people. In person, in forums, as buddies, whatever. Whatever you’re comfortable with – the set up is tailored for introverts and extroverts and extroverted introverts alike. Going to a write-in can be so helpful – not only do you got words into the draft, you have the opportunity to exchange information with other people looking to hang out with writers.

6. It’s okay to not finish the race.

Seriously. This year, I ended November with 35,000 words, and I’m more than okay with that. The most important thing is that you’ve challenged yourself as a writer. Challenging yourself is the whole point of the contest – and for some people, that might mean finishing 10,000 words or 120,000 words (yes, I know some people who manage insane word counts and it boggles the mind). Whatever you’ve achieved, that’s exactly what it is – an achievement. Don’t ever worry that you’ve achieved less than someone else – one word written is still one word more than zero.

These are just a few of the things I’ve learned from participating in NaNoWriMo. I’m intrigued – are there any lessons you’ve learned or wisdom you’ve attained from participating? I know there are a lot more insights than the ones I’ve listed above, and I’d like to hear about them!

        
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