by J.T. Ellison
Happy Halloween!!! I’m eschewing a spooky post for the practical today, but wanted to wish everyone a safe and scary night!
It’s that time again.
November 1 signals the start of National Novel Writing Month, a fun, work-intensive exercise for novelists. The goal is simple and straightforward: write 50,000 words in thirty days. When you break it down, that’s a mere 1,666 words a day.
I heard that groan.
I can’t write that much a day, every day. I can’t handle the pressure of writing every day. I can’t put the time and effort into sitting at my computer, forsaking that hour on Facebook, and writing. Real words. Real stories. Real work. Can’t do it.
Be honest with yourself. Is the operative word in the above sentences can’t? Or should we replace every "can’t" with "I don’t want to?"
I love the principles behind NaNoWriMo. Write every day. Let’s repeat that. Write. Every. Day. This isn’t an unknown concept for professional writers. Truth be told, every month is NaNoWriMo when you’re a professional writer. Especially for those of us who write more than one book a year.
It’s become fashionable for some established authors to look down their nose at the NaNoWriMo exercise, labeling the participants wanna-bes, denigrating the experience. I sometimes think people forget where they come from. We all need to learn what works for us. We all need to understand what it’s like working on a deadline. Be it a real one or self-imposed, if you want to succeed as a writer, you need to know how to meet your deadlines.
So if you ask my opinion on NaNoWriMo, I’m going to say do it. Write like the ever-loving wind, and be proud of yourself for sticking with it. 1,666 words a day for a month. That is SO doable. I participated in 2005 (and hit my goal of 50K in 27 days, thank you
very much.) The output from that month became the second novel in the
Taylor Jackson series, 14. Yes, in the end I changed a lot of the
story. Yes, 50,000 words is only half of a real commercial novel. (Mine
come in at 100,000.) But those 50,000 words were a big part of the
framework of the book. I got a huge jump start on the title, which
helped me meet my crazy deadlines last year. So scoff if you want, but
I think it’s valuable.
My normal output when I’m puttering along is 1,000 words a day. When I’m really into it, I’m up to 2,000 a day. I have days I don’t write and then have crazy productive 6,000 or 7,000 word days to make up for it. But I do try to write everyday. I like the discipline it instills, like the feeling of accomplishment. I stuck to that for three books, and felt very productive.
I didn’t stick to that pattern for my latest, the bane of my existence book I just turned in. God, I hated writing that book. I was uncomfortable with the subject matter (necrophilia), unhappy with the characters, bored with my writing style (I think this is something that happens when you’re doing a series, but that’s a whole different post.) In general, every word onto the page was a tooth pulled, fewer strands of hair, dark circles under the eyes, bitching at the husband and a ten pound weight gain. I was miserable writing that book.
You know why? Because looking back, no matter what excuse I come up with, I knew I wasn’t being as serious about it as I should have been. It took me months to write, actually the longest it’s ever taken me to write a book. I wasn’t following the cardinal rule of professional writing.
ASS IN CHAIR
I was letting myself get distracted, allowing myself to be derailed, pushing the book from my mind to do anything BUT write. And when I finally typed ### at the end, I made myself a promise. Never. Again.
NaNoWriMo teaches new writers and aspiring authors the cardinal rule. It’s an invaluable lesson, both in discipline and in freedom. Because when you’re writing fast, you don’t have the luxury of introspection. Introspection, we all know, equals writer’s block. We allow ourselves to get caught up on a specific word, or phrase. We labor over the paragraphs, inch by measly inch. NaNoWriMo enables writers to discard their internal editor and just write. It’s exceptionally effective.
You can’t go in willy nilly though. You need a solid concept, an idea. Yes, you can write 50,000 words of gibberish, but that defeats the purpose. The idea is to write a novel. To tell a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You need characters, a true conflict, a build, a climax, and a proper denouement. It’s a practice novel for some, it’s the first half for others. Still more writers can take that 50K and distill it into a novella, or a couple of good short stories. You can play with point of view, find out where you’re comfortable writing – first or third – and experiment with genres. There are no rules except write everyday. Refreshing, eh?
Anyone who’s ever attempted to write a novel knows that it’s easy to get started, much more difficult to finish. So the most paramount goal of NaNo is to finish with work product that is usable. Yes, that makes it more challenging. The sponsors of the program encourage you to free think and free write, to pour the words on the page. While that is fun, you should keep in mind that your work product can become something real. A little forethought and planning can be a paycheck later on.
Here’s something else to think about. There is a community that exists at NaNoWriMo. The regions and the individual cities each have their own groups, who get together and have Write Ins. Yes, that sounds a little cheesy, but I can’t tell you how many emails I get from new writers who are looking for critique groups. This allows you a jump start on finding a group of like-minded individuals to work with. The usual rules apply – look out for people who criticize instead of offering constructive criticism, don’t get bullied, etcetera, etcetera.
I’d even suggest that if you do participate, you use your extensive knowledge of the publishing industry, gleaned here at Murderati and through your research, to help educate the writers around you. Knowledge, my friends, is power. The more we share our hard-won knowledge with other writers, the better our community is.
When you’re just starting out, it helps to make a public declaration of your intent to become a published author. Many millions of people say they want to be a writer. How many actually sit down and write that first sentence? And how many of those will write the second, much less finish a full-length piece of commercial fiction? Not so many. So participating in an exercise like NaNoWriMo may just be the action these aspiring writers need to push them over the edge into actual writing.
I just finished writing my 5th full-length novel. It’s still slightly surreal that come November 1, I’ll be starting my 6th. Why do I need NaNoWriMo?
Need isn’t the right term for me. I want to do it. No, I won’t be hanging around the coffee shops and write ins, but I enjoy the structure. I have a book due March 1 and another due September 1. I’m considering a non-fiction project that I’d have to sandwich in between the two fiction titles. I’d like to judge an awards category again. I want to read, expand my horizons. The research I’m doing for book 5, THE IMMORTALS, has been a blast, and I want to give myself enough leeway to adjust as needs be as I go because of new influences. I love to see the word count increase, to feel like I’m accomplishing something. Will I make it? Probably. If I don’t, it’s not the end of the world. I’ll keep plugging away regardless.
That’s the other point to take away today. If you don’t make the goal, it doesn’t mean you haven’t succeeded. Remember that. Don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself, and don’t get down on yourself if life gets in the way. It is hard to do all this work with the holidays looming. (If you do 2,000 a day, you’ll be finished BEFORE Thanksgiving.)
Ultimately, I hope that some of the NaNoWriMo participants will see traditionally published authors in their midst and know that yes, it is possible. Maybe it will inspire them to try to hit that goal after all.
And just to make this fun, here’s a little pay it forward trick or treat for you:
Those of you who participate and win, ie: get certification from NaNoWriMo that you’ve completed the 50K in 30 days, can send me your name and proof of completion and I’ll enter you into a drawing for a critique of your first 25 pages. I’ll choose one at random and do the critique myself. How’s that sound?
So what about you? Are you going to participate? What do you do to get that daily word count in?
Wine of the Week: Vampire: The Blood of the Vine