6 Things I Learnt From NaNoWriMo

For this humble failing aspiring writer, the magical month of November 2012 was not only the month where I found out that I wouldn’t have a working heater in my room this winter, but was also my first opportunity to participate in NaNoWriMo (otherwise known as ‘National Novel Writing Month’ for the uninitiated). Last year I had thought about participating, but due to a mass of university related cats that need herding, I had to postpone my intentions to this year. What followed was belated inspiration on the 3rd of November, from which I was able to produce at least 1,600 words per day. This inevitably then slowly dissipated until I was missing out whole days or only clocking in one hundred words before bed. I can confirm that rather than reaching the fifty thousand word goal, my final word count totals at a meagre 11,057, however after a month’s worth of sheer madness and pulling my hair out strand by strand in front of my laptop, there are at least other experiences that I’ve taken away from my first try at NaNoWriMo.

6. Carrying around a notepad is invaluable.

I’ve put this as number six because I feel like this one is the most obvious.  Inspiration or random ideas tend to strike at the most inconvenient of moments, and the least you can do is make sure you’ve got a place to write them down where you won’t lose them. I had a friend who rationalised this by imagining the loss of these ideas was their muse granting them these ideas, and thus by not writing them down he was simply returning them to his muse. While that is a lovely way of picturing it, I simply found it frustrating that the (seemingly) amazing breakthrough that I’d thought of the night before at that moment before drifting off to sleep was lost to the recesses of my failing memory because I was too lazy to write it down. Don’t take the chance! I’ve also found that just by making sure I have my ideas notebook with me it’s also encouraged me to expand the times and places where I can brainstorm ideas for writing. On my commute to and from work, whilst waiting for a friend, on a break at work – instead of waiting around and just passing the time, I’ve found more time for writing.

5. Let people know that you’re writing.

This especially important for those who keep their writing a secret from everyone they know. By just telling people you know it will hold you accountable to putting time into it and can affirm writing as something you actually do, rather than a mystical thing that you wish you had more time for. You will find soon enough that you’ll be asked about what you’re writing, which can both serve as inspiration and an incentive to be more disciplined in your attitude towards writing. The more you write, the more you will have to tell these people, and on the whole they will generally be very supportive. This does not require you to actually show them anything you’ve written, but discussing the fact that you’re writing can help you scout out any potential trustworthy proofreaders too. This leads me to my next point:

4. Have plot guinea pigs.

Once you’ve scouted out some trustworthy people, choose a couple of them to have in-depth discussions about your plot ideas. By attempting to give them a clear and immersive understanding of the world you’re trying to create through prose, it provides a good opportunity to improve your own understanding and description of it. After you’ve done this you can present the different realities your mind lives in as the omniscient God of this universe that you’ve created. Present them with the different plot possibilities that you’re considering and study their reactions and opinions. You don’t necessarily have to completely agree with them, but it will give you insight to how future readers will react to each idea.

3. Do not underestimate the importance of free writing.

This is especially useful for the writers out there who are held back by their need for continuity in the first draft stage (I am most definitely one of them). Rather than worry about what should come next or if something feels like it’s missing, just write. If you’re not sure how to progress the plot, think of the scenarios you want your characters to go through at some point in the story. Writing these scenarios will hopefully open up the possibilities for plot progression both before and after that given scenario. Then you can retroactively connect the events and bring the storyline together into a cohesive narrative (or not quite so cohesive, if you prefer).

2. It’s not the word count that matters.

During NaNoWriMo, I was obsessed with word counts. After having written five sentences I’d look at the word count expecting a two-thousand-word miracle. Obviously when I found that wasn’t the case I’d be somewhat disappointed, and it definitely had a detrimental effect on my motivation. Eventually when my writing efforts dwindled, I was prepared to cry with joy when I managed to reach one hundred. It’s great when you have productive days, but the basic effort of writing when you’re not inspired and making at least a small amount of progress is important too. Once we can push ourselves to keep writing when clawing out our eyes seems like the easier option, that in itself is a small breakthrough. Sometimes one those days I actually managed to come up with more ideas for what was to come and became excited about the story again.

1. Think twice about showing someone your first draft. It will most likely be crap, but it will improve.

After experiencing some of the benefits of the aforementioned points, I did indeed start to feel quite optimistic about what I was writing. I knew that it was definitely a first draft in terrible need of editing, but with all the excitement of discussing plot ideas with other people (and tired of having to actively hide everything from my boyfriend trying to take a peek at it) I finally decided to show my boyfriend the first chapter of what I’d written. What ensued wasn’t really what I was hoping for, which in this case was perhaps some acknowledgement that it was a first draft but accompanied by some gentle encouragement. It was more a collection of criticisms, though while entirely constructive, and was due to the fact that it’s at such an early stage that what I’m trying to express isn’t able to show through all the poor pacing and terrible metaphors that seem to overshadow it. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but take it a little bit personally. Ernest Hemingway is reportedly quoted as saying, “The first draft of anything is shit.” I quite agree with him. That’s liberating in the sense that what I’ve written so far didn’t seem to impress my boyfriend, let alone anyone else. That doesn’t mean it will always be a mediocre work in progress. If I had waited until the second draft, I would have shown him something more presentable and would be less sensitive about feedback. What I got from this experience was this: If it’s the first draft, it’s fine for it to be crap. It just needs more time before presenting it to anyone. If you’re not prepared to take feedback, then it’s not ready for anyone to read.

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