Friday, December 6

Three Writing Tips Learned From NaNoWriMo

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This year I finally did NaNo (National Novel Writing Month). I knew going in I wasn't going to hit the 50K words, but that wasn't the point. The point was to jumpstart my writing, which had gotten un-fun and was feeling stagnant. I knew I needed to shake things up a bit and knock all the cobwebs out of my creative brain.

It worked wonders, and even taught me a few things I'm definitely adding to my writing process from now on. I enjoyed it so much, I'm going to do the Camp NaNo session in April and July.

(For those who don't know what NaNo is, it's a writing event where you write 50,000 words in the month of November. Thousands of writers participate so there's a great feeling of camaraderie to push yourself)

I went into NaNo with the goal of blocking out a rough first draft of a new novel idea. I did my standard outline/summary template I use for every book, but my process changed some. Due to a hectic schedule, I didn't do much world building before I started writing, which is a first for me. That's something I've always created first in great detail. This time I knew some important details, some general details, and a lot of conceptual ideas, but nothing concrete.

This "lack of preparation" forced me to focus on the bare bones of the story, because that's all I had to work with.

Which turned out to be a good thing, because I learned some important things:

1. Leave notes and forge ahead


I've always been a note-leaver, but this was a whole new experience, because there was so much I needed to research or create. Only the main characters have names, everyone else is XX. I have an entire classroom discussion where the details are all XX, because I haven't figured out what they're discussing yet. I just know it's something that frustrates my protagonist enough to break a rule, and it'll help establish the setting and world.

Details that did appear often had no connection to what I'd written in previous scenes, but they were good things so I had (add) or (turn into subplot) or (lay groundwork) after those. These are all place I know I'll flesh out in round two. They gave me direction on where to deepen this story and how.

Why this helped: It freed me to focus on the goals, motivations, and stakes of my protagonist, and not get caught up in non-plot advancing details. Sometimes the opposite was true, and I wrote a scene that I know will be a pivotal world-building moment and I'll need to add the goal aspect into it later. But overall, what mattered to the story is what got put into the draft. This means on draft two, everything I add to flesh out the book will have meaning, because I know the entire story. I know what matters and what connects to other important elements.

(More on leaving notes while you write here)

2. Write in scenes


I write chronologically, but this time I wrote the scenes that moved the plot and story and didn't worry about transitions or even if the timing was working. Days changed on a whim when I decided things needed to happen faster or slower. When I hit a really great scene ender and that scene felt "done," I stopped and moved on. Some scenes are super short--like 300 words short. Others break 1500 words. If a scene was giving me trouble, I moved on to the next scene. If I was really unsure about what happened, I wrote what I did know and moved on. Often, I'd figure out what was missing later and go back to it.

Why this helped: Transitions are one of the tougher things to do in a novel. They frequently contain all the boring, story-stopping information that gets a character from one place to the other. I skipped that. I went right for the good stuff and didn't bother with how the characters got there. It freed me to write what mattered without adding words that aren't needed. Odds are I'll do very little transition work in the next draft, because most scenes won't need it. That'll keep the pacing fast and the plotting tight. And kept me from writing setup I'd probably have cut later anyway.

(More on writing scenes here)

3. Break up the writing time


I've always been a morning writer, but to maintain the challenging NaNo schedule (nearly 1700 words a day) I had to find every spare moment to write in. In the wintertime, my husband and I have a tradition of curling up in front of a fire at night and reading. This time, I wrote instead. That doubled my writing time per day. On busy days, that gave me hours to write I didn't have before.

A lot can get done in a little time. This combined with the scene-writing style meant that I could write a short scene that moved the story even if I only had half a hour to write. It didn't matter how long I worked, because I saw real progress in getting further along in the novel. A whole scene!

Why this helped: It reset my mindset about when I could and could not write. I still think I'm more creative in the mornings, but with my rough-draft plan, I didn't have to worry about being perfect. It was all going to be fleshed out later anyway. And breaking it up meant I didn't get as fatigued from long hours at the keyboard. My mind was actually fresher in the evenings and not as tired. I was excited to work on that next scene.

Shaking up your writing process from time to time is a good thing, because as we grow as writers we develop different writing needs. Trying new things can add productivity or allow us to think about our stories in ways we haven't before. This can be very freeing and keep our stories fresh and fun.

(More on finding time to write here)

Who else did NaNo this year? What was your experience like? Learn anything new about your own process?

35 comments:

  1. This was my 3rd year doing Nano. It was the first year I didn't "win." A combo of factors contributed to that but one thing I learned is I need to be excited about my story. The first 2 years I was so excited to write but this year I just never felt that passion for the story. I did however get a fire lit under me to start working on editing my first Nano novel again. I realized how much I love that story and want to see what I can make of it.

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    1. Passion goes a long way to getting a book done. If we don't love it, how can we expect our readers to? I'm glad you're gong back to one you love. Good luck on the editing!

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  2. I found the technique of leaving notes and moving on useful as well. The draft I wrote for Nanowrimo takes place in the 1970's so there were many places where I left myself notes to research world events and to check if products existed in 1976. I agree that writing what I knew and moving forward worked well. I can figure out the rest of the details later.
    Great post!

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    1. It's so freeing. I used to get stuck and would stop writing to research something. So much lost momentum. Now I have research days when I keep the momentum going in a different way. Grouping them up helps as well, since all those details stay in my head while I research and plan.

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  3. I Nano’d this year too, and like you, I figured I wouldn't complete the 50k, but I too learned a lot about myself and the flaws in my former writing process. The simplest of my lessons was that I could get a whole lot more writing done when I didn't go back and make every sentence perfect. I saw the potential disaster of spending days correcting a scene only to have to remove it in the rewrite. I learned that writing was way more fun and happened more organically. I was able to let my mind flow and not get stopped up with "perfection", It was awesome to get down about 900 words in an hour when I hadn't written 900 words in the last 6 months

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    1. Nice! I have a friend who did NaNo for that same reason and it helped her a lot. There are times when being perfect is necessary, but sometimes it's good to let the words loose and see how they fall.

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  4. You didn't tell us how many words you got done!

    I participated in NaNo for the fourth time this year. I have learned a lot about improving my structure and writing through NaNo, and have gotten great deals on new writing tools as I have won. I haven't done a "what I learned from NaNo post" yet, but I did write a post before starting this year, outlining what I have learned from previous years:

    http://pdworkman.com/10-steps-to-nanowrimo-tips-tricks-and-resources/

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    1. Oh, I came close to 28K. It's a very rough draft so that was 75% of the novel. Only three chapters from done now, and I'll get that finished over the weekend. Should come in around 40K, which gives me 20K to flesh out to hit my first draft target of 60K.

      Very cool. With luck I'll hit 4 NaNo's in 2014 if I can do the two camps and then again in Nov. maybe I'll even win one!

      Good post, thanks for sharing! There are so many ways to prepare.

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  5. This is a great post. I did NaNo last year and it took a month just to write my first chapter because I was so concerned with the details. A year later, the book is complete and the first chapter that I obsessed over is barely a shadow of the first draft. I wish I would have blocked out the major scenes and then went back to add details. I think the key is to just get it down because you're going to do several drafts anyway and the details will Progress as the story evolves in each draft.

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    1. It's funny how often you hear that--a hard to write chapter that gets cut later. Makes a good case for a rough draft before the first draft. It won't work for every writer, but for us that like that process, it's golden!

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  6. This is the first year I didn't hit my personal target (80k), but 5 years of Nano have taught me the value of pressing on, not re-reading anything until done, and just get the draft out. Once it is, I work on putting it together until it reaches something more resembling a rough draft before letting it rest. It's been helpful for my process, for sure. Thanks for the post! :)

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    1. Can I be jealous of that 80K? Even if you didn't hit it, because you have in the past. It can be hard not to re-read, but it does keep you moving forward.

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  7. I do that all the time; write notes and move on. That way, I don't get bogged down.

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  8. Though I did not do NaNo this year, I did it a couple of years back and found it to be challenging, exhausting, liberating and wonderful. It was the first time I really had to kick my Inner Editor (aka Queen B of no-holds-barred critiquing) to the side to let the story flow and push the word count.

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    1. It's great for that. I have several friends who learned to turn their editors off by doing NaNo.

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  9. Janice, it's so cool that you did NaNo this year! I've done it each year since 2009. I actually prefer to write my first drafts this way. I spent time before November planning and plotting, then churn out a clunky first draft. Like you, I write notes to myself during this time, knowing that it still needs lots and lots of work!

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    1. I'm sold on it and will be doing it again. I finished the rough draft last night, and in a week or two I'll be back to start fleshing it out. I'm excited to get this one done so I can be ready for Camp NaNo in April! Have you ever done those?

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  10. Another great post Janice. Knowing full well that I most likely would not meet NaNo's 50K word count, I decided early on to do the "Marti Version" of the challenge. This version basically consisted of me working on a beat sheet to get an idea of the story out of my head from the beginning to end. This post has inspired me to give a brief update on my blog about it. Thanks!

    Also, I love the past blog post about scene/sequel writing. Your (zombie) examples really make things so much easier to understand, Keep them coming!

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    1. I think customizing it to suit your needs is a fantastic idea. The goal is to motivate yourself, and however you choose to do that can vary.

      Aw, thanks! I use Bob all throughout my writing book, which will finally be out in January. I even wrote a full synopsis for it, so now I feel like I have to write his book!

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  11. Agree NaNo is a very different experience from how I usually write. I am a Type A linear person, like everything written in sequential order which is fine until there is a gap or a road block - have a hard time writing out of order. For NaNo I got in the habit of doing what I call a 'brain dump', basically stream of consciousness dictating from brain to fingers and just type it all out regardless of form or content, sort of like this sentence! I have found that immensely helpful when I encounter an obstacle in the process. Just start letting it flow. Much of it may be garbage, but chances are something in the detritus will turn out to be useful.

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    1. There's a lot of value to it in a variety of ways. I hear so many writers customizing it for them, or using it to achieve a certain goal. It's a great tool.

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  12. To answer your exiting question a little better I came up with this blog post:

    martiink.wordpress.com/2013/12/07/the-best-thing-that-did-happen-from-nano/

    Thanks for the inspiration Janice!

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  13. Hi Janice
    Great post, thanks
    I think we've talked before on here about pantsing versus plotting. I'm coming from the other direction, and forcing myself to create more than the last page and a few characters names before I begin :) I'm glad you felt liberated in not having everything down before you wrote.
    I aimed for double NaNo this year, and made it, which was great! I also stretched myself by writing a YA novella, that had nothing whatsoever to do with scifi or fantasy. I think it was fairly rubbish, but great to try something completely different and push myself, and I learned plenty about character development and motivation.
    cheers
    Mike

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    1. Double NaNo? Okay, I'm jealous of you, too (grin). But that's awesome. I also love yet another example of a writer using NaNo in his own way. Glad your YA went well, even if it's rubbish. Trying something new is good and like you said, you learn new things from doing it.

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  14. This was my first nano year, and I found the process of my first draft exhilarating. Each chapter I finished got better and better, my dialog improved, my scenes improved and my story line progressed well. I too used notes written in bold so I could research, or follow up on something. I did get past 50,000 words but I have several chapters to go. I didn't write out my outline til day one, but after a free days of getting my thoughts organized into scenes or chapters, I stayed in the game! I love my story, so we will see what it really looks like, once I print out the first draft ;-)

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    1. I should insert: I read at least 5 or 6 of your writing blog posts a day, which I'm sure is why I feel so good about my writing forward the end of my 50,000. I'm sure I couldn't have done it without all your info!!!

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    2. That's awesome, and thanks so much! Totally made my day that the blog helped. I think once we start getting in to the flow of the fast writing process, it gets a little easier to find the right word every scene. They might still need polishing, but it's closer to what the finished scene will look like. Hope yours looks good on paper!

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    3. I truly can't thank you enough, I even bought the shifter, to give me a better idea of a great first person pov ;) can't wait to get into it, I've booked a cabin in lava hot springs I'd, just to snuggle down and read it! Thanks again!!!!

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    4. Thanks so much! Hope it lives up to the hype (grin). Enjoy the cabin, that sounds heavenly.

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  15. I started NaNo this year, but didn't "win". I used to be able to write at work and use my flash drive to save my files. Not so anymore. My new job has disabled that feature for security reasons. Bummer. But... I learned something VERY important: I need to have an outline, even if it's a skeleton of an outline. That has helped me stay on course and the story makes sense. I have strayed a little from the outline, but only to add an important scene (or three!) that add to the story and the main character. I am still writing that novel ever so slowly, but still writing it!

    All the best to you with your current project!

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    1. That sounds like a win to me, even if it's not the one you were going for. Learning something about our process that will make the next book easier (and better) is a good thing. As a longtime outliner myself, I totally know how helpful that outline can be.

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  16. This was my first year and I loved it. I thought of nothing but character and plot. I didn't realize how hard it was to change mindset.

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    1. Grats! Breaking ourselves out of our thinking can be tough, which is why I think things like this are such a great idea. You never know where you'll discover that perfect technique that takes your writing up a notch. Glad you found one!

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