Sometimes it’s a lone writer who’s been putting off a story idea for too long, and decides it’s now or never. Sometimes it’s a pair or a group determined to find out what they can achieve by sharing self-imposed deadlines and strong pots of coffee. Sometimes it’s peer pressure or curiosity about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo.org), that challenge that rallies ever-increasing numbers of writers around the globe every November to band together in pursuit of a 50,000-word “win.”
Book-in-a-month challenges take all forms, fueled by all stripes of writers with all manner of motivations—make the most of that time alone in a borrowed cabin, hunker down for the winter, stop procrastinating, have something ready to pitch at that conference, prove to yourself you can do it, prove to someone else you can do it, get a fresh start—and in this hyperconnected age of 24-hour fingertip resources and networks, of tiny portable keyboards and glow-in-the-dark screens, they’re more popular than ever.
What do writers really glean from these write-a-thons? What have those who’ve set out to achieve the seemingly impossible learned, good or bad, and what advice would they share with others thinking of setting out with that same single-minded focus? We asked the WD writing community, and responses came in waves—with refreshing honesty, admitted mistakes, tales of redemption, palpable pride, self-deprecating humor and, above all, contagious enthusiasm.
In the November/December 2014 Writer’s Digest, we published an array of the best tips and strategies—one for every day of the month—along with a roundup of resources offering more help along the way. Here, in this bonus online-exclusive companion, we’re delighted to share even more valuable first-hand experiences and lessons learned from the dedicated writers in our readership. Because who knows? It’s so crazy, it just might work.
EMBRACING FRIENDLY COMPETITION
By Heather Gibson, Hartville, Ohio
I first heard about NaNoWriMo in 2012 from my friend who runs the writing group at the library. The name prompted several raised eyebrows and quizzical looks. We were considerably more agreeable toward it after she explained it to us. I mulled it over awhile before deciding it was the perfect forum to get my book out of my head and onto the page. Besides, I’m more than a little competitive so the challenge was welcome rather than daunting.
Unfortunately, I found out about NaNoWriMo right before the contest began. There wasn’t time to outline my book or research various topics in the story. I started writing cold, struggling to create my characters, setting, etc. I barely made it to chapter three before I abandoned the first portion of my book.
Determined not to give up, or “lose,” I picked up with the story where I was sure about what I wanted to write. The pages flowed freely as my story grew. In short, I completed the 50,000-word challenge, and then some, required by NaNoWriMo. I cannot begin to tell you how amazing that felt. Then I realized two horrible things.
First, I did not have a complete novel. Second, I had to edit this mess. Deep breaths were taken and I pressed on. If I can give one small piece of advice, do not quit just because NaNoWriMo is over. December, with all its hectic holiday madness, is the worst time to work on a novel. Do it anyway. I promise this is the point where you will appreciate what you have accomplished. Besides, the balm of January is just around the corner.
Everyone knows how boring January can be once the holidays are over. Use this valuable opportunity to write and/or edit your work. This is also a good time to do research should your novel require it. I found several facts in my writing needed to be clarified and portrayed with more accuracy than I had originally done.
I also took time to decide if I wanted to outline my novel or stay with a more organic approach. At first, I felt as if I was forcing my writing into an outline. I resisted in favor of exploring rabbit trails that led to what I believed was good, old-fashioned storytelling. I also thoroughly developed my characters during this time.
With everything going so well, it was the perfect time to hit another snag. I had absolutely no idea how I wanted my novel to end. I also began to lose interest. My writing habits were hit or miss and the quality of my book suffered. Thank God NaNoWriMo was just around the corner again.
Every NaNoWriMo submission is supposed to be a new novel of at least 50,000 words. I decided that year to instead use it as an editing tool to reignite interest in my own book. It worked. I turned in a 73,000-word combination of well-edited old writing as well as several new chapters.
Since my second experience with NaNoWriMo, I’m continuing to research the best way to convey my story. An outline would be helpful to keep the plot on track, tighten up the structure of my book. I believe this can be done without surrendering the natural flow.
I’m also happy to say that in the months following NaNoWriMo, I actually finished my book. I set it aside for a while before editing one more time. My novel is currently in the hands of four beta readers whose opinions, criticisms and critiques I anxiously await. This year’s NaNoWriMo effort will undoubtedly be another 30-day editing session.
In the meantime, I’m back on the internet researching what comes next. Believe me when I say it looks scarier than blank pages awaiting your 50,000 words. Good thing I’m still too competitive to give up!
CHOOSING THE RIGHT STORY (AND GENRE)
by Ty Unglebower, Knoxville, Md.
I had never “lost” Nanowrimo. That is to say, by the contest’s own definition, (reaching at least 50,000 words by the end of November), I had never failed to win it. I don’t do it every year, but each time I try, I make it. Little certificate and everything. Arrogant as it may sound, I’ve realized that with discipline and persistence I can in theory always compose 50,000 words of coherent fiction in 30 days.
But for years it was incomplete fiction. I’d never finished the entire first draft within the one-month limit of Nanowrimo, or within any other month-long span for that matter. In 2013, as summer dwindled into fall, I decided to undertake what I called “Nanowrimo Plus.” In other words, I wouldn’t declare victory in December unless I’d completed the first draft of the entire story arc within November.
Usually I’m a plotter. I draw up outlines and brief character sketches before starting most of my longer fiction projects. But for Nano I do more pantsing. That works fine for the 50,000-word milestone, but makes finishing an entire novel in 30 days much trickier for someone like me. So I knew I wanted to go with a tight, plot-heavy genre for my experiment, lest I get seized by my literary tendencies or get pulled into sub-plot hell. That’s why I went with the mystery genre—more specifically, the cozy mystery.
A cozy mystery allowed me to keep the action in one central location. It also meant less meticulous research, (as opposed to a hard-boiled procedural, for instance.) Also, by keeping the character count to fewer than 10, I gave myself the chance to play to my strengths in my limited time: character and dialogue.
The tight requirements of a cozy mystery worked in conjunction with the Nano time constraints to act as sort of an enclosed waterslide during that month; I could slip and slide around only so much before being redirected, almost against my will, back into the inevitable flow of things. Flying off too far into another direction was simply not an option if I wanted to attain the goal.
Oh, I could feel the pull of elaboration or extraneous description tugging at my progress as I rounded some of those tight corners. But the tick-tocking of the clock all throughout November compelled me to always move forward, down that slide, pushed by that running water. Plot, plot, plot.
Every page I wrote had to set up some specific fact that would relate to the ultimate solving of the crime, or at least provide temporary misdirection. Even as I did that, I had a tone to set and characters to bring to life and settings to describe. It forced me to tighten my writing.
That isn’t how I work, normally. But I found that during the experience, plot developments presented themselves just a short time before I needed them. I knew point B came after point A in the timeline, but had no clue what was in between the two points until I sat down to write. That came as a surprise to me, but a pleasant one. I wouldn’t want to write that way most of the time, but for my Nanowrimo Plus experience, being pushed along that waterslide was as effective as it was nerve-wracking so far as tightness of writing is concerned.
By the 30th, I’d done it; I’d written my first ever mystery, not to mention my first ever fully formed first draft, all within 30 days. It’s coherent, fast-paced and, for a first draft, better than I expected it to be. I don’t know if I’ll do anything further with it, but it exists, fully formed written totally within 30 days, just as I had wanted.
I wouldn’t want to write like that most of the time; I like my character studies and literary elaborations as I write. The kind of novel I normally write benefits from such things. But they have no doubt also benefited from the lessons I learned on that waterslide in November of 2013.
DISCOVERING THE VALUE OF DEADLINES
by Lisa Doyle, Aurora, Ill.
I’m proud to say that I am a two-time NaNoWriMo Winner! I succeeded on both attempts, in 2008 and 2012. The motivations and outcomes for the novel writing process were different, and have led to some pretty life-changing results.
I’d always wanted to write a novel, and it was one of those things I thought I’d “get around to” one of these years. Then, in the final days of October 2008, I happened to read a blurb in Self magazine about NaNoWriMo. I was intrigued, went to the website, and learned of a local NaNoWriMo group workshop that very night in my town. I left the meeting completely jazzed, wrote my basic outline and downloaded YWriter, and a few days later, I was off and writing.
I had the goal of writing about 1,800 words every night, and for the most part, I achieved it (I took the night off for the presidential election, and one night I was sick). And, on November 30, I finished the story with an excess of 51,000 words, tears streaming down my face, not sure if I’d ever felt so proud before.
Life got busier (I had a baby in 2010) and I wasn’t ready to attempt NaNoWriMo again yet. But in the fall of 2012, I had an idea for a novel that I just couldn’t shake. I again outlined and set a plan of action, and once again completed the 50,000-word goal by deadline.
My book continued to nag at me, though. I knew I had something unique, something marketable, and it wasn’t really complete. In January, a friend alerted me to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, so I checked it out. The deadline was two weeks away, so I got back to work, adding another 25,000 words to the novel, and sent it in on time.
I made it through to the second round (yay!), but not the third (womp womp). I took the judges’ comments seriously and tweaked the novel further. I briefly had the book up on Amazon to share with family and friends, and received more helpful feedback. Then, I finally worked up the nerve to query agents. Not much time passed before I found my agent, who loved the premise, and wanted to work with me on a significant rewrite. Over the next several months, I shaped the novel into a much-improved story—one that I owe in large part to my agent’s expert coaching. It’s now on submission, and all appendages are crossed that it will find a home.
I am truly grateful that NaNoWriMo exists. I’m a very deadline-driven person, and I don’t think I actually would have worked the writing into my schedule without the timeframe, the goals and the structure it provides. I think anyone with a story in them should give it a shot. It could be the greatest favor you ever do for yourself.
by C.L. (Cyndi) Pauwels, Yellow Springs, Ohio
For someone who’s never written a full-length manuscript before, trying to write a book in a month is daunting, to say the least. I completed my first NaNoWriMo attempt in 2005, and the euphoria of typing “The End” shortly before midnight on Nov. 30 was indescribable. That draft—and yes, that’s all NaNo participants should seek to produce is a draft, no matter how many overly eager authors start querying (or hit “publish”) on Dec. 1—served as the basis for my thesis manuscript for a Master of Arts in creative writing, which I completed in 2010. NaNoWriMo showed me that I could, in fact, complete a book-length manuscript, something I had not been able to do up to that point. It gave me the confidence to complete my education and to take my writing seriously.
My 2006 NaNo effort built on the central theme of a short story I published in 1990. After many, many revisions and rewrites, that 50,000-word draft became my police procedural Forty & Out. I started querying it to agents in 2011, and after 39 rejections, that debut novel was released by Deadly Writes Publishing on Sept. 1, 2014.
NaNoWriMo has been good to me and for me—in motivation, in confidence-building, in adding to my support group of fellow writers. Now that I’ve learned the habit of daily writing and regularly produce a decent word count on my own, I may not return to the event. But I’ll continue spreading NaNo joy as I encourage new writers to join the fun.
LEARNING TO EXERCISE DEMONS (misspelling intended)
by Rev. Dr. David McDonald, Jackson, Mich.
Since 2008, I have written in excess of 2 million words: 56 books, 13 position papers and hundreds of explanatory diagrams that translate historical theology into the language of ordinary, everyday people. I started the Teaching Atlas Project to benefit the congregants at my church (westwinds.org), but over the years, the project grew. I used my writing to raise money for local charities, highlight notable people within our community, and dabble in speculative theology—even fictionalizing missionary work in Atlantis.
I have written three books this year, including The Handbook for Hellfighters (a training manual for ministry) and The Church Survival Guide (a resource for people confused by Christianity). Last week, in 118 hours, after seven years of research and three weeks of preparation, I wrote The Garden City Epistles—a 56,487 word devotional on human becoming.
Here’s what I’ve learned through it all:
Passion will get you started, but discipline will see you through. Theology is fascinating, but it’s a lot of work to explain, develop and substantiate. The only way to succeed is to set a schedule, write like mad and never stop, even if you despair. Get your first draft finished before you pay attention to your feelings, since—in the early stages—most of your feelings will steer you off a cliff like a GPS for lemmings.
We require the same disciplined perseverance to begin, also. The first words will rarely be your best, and the fear of bad writing often keeps writers from the initial click on the keys. But writing is a like jumping into a cold lake: You squirm less once you’re all in.
In my case, I know I’m in trouble once the ideas begin to gush from my mind and onto the screen. I don’t try and interrupt the flow, but I know the next 24 hours will likely involve head-shaking, smirking and self-recrimination. Easy means effortless, and good writing is never easy, just as good abs do not result from doughnuts and naps in the afternoon. You may be able to relate, knowing the more the writing flows in the first draft, the more you’ll have to trim it back during revisions.
Revisions are not only essential for clarity and concision, but for argumentation. That which interests us is only interesting to the audience if there’s a payoff. Most people don’t spend their afternoons reading 4th-century African theology. In order for any writing to gain traction, both the reader and the writer have to answer the all-important question, “So what?” The book, after all, is for the audience. In my case, I’m not writing to exorcise demons, but to share about how you, too, can get your demons looking great in a bikini by summer. Your reasons for writing, though probably not like mine, should be obvious and transparent to the reader.
Your work is not the best work on any topic, but it is yours. I knowI’ll never be on a shelf with Meister Eckhart, Athanasius, or Jacques Ellul, but my mission isn’t to compete with the greats. I translate great theology for everyday use. The translation is mine—my voice, my take, my slant—and it’s the only thing I have to offer. In your own writing, be less concerned with greatness and more concerned with faithfulness—to your beliefs and idiosyncrasies—in order to give yourself to your readers.
Finally, I realized not only has publishing changed, but reading has, too. We need shorter chapters, earlier payoffs and more memorable axioms to keep people turning the page. Every story is comprised of smaller tales; every tome is a hundred pamphlets; every dissertation is a dozen arguments working together to make one point. When we forget this, people put down our work and are either dismissive or angry that they wasted 10 bucks.
That’s right—10 bucks. Our therapist-employing, dotage-initiating, profanity-inventing work of desperate passion isn’t worth nine cents an hour. And how do I know this? Because, as my friends are fond of saying, “There isn’t another pastor on the planet that puts out like you do,” and this is the first time you’re seeing my name.
I’ve learned buckets of truth over the last six years, growing so tired of recounting inadequacies to my minister that I became one. I consider it essential training for the future, as I’m only beginning my career as a writer. You may not be ready to dive in like I did, but I still hope you benefit from hearing my confession.
To read the full feature “Plan Your Own Write-a-Thon: 30 Tips, Resources & Strategies for Writing a Book in 30 Days,” plus other articles to help you complete a book in a month, check out the full November/December 2014 Writer’s Digest now.