9 Lessons Learned from a First Attempt at NaNoWriMo

WD content director Jess Zafarris shares nine lessons she learned during her first try at NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month.
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I've written tips articles for completing a 30-day writing challenge. I've interviewed authors who eventually published their NaNoWriMo novels. I've discussed the process with authors who have participated in (and won!) NaNo 14 years in a row. I've read dozens of pep talks from the NaNoWriMo archive, shared advice from Grant Faulkner, worked with NaNo on partnerships and giveaways with WD.

But never did I actually try it for myself. That wasn't the case this year.

I really, really didn't think I could do it. Surely I have too much to do. Surely I can't stay consistent. Surely I'll get stuck. But here I am with 50,201 words and a good idea of how I can expand and polish all of that into a novel I'm proud of. How about that.

Here are a few things I learned along the way.

1. It's so, so much easier to take on a novel if you bite off one piece at a time.

I'm... a bit scatterbrained. But my NaNo project was probably the most consistent and well-paced project I've completed aside from a daily jog in my entire life. I'm not even sure what I swapped out to make time for it, because except for the nights when I woke up with an idea that I HAD to write down, I didn't lose any. I expect I replaced video game time with writing; that would explain why Link has ben dawdling in the same area in Breath of the Wild for the past month.

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I'm thinking of using NaNo's word count tracker to accomplish other month-long goals. What's the conversion rate from words that need to be written to square feet of my closet that need organizing?

2. Pushing yourself to write on a deadline encourages—no, requires you to figure out what works and what doesn't.

I had been mulling the concept behind this novel since January, but I had barely written 50 words of notes and a weak attempt at a high-concept pitch (which I've since perfected, by the way).

At the end, I've come to the conclusion that many of the 50,000 words I wrote are not going to go into my finished product. But if I hadn't taken the time to write out those scenes, I never would have have figured out that they didn't work.

And if I hadn't pushed through most of those scenes, I never would have figured out what was wrong with the concepts in my head and what I needed to do differently.

Really, the most valuable thing I got out of my mostly-pantsed NaNo project was a firm, plotted scene list that I truly believe makes up a good story arc with rich, interesting characters and only a few small pieces that need to be worked out.

On that note...

3. A scene list or loose outline really helps when you're unsure of things.

I know not everyone is an outliner. In fact, I'm not much of a plotter myself. What I mean by "scene list" is what I would think of as being something between plotting and pantsing—what my pal Jeff Somers might call "plantsing." Basically, I made a list of scenes I wanted to make up Act 1, each about one sentence long. "Character 1 does X."

When it was time to write and I didn't have something specific in mind, I picked a scene from my list and wrote that. Rinse and repeat till Act 1 is done, then make a scene list for Act 2. This also kept me from creating narrative problems—or at least, too many of them—for myself down the road.

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4. Making writing part of your routine solidifies it as a habit. An addictive habit.

I'm a cardio junkie. So I get that doing a little bit of something (running, writing) every day helps you do a whole lot more of it eventually (marathons, books). But somehow, because I'm an editor and a journalist, I thought I wouldn't have time for more writing. For fiction writing.

But it turns out that fiction is pretty damn fun to write, and the more I did it, the more excited I was to jump back in every day, and the easier the ideas came to me.

5. If your idea is strong enough, you can figure out how to express it. BUT you have to commit to that expression.

I never thought of myself as a fiction writer because I have only had a few fiction ideas that I ever wanted to pursue in earnest. My best friend, on the other hand, comes up with compelling story ideas on basically a weekly basis. She's destined to become a short story goddess, and probably a famous novelist too. Me, I harp on one idea constantly for a decade before switching to another.

And it's because I obsess over the details. I try out a storyline, get tired of it, alter it, change the characters, change the setting, the tone, the emotional depth, the overall message behind it. I could rewrite the same story in a dozen ways, each with a different tone and message, but all with the same characters and core plot points. It's infuriating.

But this time, I decided on my tone (satirical, wry humor) and my two MCs ahead of time, and those elements remained absolutely rigid. Of course, if I was in a somber mood, the tone of my writing was more somber, but that just means I need to rewrite it later when I'm feeling more lighthearted.

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6. Voraciously reading (or listening to) the authors you'd like to emulate can help you stay on-tone.

One of the most useful tools fueling my writing over the course of the month was audiobooks. I listened to dozens of sci-fi and humor books on my daily jog or bike ride leading up to and during the month. It helped me figure out some of the trickier elements, like describing fictional technology or alien species. However, I found the best author to listen to for a humorous book was Terry Pratchett. No one, I learned, has ever mastered the art of humorous simile and action like Terry Pratchett (except maybe Douglas Adams). For example: “The light was misty and actinic, the sort of light to make Steven Spielberg reach for his copyright lawyer.”

7. Write something easy if you're not in the mood for large thematic elements.

When I'm writing dialogue, it happens fast. I hear the characters talking. I don't have time to write out dialogue tags or ensure the proper nuance is there unless I want to lose some of the conversation, so I just write out the back-and-forth, and then finesse it later. Sometimes I can perfectly envision a town or a forest and get that down. If that's what's coming to you at that moment, put it on the page. Adjust or work it in where it belongs later.

8. Write down your ideas as they come to you.

I will forget literally anything I don't write down. I tried to buy my husband deodorant for a full week before I added it to my actual work calendar and got it done.

Ideas for dialogue, descriptions, plot changes, character motivations and more came to me in bed, at work, in the car, wherever. I would find myself rehearsing dialogue as my characters, thinking up witty ways to explain settings and actions. When these come to you, WRITE THEM DOWN.

Hand-writing your notes, I find, can also help test ideas and let them flow before you transcribe what works into your process doc or writing software.

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Just make sure you can read the hand-written notes...

9. Making a list of things you learned from trying NaNoWriMo helps you solidify those lessons.

Believe me, I'm literally doing it right now and it's making me feel better. It just helps you parse out what you learned and keep going.

I would write down more lessons learned (because they numbered far more than 9), but I have another chapter to write. Whether your tried and won, or tried and didn't quite make it there, I hope you had as great a month as I did.

We're looking for short SHORT stories of 1,500 words or fewer. (That's less than a day of NaNo writing!) Enter your best one for a chance at cash prizes and more!

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