Nine Lessons Drawn from NaNoWriMo

by xaosseed

I am cruising in towards landing my NaNoWriMo for 2015 – the first time I’ve really done the challenged. I had a go back in 2011 and choked out fairly rapidly though that book did subsequently get finished as Book II. Book I was cannibalized from a rag pickers collection of all sorts of stuff back while I was down in Port Harcourt – including a NaNo attempt in 2004! Hey, I’d forgotten that one… I’ll confirm against my desk calendar but I think that was correct.

Anyway, I’ve flat-lined on inspiration for today – I got three chunks written on a train journey so I think I’m allowed some slack. Word count is north of the target by a substantial margin, up where either Scalzi or Stross says I can actually call it a book. I have a few tips and tricks so here they are.

First; chunks. This is a combination of a couple of things for me. It started as the discipline of just writing every day no matter what – 750words a day is the tool for me. Just getting into that habit is good*.

As NaNoWriMo became a going concern this year I cranked it up a chunk. My Vaio TZ tiny laptop became my constant companion. My commute to work – 40ish minutes – became time to write a chunk each way so thats twice 600-1000 words. Add in the 750 from the daily requirement and that is a solid block for each day. Getting the pressure off also helped because then I could maybe do another chunk sometime in the evening – come in and write a block straight in the door then do some chores away from the machine, come back and do another then go crash. Four chunks a day puts 2500 words within reach.

Chunking is good for me too – there was a tip I found, I think it was penmonkey guy, saying don’t drain the tank. Write to a point and stop on a cliff hanger, not once you run flat. This means you can pick it up again and you’re off to a roaring start as opposed to have to get the whole thing off the ground every time you sit down. For me, run flat is about 1200 words and then I’m done for days, maybe a week and a bit. But! Less than that and rest and I can give you 750 a day – or as this NaNoWriMo has shown me, I can shove that frequency up by a factor of four as long as I really do something to break my concentration in between – a day job, for instance. Right now I am writing this to try and give me an adequate break to get another block done on this train journey. We’ll see…

Second – the writing implement; make it simple as you can. My minimum writing zone is seat on a train, earphones in, trance podcast on, fire up the Vaio and get to it. The machine is busted – sound card is melted on the motherboard, the screen has permanent lines and the wifi doesn’t work – but the keyboard fits to my fingers and I can crank out words on it while notepad works just fine.

Third – forgive yourself. This is largely stolen from the dude who wrote Bond – and see there I just did the trick. Can’t remember a name? Fuck it move on (Fleming, just remembered) – don’t stop, don’t research, just keep going. Momentum is the only goal, ramp that word-truck over that sand dune, don’t stop, don’t get bogged down. Think you’re using stereotypes? Fine – fix it in edit. Racist? Sexist? Colonialist? Politically Correct? Too talky? Too filthy? Never mind, get it all down, keep going – carve a better novel from this bigger novel later but for now get a novel in hand.

Fourth – or perhaps three-prime – forget research. Write in your most half assed, half remembered, taken from TV memories and just roll with it. The important aspects of your story environment will be apparent by the time you finish and you can figure out whether it is really important to include it (in which case go research) or whether you can just rip it out and save the effort.

Fifth – don’t over plan. This is a new one for me. Previously I tried the approach of figuring out all the ins and outs and mapping out an entire story down to the details so that whenever I needed to sit down and write a chunk I would know exactly what chunk I needed to build the plot. Man, I ran out of motivation on that one. And if I’m boring myself what would it be like for some poor unfortunate reader? This time I put together a super rough concept and just tried figuring out the story as I wrote and it worked. Your mileage may vary.

Sixth – Scrivener – the super useful app that allows to easily stick together all your chunks and zoom around in various views to see whats where and where there are gaps. The other nice bit about it is that it is easy to have note cards with characters or locations or whatever that you can easily pop up on a split screen. I am not using even half the functionality available and I find it invaluable.

Seventh – get a notebook, write things down and leave them aside. Much as I was never so artistically productive as when I was trying to revise (twenty foot diameter Hideous Mandala?) when you knuckle down and try to focus on one story you will find your brain shooting all sorts of brilliant ideas at you. That is ok, look at them, go ‘ooh, aah’ then write them in the notebook and do not act upon them. You can come back to them later. For NaNoWriMo that is your only master. In this case, focusing down on a real world story has given me such and incredible jones to run a fantasy RPG campaign that I think I probably will – in December or some other time. I am doing nothing about it just now.

Eighth – tell people you are doing this. That you are going to disappear at weird intervals to write. That you are not going to stay out all night because you need to write tomorrow. That you are going to neglect their events to write. That you are going to generally fade away from human contact for the time it takes to write those chunks a day. Now if you can salvage that amount of time in places where noone was bothering you already, super, disregard this one.

Ninth – thou art human. When you really, really, really can’t go on then don’t. Declare an off day and go recharge your batteries. Get away from the blazing blue eye of the computer screen and go stare at a fire, drink pints, walk about, sleep. Whatever. Same as for insomnia, if it just ain’t working then trying to force it some more is not likely to help.

So those are my main thoughts on this NaNoWriMo 2014 experience. I see some crazies saying ‘November to write, December to edit’ and I wonder what kind of fairy land they live in – my December is a mess and I’ll be lucky to get this prepped to hand an agent this side of next summer.

The objective has already been achieved though – the entire point was to be able to say when people ask ‘what do you write?’ that ‘I write murder mysteries / thrillers’ because I got fed up with non-writers curling their lip when I say I write scifi. Even if this book rots on a disc from here it has served its purpose which weirdly makes me a lot better inclined towards it.

  • The 750words a day is also good for insomnia; instead of letting the hour of the wolf get a hold or falling into some internet abyss, logging on; music and churning out some words is a good alternative. I find it hits a nice spot for me between dragging me up enough that I can then fall back down to sleep while also tiring me out and burning off whatever weird energy was fizzing about. My two cents, again, your mileage may vary.