Lessons from NaNoWriMo 2018

50,000 words in one month… This is the challenge of NaNoWriMo. This was my first year trying it, and I won!

It feels like an accomplishment. As many will tell you, NaNoWriMo’s place at the start of the holiday season can make it challenging to complete those 50,000 words (1,667 words a day average).

What almost no one mentions, and what I found much more challenging, were fall allergies and the return to Standard Time (or rather, how the return to Standard Time made my kids into very grumpy and confused bears).

My main takeaways were the sense of momentum and the strategies I developed.

STRATEGIES: WHAT WORKED

I learned that my normal process (think a scene over for a week in an off-and-on sort of way, then force myself to sit down and write it) is not what I actually need; it’s just what I’ve always done. Writing an average of 1,667 words a day moved it up to about one scene per day, and it showed I was more than capable of moving at a faster rate.

And that faster rate was quite a shock to my system. I’m used to writing The Next Scene in a week, not tomorrow. But then it multiplies: four scenes further in the story usually equals “about a month away” in my comfortable normal pace… So four days into NaNoWriMo, I was having to deal with a scene that I had automatically mentally set aside for a month from then. I had to fight against a feeling of, “But you can’t be here already!”

I dealt with this mental block by working hard each night or morning to come up with a “beat outline”—cool things I wanted to include in the fight scene, or points the conversation needed to hit. With those five or so points in order, I could race toward the next item on my list as quickly as possible.

The Beat Outline working, I found, was dependent upon different things.

Fight Scenes, for me, depend on music. I have to find the right song to imagine certain moves or counters. Then I just have to think of cool things for the magic system to do and link those together as quickly as possible (thanks, Mistborn, for being a good example to us all!).

Dialogue Scenes depend, unexpectedly, on finding the right transitions. Not the actual points they need to hit—but the ways in which they segue from point to point are the most important things for me to write down. Otherwise I’m left staring at my beat outline wondering how the heck this conversation was supposed to move from sins of the past into a joke about how a fantasy race doesn’t use contractions.

UNEXPECTED BENEFITS

Moving more quickly through the story actually made my story move more quickly. When I give myself a week to plan out each scene, I end up adding unnecessary length and planning extra dialogue. Writing more quickly means plot points are playing out more quickly, and I’m loving the fact that each scene does something, where I used to fill scenes with extraneous indulgent material that I had convinced myself was necessary.

NaNo’s rapid pace prevented over-planning, and this allowed me the pleasure of getting surprised by my own story. Because I hadn’t taken a week to mull a scene over, sometimes I would type something out and then stare at it in shock. “Did that really just happen? …Well, just for the sake of argument (and today’s word count), let’s just say that it did.” Unexpected characters made unexpected jokes that made them unexpectedly likeable, and all of a sudden they had new roles. And one of the best scenes I wrote (according to my husband) was from a completely random idea that I used to try to amp up a scene that was trying to be a flop.

Finally, I learned a few general ideas for moving quickly through scenes:

  • In speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy), a way to make a scene more interesting is to incorporate the world-building. Use the magic system in a new way, or decide that this race behaves in this manner, or introduce an environmental hazard unique to your world. If the scene is interesting, it’s fun, and if it’s fun, it gets written more quickly.
  • Make a joke. Having a character make a joke automatically makes him more likeable, and it dislodges me from taking my writing too seriously.
  • Don’t worry about it. This is a rough draft. During NaNo, if I suddenly decided a drastic change to a character arc, I simply made a note to fix it in a later draft and moved on—rather than my previous behavior, which was to get bogged down going back to earlier scenes to set up the arc better. I didn’t want to sacrifice momentum for polish (at least at my stage).

WAS IT HARD?

For me, NaNo was actually more of a helpful re-prioritization than a challenge. It showed me, encouragingly, what I can accomplish with a written goal and a deadline. It showed me that squeezing in 237 words is better than thinking, “30 minutes is not enough time to write” and giving up on the day as a loss. It showed me that I can still keep my house running even while writing an obscene amount in one month (though I wouldn’t want to do it every month, and depending on our family’s season, I don’t know if I’ll be able to swing it next November). It showed me that I am a happier person in general when I write. It showed me the benefits of moving faster through the book, and it showed me that I am neither a stolid plotter (everything outlined) nor an ardent pantser (discovery writer); rather, I am firmly in the camp of “plantsing,” or having a loose outline and making up the rest as I go.

It showed me that, in order to be productive, I must stay away from recipe blogs and Goodreads. (Okay, just ONE time checking Goodreads.)

I know NaNo is not for everyone. But in my easily distracted season of life, with my supportive husband, with my goal-oriented personality, its focused time of productivity was just what the manuscript ordered. Now to use what I’ve learned and set myself another goal: finish this book by the end of the year!

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