NaNoWriMo Complete! Sort of…

Well, this is awkward.

Technically, the goal of NaNoWriMo is to write at least 50,000 words during the month of November. Well, I just typed THE END on the first draft of my book. A first draft which is 40,861 words in length. So, technically speaking, I have not won NaNoWriMo.

Go on. Ask me if I care.

Over the course of 25 days, I produced a complete first draft of a middle grade fantasy novel. Like most of my first drafts, this one is an utter mess. (My son is disappointed I won’t read this version to him, and he has to wait until at least draft two.) But it has a lot of fun ideas, and is just begging to be rewritten and cleaned up into what I hope will be a publishable novel.

I’m thrilled. This is exactly what I hoped I’d be able to accomplish. There were several days I wasn’t sure I’d make it. We had some family issues, and I had to scramble to get the page proofs done and turned back on Revisionary. There were also times I think I might have pushed myself a little too hard. I felt myself skirting depression once or twice as I struggled to get things done in the real world while also chiseling away at the word count.

Lessons learned:

  • I’m not the 25-year-old kid with no life who can do 80,000 words in a month. But I can do 40,000 in just under a month, and that’s pretty damn sweet.
  • First drafts are allowed to be broken. Stop beating yourself up for not being perfect the first time. (I have to relearn this one with every book, but I had to learn it harder this time.)
  • Have fun.
  • Goblins make everything better. So do chainsaws.
  • Concrete wordcount goals and public accountability (like the word count meter) work really well for me, but also increase stress.
  • Don’t neglect self-care.
  • First drafts, for me, are about throwing in every idea you can. Revision is for pruning some of those ideas and developing the ones you keep.
  • Next book: chainsaw-wielding goblins…

For my fellow NaNo writers, whatever your goals this month, whatever your triumphs and setbacks, whether you “won” or not, I hope you had fun. I hope you discovered something new. I hope you grew as a writer, and I hope you feel good about the work you’ve done.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go print out a manuscript.

NaNoWriMo Pep Talk – Hitting the Wall

One of the Lansing municipal liaisons for NaNoWriMo asked if I’d write up a pep talk for week two. I decided to talk about that part in my process where the novelty and shininess has worn off, and I realize my outline is broken, and suddenly it feels like the story is crumbling in my hands, and what was I even thinking???

It happens with pretty much every book I write, usually around 1/4 to 1/3 of the way through the first draft.

Here’s an excerpt from the pep talk:

This is the time in Jim’s writing process where, like Charlie Brown kicking at that elusive football, I lose my footing and end up flat on my back, staring into the sky and wondering what the heck just happened.

My shiny new idea isn’t quite so shiny anymore. I’ve gotten lots of words down, but they don’t exactly match what I was imagining. And this next part of the outline doesn’t make any sense at all, now that I think about it more closely. Good grief, the Jim who was outlining this thing last month is an idiot. And now I have to fix his mess.

Everyone’s writing process is different, of course. You might zip through the entire month with never a doubt, never a stumble. (In which case I hate you a little bit.) But most of the writers I know, beginners and pros, hit a point at least once in every project, sometimes more, where everything feels like it’s falling apart.

I’ve got eleven books in print from major publishers, and about 33% of the way through writing every single one of them, I felt like I’d missed the football. I stared at the clouds and asked who had swapped my brilliant, perfect outline with this meandering, illogical, half-baked nonsense. This was it. I’d have to tell my publisher I’d failed. The whole world would finally know I’d been faking it all along.

Now for the good news. After twenty years, I know this is a normal part of my process. I know I can get through it. I know that once I climb back out of the Pit of Despair, I’ll discover that hey, maybe this book is pretty cool after all.

Ups and downs are a normal part of the writing process. It doesn’t mean we suck. It doesn’t mean we’re going to fail. It means we’re human. Our job isn’t to be perfect; it’s to get the story down.

You can read the whole thing in the NaNoWriMo Forums.

NaNoWriMo Begins

Like a lot of other people, I started NaNoWriMo yesterday. I’m working on a short, hopefully-fun novel that isn’t currently under contract. If I crash and burn, I’m only out a month’s work. But I have high hopes, which should last for a few more days, at which point I traditionally get that sinking “what the heck am I doing this book sucks everything is darkness and despair” feeling. Ah, writing. Gotta love it.

But so far, so good. I’ve got two chapters done, and some fun bits coming in the next chapter. I’ve also noticed a few things about NaNo and myself.

  • I do better with a wordcount goal and some kind of accountability. Knowing I need to hit at least 1666 words a day, and that my updates will be publicly available on the NaNoWriMo website? That helps motivate me.
    • It might not motivate you, and that’s okay. Everyone’s writing process is different. If something helps, use it! If not, get rid of it and find something else. NaNo doesn’t work for everyone.
  • I still compare my progress to other people’s, and that’s bad. Having a lower wordcount than someone else doesn’t mean I’m losing. It doesn’t mean I suck as a writer. It means that person wrote more words than I did. So what? I need to focus on being happy with my own progress. If I like the words I’m producing, then I’m #Winning. Period.
  • Real Life is obnoxious. Even working from home, there are phone calls, vacuum repair salesmen (seriously!), grocery shopping, and other distractions. I know about some of these ahead of time. Nothing to do but plan the best I can, and roll with the hits when I can’t.
  • There’s no One Right Way to do NaNoWriMo. I’m doubtful I’ll make it to the regional gatherings, or that I’ll spend much time in the forums, and that’s okay. I’ve already got a support network of writers I can talk to if I need. (Although it might be fun to get out of the house…) Anyway, the point is, NaNo has grown an awful lot over the past decade and a half. There are a ton of tools and resources out there. Use what works, disregard the rest, and write on.
  • More fiction may mean less blogging. If I’m pushing myself harder to hit daily wordcount goals, I may have a harder time keeping up with the blog. But we’ll see.

I hope those of you who are participating are having fun, and those who aren’t … well, I hope you’re having fun too!

NaNo Pep Talk

On Sunday, I was invited to give a pep talk/Q&A to the Lansing NaNoWriMo group. They had a great turnout at their event, and I had a lot of fun chatting with folks. (I hope it was fun and useful for them, too!)

I’ve been doing my own novel push in October, trying to finish this draft of Codex Born by the end of the month. I’ve failed, thanks to a number of reasons I won’t get into now. With that said, I’ve gotten significantly more writing done than I would have without this push, so I’m calling that a victory anyway. And while I won’t be officially doing NaNo in November, in part because I’ve got a Toastmaster gig in Iowa and a week-long New York trip, I’m still going to keep pushing myself to finish this draft.

To everyone who will be doing NaNo, good luck! Here are some of the tidbits from my talk, in the hope that they’ll be useful.

Nobody is born knowing how to write. We’ve created the myth of the Instant Writer, the person who sits down at their laptop and magically produces brilliant, award-winning prose. But writing is just like anything else. It takes practice. Don’t expect perfection the first time through, and don’t beat yourself up if you stumble along the way.

There’s no one right way to write a book. There’s a lot of advice out there. Try different things. Experiment. Figure out what works for you. Anyone who preaches the Gospel of the True Right Way to write (or sell) a book? Smile and back away as quickly as possible. All those readers out there don’t care how you wrote the book. They just care if the end result is worth reading.

What do you want? There’s no right answer here, but it’s important to know if you’re hoping to be professionally published, if you want to self-publish your stuff, or if you’re just writing for you. Maybe your goal is to write that 50,000 word Spock/Doctor Who fanfic piece. Go for it! But it can help a lot to know your goals going in.

Give yourself permission to write crap. This may be the single most important lesson I’ve learned. It got me through the worst bout of Writer’s Block I ever had. I basically imagined a sign over my monitor that said in big neon letters, “IT’S OKAY TO WRITE CRAP!” Now this doesn’t mean it’s okay to publish crap, and I suspect my editor would have some issues if I started turning in incoherent drivel. But don’t demand perfection in a first draft. Allowing myself to get messy, to scribble outside the lines and stumble through my mistakes, this also allowed me to finish the draft, to explore the story and figure out what the book was about. You’ll have plenty of time to edit and rewrite.

Do edit and rewrite. Once you finish your book, the impulse to immediately start submitting it, or to put it up on Amazon, can be very strong. All I’ll say here is that if I had published my first drafts, I would have had to change my name to distance myself from the shame. Everyone’s different, but most of the writers I know (myself very much included) don’t get everything right the first time through.

Watch out for scams. There are a lot of scammers out there, and they know it’s NaNoWriMo. Be careful. As a general rule, “Money flows toward the writer” should protect you from a lot of them. Also, if you’re not sure if something’s a scam, look at how they make their money. Does this publisher have a website geared toward selling books to readers, or are they more interested in selling services to writers? You want to work with agents and publishers who stay in business by selling books to readers, because they have the most incentive to sell your books. Writer Beware and the Writer Beware Blog have been great resources for me to learn about and avoid most writing traps.

Finally, good luck, and have fun! (And to Annette and all of the Lansing NaNo crew, thanks for the sweet hat and other goodies! 😉 )

Jim C. Hines