Tag Archives: NaNoWriMo

Get It All Down


If nothing else, NaNoWriMo is a great motivator for us writers to turn off the editing side of our brains and write. Rough drafts, after all, are supposed to be rough.

The problem is, novices think the first thing onto the screen is brilliant and a finished product. On the other hands, those of us further along the writing process tend to think we have to polish and perfect scene one before we can progress to scene two.

Years ago I was in a critique group with a writer (actually more than one) whose desire for perfection froze her. She couldn’t get past the problems of her previous novel and move on to her second. She endlessly fiddled and tweaked and rewrote and could not move on. Nothing was good enough. Nothing was perfect.

The truth is, nothing we write ever will be perfect. There is always something more we could do to make the story stronger or the character deeper or the theme more intricately woven into the plot.

It’s a hard truth for those of us who want our books to be our best. It’s such a hard truth that it ends up paralyzing too many good writers.

Enter a contest, of sorts, that pushes writers to produce volume, not quality, and suddenly stories are taking shape and frozen writers and pouring out pages.

But do we have to wait for November to experience this rush of creativity? I don’t think so. What we need to do is to commit first to getting the story down. Then we need to commit to going back and polishing those pages until they shine.

I don’t want to slide by the months when a story is gestating. I think that’s also a necessary step. Unlike children, however, stories don’t have a set amount of time they need to develop. And writers can take some steps to move the process along.

The “move along” activities are sometimes referred to as pre-writing. They might include research, writing character sketches, filling out character charts, or doing the early steps of a process like Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method.

For me, my first pre-writing activity was to make a map of the fantasy world I was envisioning. As I worked, story elements suggested themselves, and I began to make notes. Eventually I worked on an outline, and then I was off.

In those early days of my writing career, I was operating with that false idea that I’d get the story right, with some minor tweaking, as soon as I transcribed my handwriting into my computer. (Yes, I still write my rough drafts in long hand, even for short stories, but that’s just me.)

The bliss of that ignorance was that I plowed forward and got the story down. As I learned more about writing, I found a disturbing truth emerge: getting the story down was becoming harder. I felt less and less willing to write what I knew was drivel and keep going. This scene was wrong, that character motivation was weak, this plot point was predictable. I wanted to get it all right that first time.

I’d been around writing circles long enough to know the importance of getting the story down, and yet at one point I was forcing myself to move on. I’d already torn up one opening and started over. I’d gone back and added in a scene I was pretty sure would make things better. But I was still unhappy, still stalled.

Until I made myself write. Without going back. Without rendering a judgment on what went on before.

This act of getting the story out may be the very best thing that NaNoWriMo does for novelists — even ones like me who don’t play. The emphasis on volume serves as a reminder that at some point we all have to sit down and release the words, which will add up to pages, then chapters, and one day a completed story, rough though it may be. After all, a rough story is a lot easier to pretty up than a non-existent one!

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To Do NaNoWriMo Or Not To Do NaNoWriMo

November is just around the corner and writers everywhere are making plans to participate in the unique program NaNoWrMo — short for National Novel Writing Month. The question is, should you join all those others?

First, a few specifics about the official program. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel between November 1 and November 30. The process is to register at the official NaNo site, then report back at the end of November and download your work to receive official recognition for “winning.” The stipulations include writing a brand new novel, not one you’ve already been working on.

What are the advantages of this program? Everyone I’ve asked who has participated says NaNo works as a form of motivation and accountability. There are forums where writers can ask questions or congregate with others writing in their genre. There are Pep Talk articles and word count badges or scoreboards. In other words, NaNo turns a solitary activity into a community event. Lots of people participate, I suspect, simply because they don’t want to be left out.

In addition, serious writers report they come away from NaNo with the skeleton of a story that they can flesh out in the days ahead. NaNo may not deliver a finished product (let’s face it, only middle grade novels clock in at 50,000 words), but it helps the writer push through until that difficult first draft is either finished or firmly in hand.

With those pluses, what then could be the disadvantage? I see several drawbacks. For seasoned writers, writing between a thousand and two thousand words a day ought not to be too demanding, but the pace doesn’t allow the new writer to collect himself when the story bogs down, to learn what might be the problem, and to discover how to get out of it.

In addition, new writers might be fooled into thinking that their “winning” manuscript is now ready for publication. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fellow editing pal Jamie Chavez wrote a helpful blog post about how good writing takes time to learn. She concludes with this:

A great manuscript is a good first step. But it’s going to take time, grasshopper.

Should someone who has done little to no study of how to write fiction set out to write a novel? Apart from the possible harm of discouragement, I can’t see that it would damage someone’s writing. I don’t know that it will help either unless the writer gets feedback from knowledgeable writers — not from loving family members.

My own writing journey started with an idea and a couple chapters that I took to a writers’ conference. I got enough encouragement that I finished the story and went back to that conference. Again I received positive feedback which led to consideration of publication by a particular publishing house. That might have been the worst thing that happened to me. Though I ultimately received a rejection notice, I assumed from that point on for a number of years that my story was ready for publication because one person showed interest.

As I queried editors and agents and the “not for us” notices mounted, I concluded the problem was my genre (Christian fantasy). It was too hard a sell, I reasoned, because editors and agents weren’t being open-minded enough. After all, there was that one industry professional who liked it.

During this time I was doing some study, but honestly I dismissed much of the writing advice I was receiving because I thought it was too demanding — no one in his right mind could do all the things these writing instructors were suggesting. On top of that, I didn’t understand everything I was reading. Some times I thought I understood, and other times the specialized termonology passed me by. (When exactly did a scene end and where did a sequence fit in? What was a sequence?)

Even though I did revisions based on the few things I learned and understood, nothing changed dramatically in my writing until I joined a critique group and began to get feedback from knowledgeable people who gave me honest criticism.

The relevance of my story is this: essentially I used the NaNo method of writing, though I took longer than the thirty days to produce an entire manuscript. But when I was finished, I didn’t know what to do with the thing I’d created until I got help.

Beginning writers who do NaNo will be at a crossroads when they finish — will they take their baby, which they undoubtedly love, and let the evil eyes of critique partners or some profession freelance editor such as myself tear into it so that they learn how to write by having written badly, or will they try to show it to the world as the next president or beauty queen or star athlete, fully formed, ready to go?

If the latter, NaNo will be a bad experience. If the former, then it has possibilities.

I’ve said often, if I could begin my writing career over, I’d write short stories while I studied the craft and had critique partners give me feedback. For one thing, short stories allow for experimentation. I can write in first person in one story, for example, then switch to a close third person limited in the next story. The two offer me a chance to see which I like better, which fits me, what the advantages and disadvantages of each are. But writing a novel, I’m locked into the point of view I’ve chosen and might not learn until twenty thousand words in that it’s really hard to sustain.

But that’s me. Others may find that hammering out a novel in thirty days is exactly what they want to do. It will give them something from which to work, and it will validate them as writers because they will have finished what they set out to do, and they’ll be NaNo winners.

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