Thursday, 1 December 2011

NaNoWriMo - What I Learned This Time

It's very hard to explain to someone who is not a writer why on earth you would want to put yourself through something like NaNoWriMo.

For those of you that don't already know NaNoWriMo is NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth, a yearly event that challenges writers around the globe to sign up from the 1st to the 30th November to write a minimum of 50,000 words (1,666.6r, or 3-4 A4 pages per day) during that time.  The novel doesn't have to be Shakespeare when finished, nor does it have to be finished during that time.  The only rules are that you can't start writing the novel until the 1st November (although you are allowed to do planning if you so wish) and you have to write 50,000 words and submit your word count by the end of November.

I first took part in this two years ago, during November 2009.  At the time I had just finished a project that had taken 4-5 years to finish and was still stuck in endless re-writes for another two (one of which is still stuck in endless re-writes after 8 years).  I was becoming very frustrated with the whole process of writing: I was struggling a lot to get the story out partially because I was more than aware that there would be no one who was particularly interested in reading it when finished.

Anyone creative who is part of a loving but not especially creative family and circle of friends will appreciate the frustration of working for months on months on something only to pass it to a beloved person and for them to either a) not understand it or b) be unable to extend their comments beyond minor punctuation issues.

So when I heard about NatNo - I think via Blogland - I decided that it might be just the thing I needed.

It has, after all, been said by more than one writer that the one thing that a writer is unlikely to do when left alone is to do any writing.

And a funny thing happened: by sitting there every day, often with no idea what I was going to write that day, I found the ideas coming a lot easier, I found myself thinking in ways that I might not usually have done and, most importantly, I found myself freed of the endless issues that had dogged my stories - if you get stuck in a plot or character problem and you are up against a deadline to reach a certain amount of words then you have no time for going back and starting again, or for getting bogged down: you keep writing through it.  This was a great catharsis and allowed me to re-discover a love of writing that had got lost somewhere along the way.

What resulted was a fast paced, rather violent Sci-Fi romp, but it also freed me up to go back to one of the longer projects with new energy and finally finish it (this became my longest and best work to date)

Of course all of this was two years ago when I was going through a period where I had a lot of free time on my hand.  This year when I came to do it again I found that the main times I had free for writing were weekends and two evenings per week. That meant a lot of sitting in front of the computer for long periods, just plugging away.  At times I will admit that this became something of a chore, but it is a worthwhile exercise - inspiration cannot always be relied on, but exercising those brain muscles increases the chances that it will arrive sooner than later.

It also helped to know that my friend Argent was also doing the challenge - we constantly exchanged word counts and comments about problems we were facing: the fact that I knew someone out there who was rapidly catching up with my word count kept me going through some of the more difficult stages.

If I'm brutally honest about the work I did this year I would have to admit that there is a lot of running-about in search of a plot - but what did I learn this time?

Plot - when I went into NatNo last time I hadn't done any preparation, but I had a very clear idea of what my story was and what it was trying to achieve right from the start - I think that was missing this time.  I had a great start: but I hadn't completely worked out where that start led to.

NatNo forced me to keep going and be quite inventive - split the story into two parts for a while, think about the way I used language: could I expand my language?  My writing style tends to be quite focused on getting the story told and I sometimes forget to describe where we are or talk about other stuff like emotional reactions, character development etc - so although I think that was missing from this I am more aware of it now

Characters - I had a lot of what can only be "cardboard cut-out" people in my story - characters that I didn't know the first thing about and were only there to add to the body count.  Only two of the main characters, maybe as many as three or four, actually had a personality after that - so my advice to myself for next time is that your main characters in a story should always go on a personal journey and change during the story and that you should decide one or two things about your secondary characters that roughly define how they will act

Empty space - pretty much each day I was thinking "how am i going to expand this load of nonsense to be 50,000 words" - and yet I made the target with two days to spare.  I think one of the things that has often held me back as a writer is that concern that I won't be able to write something that is long enough to be called a novel, so I think that this has reminded me not to be afraid of that space on the screen that is sitting empty and flashing at you.

Finally I am glad that I did it because now I finally feel able to go back one final time to my 8-year old project.  Writing in such a focused manner for a month has left me with a few thoughts around the characters in that and their reactions that I'm hoping will be enough for me to get it back on track.

It will take me longer than a month to do this - the last long project I wrote (after my previous NatNo) took twelve months to finish the first draft, but only 3-4 for the second - and I know that if I hadn't done the project two years ago then I would never have been able to finish it.

So what next?  Well, I'm thinking NatSoWriMo, or NatAlWriMo - these are my own invention - to write as many SOngs, or an ALbum in a month

Who knows what might come out of that?

BTW - final word count: 50,108


Anonymous said...

I am the very opposite when it comes to action vs. description. I tend to err on the side of too much description. Definitely too much inner monologue. All of my attempts have been first person, and focused on one character. This time, I tried to expand that to several characters, each with an allotment of time for their side of the story. I'll be posting about my experience later this morning, but so glad you made it.

Also, one small thing, and this is the copyeditor in me . . . it's actually NaNoWriMo, with no "t" after the "Na". If you're hoping to get some hits based on the popularity of the name, you should probably spell it the way the official site does.

Don't hate me because I'm picky . . .


The Bug said...

I just can't even fathom it. As I said to someone else recently - I get itchy if a POEM gets too long. I apparently have creative ADD. :)

Stephen Hayes said...

Congrats to you both. This is a great accomplishment and I'm gearing up to tackle the challenge next year.

Argent said...

It sure was a blast, wasn't it? I'll be doing my own take on it soon, so won't say too much more here other than I'm looking forward to reading your NaNo.

Titus said...

Absolutely fascinating look at what came out of the process, and yes, my hat off to you.

Lydia said...

This is one dandy post! Congrats on completing 50,108 words. That is impressive. Heck, I am impressed that you did it once before, let alone go another try. But I'm so glad you did because the comparisons you draw here are marvelous, and, while providing you with great insight into your next project, the essay could be of great help to other writers (moi for instance).

Good for you! I'd write more but have the flu, so just take my congratulations to heart, please. :)

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

tsdaddy - thanks for the heads up dude, post duly corrected :)

Bug - creative ADD - maybe that explains Bethoven's unfinished?

Stephen - it's well worth having a go. Not so much for the end result, but for what you learn along the way

Argent - looking forward to starting yours during the quiet nights of the week

Titus - thanks :)

Lydia - thanks, and get well soon

A Beer for the Shower said...

I'm a writer and I still have trouble understanding WriMo. I did it once about four years ago, but learned it wasn't the best approach to creating a sustained form of comfortable output. Too stressful, and the words were not good. I scrapped my first WriMo book a long time ago, but it was definitely good practice arranging lots of sentences. Congrats on finishing and good luck with edits!

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

BFTS - i think it would be a bit nieve for anyone entering NaNo to expect to have the next booker prize winner at the end. Of course it's not going to be your greatest work, but for those of us writers who find ourselves making excuses, or getting bogged down - it's something of a writing enema

and yes, inevitably that means that some of it is gonna be S*&t

Friko said...

As an exercise, it's a good thing, I can see that. If you're not asking more of it that's fine. But as you know anyway, nobody except an out and out genius can write a worthwhile 50.000 words in one month.

Michael said...

"Anyone creative who is part of a loving but not especially creative family and circle of friends will appreciate the frustration of working for months on months on something only to pass it to a beloved person and for them to either a) not understand it or b) be unable to extend their comments beyond minor punctuation issues."

- F@#K is that true.

You've inspired me Pixie. Will I do anything about it? Time will tell.