Monday, October 26, 2015

How NaNoWriMo Made Me a Better Writer

I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) every November going back to 2008 (even though I’ve recently decided to remain on the sidelines for this year). For anyone not familiar with this event, people commit to putting forth their best effort to write an entire novel in a thirty-day span. If you reach that goal and report your word count to the NaNoWriMo website for verification, congratulations! You’ve won!

Producing that many words so quickly might seem like a daunting task, at the very least, but I promise it can be done. I’m seven-for-seven on NaNoWriMo wins myself, so I’m living proof. I’m not saying everything from those collective 350,000+ words has been brilliant, but I’ve managed to drag my tired bones across the finish line every time I started, and each of those wins was very satisfying.

Some people would probably tell you that’s half (or all) of the fun in participating — diving in head first with your eyes closed, writing with a process that isn’t even in the same area code as your comfort zone, and discovering if you really can meet that goal. I suppose those things are true, but I think a much bigger take-away from NaNoWriMo has been what I’ve learned about myself as a writer, and not just how I operate under the self-imposed pressure of a month-long sprint. 

I think anyone who decides to accept that challenge and manages to learn something about themselves or their process, whether they “win” or not, can say the experience was valuable and worthwhile. If you’ve never taken on the challenge before, I’d certainly encourage you to try. And if you do, here are a few bits of advice I have to offer: 

Set the Stage
A lot of writers create playlists to listen to for writing certain scenes, specific characters, or for entire projects. Anything that will help you find your way into the story more quickly is a useful tool. For a lot of us, that’s finding the right music to establish the scene, or define the character, or complement the entire book. If you aren’t a music fan, maybe you need the right drink, or the lucky sweatshirt, or perhaps a collection of various scented candles that perfectly reflects the personalities of your characters. Whatever gets you where you need to be is worth cultivating.

Find the Clay
I’d imagine some people might disagree with me on this, but I think writer’s block is a self-indulgent excuse for not getting words on the page. During NaNoWriMo, it’s not a luxury you have if you want to reach the goal. If you decide to make it a priority, you WILL find a way to build your word count. I tend to see writing a first draft as something similar to a sculptor getting her or his hands onto a nice new slab of clay, and all of the editing and revising that follows is when the artist molds that clay into the figure they carry in their head. You can’t sculpt until you have the clay. You can’t revise until you have the original words. No matter how tragically awful those words might seem at first, you need to give yourself something to work with.

Freeze the Lake
Forget chronology. You don’t have to start with “It was a dark and stormy night” on November 1st and finish with “They lived happily ever after” on the 30th. Write whatever part of the story is poking at you the most. I’ve described my NaNoWriMo process (which has really evolved into just being my process now) to non-writers by comparing it to how a lake freezes over in the winter: Big frozen chunks and ice floes begin forming independently of each other in the cold water until everything eventually comes together as one big sheet covering the lake. I’ll write the scenes that have the most energy, then let the gaps between them fill in along the way as those bigger scenes naturally develop outward until they connect. 

Work the Community
Writing is solitary. No news there. But encouragement can be motivating, and the writing community is (especially here in middle grade territory) very supportive. NaNoWriMo has different levels of social networking built into it, like writing buddies, online forums, and even local real-world events. You don’t have to go through it all alone.

Use the Tease
Try to end your writing day at a place when you would really like to keep going. That will make getting back to work the following day something to anticipate.

Ride the Flow
I hope a lot of writers out there are familiar with flow state, that mindset when everything feels effortless and your productivity is off the charts. You’re going to put in some serious hours if you want to write 50,000 words in a month, and sooner or later the flow is going to grab you. Try to recognize when it does, and take advantage of it for as long as you possibly can.

Take the Punches
Not every day will be golden and full of word count. This is okay. Remember that 1,667 words is an average daily pace and not a requirement. As long as you keep moving forward, you’re still approaching the goal. If a day doesn’t turn out to be a good one, take your hits and move on.

And Finally, Make the Effort
One month is plenty of time to accomplish some great things if you set your mind to it. The manuscript that first caught my agent’s attention began as a NaNoWriMo project, and I know I’m far from the only writer (or even the only Middle Grade Minded contributor) who can make that claim. Some of the bigger regrets in life come from the things we never dared to try. The worst thing that could possibly happen would be that you wouldn’t reach the goal, but would still walk away with some new ideas. 

Where’s the downside?

No comments: