Learning From My Trial By Fire: @NaNoWriMo 2013
Thanks to National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo), my third full-length novel, and the first novel-length Michael Macbeth story, Who Tend On Mortal Thoughts, finally has a solid first draft. I actually got to “The End” somewhere around 48,000 words on November 25th, and spent the next three days going back and finding any and every thin spot I could find to expand out a bit terribly worried that I would fall into the dreaded “Close, but no cigar!” category . But then, just after midnight on Thanksgiving, I managed to pull it off, earning the Winner’s Screen, the bragging rights, and most importantly, the experience of having spent a month as a full-time writer on a tight deadline and knowledge that I could indeed hack it.
Yesterday, I spent mostly sleeping, followed by steak dinner and a trip to Barnes & Noble (the literary geek’s equivalent to “I’m going to Disneyland!”). I also did my best to not think about the book at all, although I did find myself going back and adding another 100 words or so in a moment of weakness. Now that I’ve had a little time to let it sink in, it’s time to reflect and try to pull some lessons learned from the experience.
- Yes, Virginia, I am a writer. This isn’t something I learned really, but it was a nice reminder of something I already knew. I put in long hours and bent all of my brainpower towards getting this book done within the deadline, which included coming up with logistical strategies (“I won’t be able to get any writing done Sunday, I’d better double up on Saturday and Monday…”), exercising discipline (“I really don’t feel like writing this scene, but the story won’t work without it…”), and improvising fixes for damage control (“Ack! This part of my outline actually makes no damn sense for this character to do this action at this time. How can I fix this?”). But as grueling as it was, and as wiped out as I was by the end of the day, I was never once as resentful or burned out as I was by any given day of the former day job. This is my true and correct work, what I “should” be doing– now I just have to solve the logistical problem of making it profitable.
- 2,000 words is a pretty good day’s work for me. The target for NaNoWriMo is an average of 1,667 WPD (or 11,669 per week), but that also assumes you’re going to write every day of the month. 2,000 WPD for five days a week comes to an average of 10,000 words per week, which is still a pretty ambitious pace but allows you to recharge your batteries. So when I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, that will probably be my target for a regular project. I know that there are people who claim you can easily crank out 10,000 WPD, and they may be right, I’ll certainly investigate the possibilities. But for now, a target of 2,000 WPD makes three novels a year comfortably possible, and that’s a good place to start.
- “Write the book you want to read” may not work, but is probably a good place to start. It’s no secret among those familiar with them that my Michael Macbeth stories have always been “I wanted another Dirk Gently book, dammit!” at their heart. Who Tend On Mortal Thoughts started from this same premise, and when stuck I often went back to “What would a Dirk Gently book do here (besides miss another deadline)?” But of course, Michael is not Dirk Gently, Richmond Virginia is neither London nor Cambridge, and I am not Douglas Adams. So by the end of the book, I still came out with something that was almost, but not entirely, unlike a Dirk Gently book, and I now must consider the work on its own merits and flaws. I think it’s a good book, and I think there are even parts where it might be a great book. So that’s not a bad consolation prize, anyway. 😉
- I really need to write “fatter” and slower. The “sweet spot” for novel publication, particularly in the genre I was writing for, is 75k-90k. I was trying to come up with a novel to fit that size, and it took a lot of going back and fleshing out to get it to 50k as it was. But when I sent the beta readers to check out the first rough of the first act, the reaction was a pretty universal “It happens too fast”/”You’re skimming over the plot”. I suspect this is because I write the same way I read (or watch movies), looking for the plot points and ignoring everything else. I don’t know when I got so ruthless about throwing out everything else, and really it’s not a good habit. If I’m going to read that way, why bother with a novel at all? Why not just read the Cliffs Notes? Or an outline.  I have to remember that sometimes, just taking delight in the characters and stepping into their world is also “the good stuff,” and that I shouldn’t be afraid to write a scene just because it would be a fun scene to include.
- I need to bake more complexity into the plot directly from the outline. I still need to develop the skill of thinking in terms of more complex stories. Right now, I have graduated from “A + B = C” (short story) to “A + (B + C)/D = E” (novella/short novel). I now need to level-up to “(A + B) / (C + D) + E = F”. If that makes sense. Which it probably doesn’t to anyone but me. Point is, I don’t need a “bigger, more epic” story, but I do need a story with more layers and a more intricate structure.
There is probably more, but that’s the extent of what I can easily bring to words right now. I’m very glad that I could finally participate– and win– NaNoWriMo. I don’t know how people can manage to pull it off with a day job! But anyone who jumps in and gives it a real try, whether they reach the arbitrary 50k “finish line” or not, you have my admiration, affection, and respect. I’m proud to be among your number!
 Actually, upon reflection, the Cliff Notes comment may be telling. So many of my college literature courses were of the “Read six novels this week, ten novels the weeks after that, and the entire works of William Shakespeare by the end of the semester…” variety that eventually I gave up and did just read the Cliff Notes because there was no other way to get through the class. Not proud of the fact, and always regarded it as a major failure of the University curriculum that I was forced into it. FWIW, for most things at least, I did try to go back and actually read the text later in adult life.