The Mistakes and the Glory of Doing NaNoWriMo in 15 Days
I've only done NaNoWriMo a couple of times. Like a lot of long-time writers, I had my reservations when I heard about it. It seemed like an odd way of celebrating an amateurish attitude that I, clearly, had outgrown, with my maturity and monocle and all.
Once I got over my snooty self and realized writing should be fun, I flunked it in 2006, then won in 2009 on day 30. I had a blast in 2009. I loved the sense of achievement. I loved the camaraderie and the experience of checking in with friends, having write-ins, and comparing our frustrations.
Fast forward to October 2010, where I lay in bed at the Viable Paradise Writer's Workshop, and one feverish idea to salvage an old manuscript emerged in my brain.
This was no mere fancy. I HAD to write this thing. This was the kind of thing that keeps you up nights and makes you write 8k of effortless notes. The kind of thing that makes you wish you were thinking about something else, because it is ALL you can think of and you MUST write it to the point of being unable to relate to even the dude on the corner who thinks winking causing cancer.
So as of November 1st, I embarked upon it, determined not just to hit 50k, but to go even further, staking out a major piece of manuscript. 75k. 90k. Stuff like that. And on November 15th, I hit my 50k.
It was magical. Pink sparkly puppies cavorted with each other in joy. My adrenaline surged like a frothy wave of cream soda. (By now you have figured out how I can write 50k in 15 days. Similes, my friend. Similes like endless rows of dominoes up the face of Mount Doom, back down again, and up Mount Even Doomier.)
And then I actually rewrote some of it, and things were less sparkly and gushing.
What did I learn?
I'm still figuring that out. I've never written that much in such a small amount of time. Normal NaNo pace is just a hair over my productive periods; I prefer 1k a day when I'm even doing things daily.
The aftereffects were more severe than I thought they would be. Downright painful, actually. But I did learn a few things about how to have an EXTREMELY productive NaNo:
1- Make your writing time sacred, and set aside a lot of it. It must be the butternut squash tub you wallow in, the walrus you're stuck under, the thing that requires a lot of time but is kind of crazy.
If a person does any writing at all, said person has done this, but in 2010 I made it very specific. I planned out my big writing humps. I took days off from work, or scheduled write-ins with friends as often as possible. I would get a clear picture of exactly how much time I had and just go for that time. I would pack myself a lunch, hoof off to the local college campus where only students could access internet, and not come back until late.
It helps to work at home, by the way, and that was one reason I could do this. I had to budget work time very carefully though, too, making sure that I had enough time to finish everything. I did have two small kids, though, so don't think that I had an easy schedule.
2- Know what you're doing. Have something like a plan. Pantsers might be able to make it through 50k, but they'll do more revising than someone who has some form of outline or idea. There have to be specific scenes you are excited to write, and a plot that you can rely on when you run out of stuff to write about. An outline also means that you can skip ahead to the stuff you're excited for, and then back-fill.
3- Don't neglect your health. Eat well and exercise. This was one of my huge mistakes. I neglected both just to write for two weeks, but at the end of two weeks, I had a big battle to fight to get back in running shape, and stop eating so many sweets.
November is a terrible month for your health already. The month starts with a barrage of Halloween candy and ends with a tub of butter biscuits and pumpkin pie (in America, anyway). The weather is getting nasty (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), and you're less likely to go for a jog in cold rain or early snow.
To make it worse, food is usually the easiest, cheapest way to reward yourself. I'd love to go buy new books or new clothes each time I hit my daily goal, but a 40$ hoodie is a silly proposition, while a 2$ chocolate bar is a lovely way to end the writing session. Or start. Or get through it. Etc.
Don't make the mistake. If you want to ramp up your blood sugar and caffeine level to write, try a little meditation beforehand, or some yoga, and see how the natural adrenaline works.
4- Always leave the page wanting more; it leads you to write the next day. Save some of those juicy scenes you can't wait to write. If you're leaving the page painfully, take some time to figure out why. Remind yourself of the moments you want to get to and imagine the most vivid way to get there. Preparation time (which is what that exercise is good for as well) is half of writing.
Again, preparation is key, and preparation should make you more excited to do the book.
But, as you know, Bob, this is only if you want to really storm through NaNoWriMo quickly. A lot of people have fun discovering the story 1.8k at a time.
5- Consider your writing style as you NaNo, and rather than ignoring it to do NaNo, make the frenetic pace work for you. What kind of writer are you? I'm a born fiddler; I have to go back and add or subtract things from the earlier bits of the book. On a normal NaNo pace, this is doable if you keep it to a minimum, but if you really want to go ultra-marathon and crank out 60, 70, 100k in the month, you will have to avoid almost any meddling.
This is why, by November 30th last year, I had only made it up to 60k. I cut 5000 words the day after I won NaNo; it was all fluff I had saved for the sake of wordcount.
This has a good side, though; tis better to have 50k to meddle with than to be constantly trying to get the first chapter perfect. So either slow down and let yourself fiddle a bit, or decide that you won't fiddle until well after 50k.
And in the end, would I do it again?
Oh hell no.
In hindsight, it was awful for me. I have no idea why. I'm still trying to figure the reasons out. By Christmas, I burned out bigtime and lost nearly a year of my writing goals. I just didn't feel like writing. I didn't finish the novel. In fact, my NaNo 2011 is the same novel (thank you, Zokutou Clause) when I was hoping it would be the sequel.
I don't know, though, if I could have done it any other way. This was an idea that barreled into my mind, and I had some scenes pictured down to the exact wording that made it into the novel. The problem was, a novel on paper is a different animal than what you think it is.
No matter how well you think you know your fetus, the child will surprise you.
This NaNo I'm expanding and exploring the draft and writing what is so far a generous prequel section. I will learn some things.
I love NaNoWriMo. I've written six novels, thirtysomething short stories, and countless miscellaneous things, including a respectable amount of published columns and stories. I know writing. I can get in a rut faster than a chariot on a trolley track. At 1.8k a day or longer, you can't afford that rut.