November is now firmly behind us, and for those of us who went through the pant-wetting hysteria and nail-destroying anxiety of NaNoWriMo, it’s a good time to reflect on what you have learned or fervently tried to ignore from that month.
This was my first attempt at writing a novel and it was an eye-opener for me. Writing a novel is one of those things that seems so easy until you sit down to try to write one of the damned things. You have all the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas on Day 1 but by Day 7 you’ve drowned in a puddle of your own pee and flop-sweat.
So what did I learn? What didn’t I learn during NaNoWriMo? I didn’t learn how to milk yaks, but then again I wasn’t really expecting to.
So yak-milking aside these are my personally learned tips for NaNoWriMo.
Before NaNoWriMo starts and you throw yourself into writing your novel, have some idea where it’s going to end up. There are authors out there who can just sit down at a blank screen and several hours later spit out a best-seller with nothing more than half a doodle on the notepad next to them. I suspect that most of us do need to know what we’re doing.
If I wanted to get to California I know it’s east somewhere but I wouldn’t just get in my Jalopy and start driving, I’d like a map and a Mars bar at least, before I went anywhere.
When I say you should plan your novel, the extent of that planning depends entirely on the type of writer you are. Some authors need only a few chapter headings and a rough guide to the plot and they’re perfectly happy to weave their magic around that outline.
I, however have to plan everything. I draw maps, write stand-alone stories involving my novel characters, and had every plot and sub-plot drawn out and linked together.
With even just a rough road-map, you’ve got that initial direction, something to follow. Even outside of NaNoWriMo there are timescales that are a lot easier to meet if you’re not banging your head on the screen in frustration.
Know your characters
This ties into Planning but takes it one step further. It’s all very well planning your characters but you need to know how they react in certain situations, how they talk, how they react with other characters. Throw your characters into stories or conversations, and watch what they do.
They don’t even have to be realistic situations, in fact sometimes the more extreme the situation the more fun it is to write and the more you can learn from your character. So, if you want to write a Georgian romance novel, throw your hero in with a bunch of cutthroat gibbon pirates. Your tough, no-nonsense cop? What would he say if he had to navigate the social pit-falls of 16th Century France.
I guarantee with a few quick exercises like this, you’ll know your guys and gals a little more.
Writing = meals
Writing should be done in a similar way to how you eat. You don’t save up a weeks worth of food then gorge yourself to death on a 21 course banquet, so don’t do it with your writing.
I know it’s not always possible to write everyday, people have commitments right? There are kids to feed, jobs to go to, the dry-cleaning of Hungarian mobsters to dry-clean.
Even just 500 words a day will be a lot easier to achieve than trying to do 3,500 words at the end of the week. If you can’t write on one or two days a week then the worst that will happen is you miss a few hundred words, if you can’t make your nominated weekday because of a particularly heavy load of Hungarian-mob dry-cleaning then you could be down thousands of words and that’s a really sucky setback to fight back from.
Reward or bribe yourself
Ah, my favourite. You’ve busted your ass and churned out 5000 words, or you’ve finally conquered that plot-wall and are now in the process of mounting it like a bitch and shouting ‘Who da man’. Well reward yourself, you’ve earned it. Go buy a cake, a packet of Lemsip or that Faberge egg you’ve been admiring for so long. Treat yourself for a job well done and all the stress, tears and indecent exposure suddenly seems worth it.
Make sure you reward yourself for worthwhile achievements. Writing 100 words or finding where that pesky comma key is on your keyboard are not worthy goals. Don’t trivialise your rewards. Don’t! I’m warning you.
You can also bribe yourself. Promise yourself that Lemsip if you write those 5000 words. If you get round that mind-numbing creative barrier? You can go on that all expenses trip around the world. Hmm, ok maybe not.
Treat yourself fairly and reward hard work, but don’t become your own grape feeding bitch. Work for your rewards.
As November continued I became more and more aware of just what an unadulterated pile of crap I was writing. Ok, that may be a little harsh. Let’s just say that the peanut of the award-winning novel hadn’t yet been rescued from the turd.
To avoid breaking down and sobbing endlessly into the tear-soaked pages of my dreams, I chose not to re-read any of my novel. I just kept ploughing through it, writing more and more of those oh-so-important words. Occasionally I’d have to check if I had written something or how a conversation ended but It was only a glance.
If I had re-read it from the start or tried to do anything even remotely like editing, I would have been caught up in spell-checking, grammar issues and bizarrely inconceivable plots. Don’t focus on what you’ve written, the time for turd-based peanut salvaging is in the first revision/edit, not now. Especially when you are up against the clock or calendar.
I’ve planned the plot down to the last detail, everything is set, with such good planning there will be no deviations and all I will have to do is fill in the blanks, right?
No, well not for me. Once I started on my novel, it bucked and tried to throw me off like a rodeo horse on methamphetamine. Each new wonderful and fantastic idea I wrote swam through my head tempting me and tantalising me with all the grace and style of Jessica Rabbit.
I grabbed those ideas, and watched as my plot started to warp and bend. I’d planned so carefully, but had no qualms at all about dropping my plan. My plan wasn’t rigid (he he, I said rigid) A flexible plan gave me everything I needed to be able to include new ideas, move older ideas to a different place, or change that bit of the plot completely.
The plot is your bitch not your pimp, it works for you and not the other way around.
Shake things up
Half-way through the novel I hit a plot-wall. I’d been tempted by a new brilliant idea, something involving a mouse with alopecia who saves the world using only linguine. I was off. The idea tempted and taunted me and I followed it with abandon. The idea suggested things and I eagerly lapped them up. Before I knew it I couldn’t see the plot. There was a giant cavern of ‘oh crap, what do I do now’ before I could continue writing.
I stared at the screen with the flashing cursor smirking at me with contempt. The road ahead was unmarked and I couldn’t get back. So I dropped a bomb. Not literally though, acts of terrorism even for the purposes of relieving writing tension are still generally frowned upon.
By ‘Dropping a bomb’ I mean I did something crazy, something I hadn’t planned for. Something to shake things up. In short I decided there and then that a couple of my main characters were going to be kidnapped by the crazy antagonist. It was liberating to be free from the plot, but knew I had to go back to it again.
With the new direction I was exhilarated, I was writing again. Remember make that plot your bitch.
Failure is an option
It’s December the 1st and you’re staring at your abysmal word-count of 5 words for all of November. Well you clearly aren’t going to be a novelist. Stop wasting everyone’s time and become a grocer or somebody who mongs things, like fish or iron. (Does anything else have a monger?)
No! Naughty! Don’t think like that! NaNo bears little to no reflection on your ability as a writer. There could be any number of reasons why you didn’t make the word-count, serious illness, huge plot-barriers, a dragon running off with your pyjamas etc.
You didn’t get the word count? Well look around and wait for the tuts and the horrified looks of disgust from your peers. You’ll be waiting a long time. Not finishing NaNo means nothing in itself, except that you don’t have the small web-badge. What you have is the start of what could be a best-selling novel. Carry on with it. If your first draft isn’t finished by November? Who cares? December and not finished? Still no carers? March? No, not one?
NaNo is about getting a novel finished, the 30 days thing is neither here nor there. No matter how long it takes, just finish it.
Once you’ve been through NaNo or just the standard everyday way of writing a novel. Learn from it, you may disagree on each one of the points I mentioned here. What? You do? Well fine, see if I care. Leave me with my Lemsips.
If you disagree that’s fine, that means your experiences differ from mine and you’ve learnt from them.
Take a few moments to think about what went well, what you really sucked at, whether there is any-way to hire more staff for your Hungarian mob dry-cleaning business? Make notes or get those thoughts tattooed on you. Do whatever you need to know to learn from them, then next time round everything will be a lot easier.
This is only the beginning
Not really advice as I haven’t finished my novel yet. My novel is still floundering at around the 70% mark. It will get finished oh yes, but I had so many oh so valid and not at all time-wasting reasons for not writing. What? Playing Skyrim and Star Wars: Old Republic are good reasons.
I’ve read enough on other sites to know that even once you’ve finished the novel there are re-writes a plenty, lots of them. Years may go past and you wearily turn the last page over for revision 153. I’m not there yet, but I will get there some day… some time next year.
So, there you go. The ten things I learned from this years National Novel Writing Month. I hope these are of use to you.
If anybody has advice for me, please drop me a comment below.