Writing is Life

Looking Back at NaNoWriMo: What I Learned

Sometimes inspiration can come from the most unexpected places. Back in the fall I was watching an episode of Castle, where Richard Castle (played brilliantly by Nathan Fillion) goes into an elementary classroom to try to find a child who witness a murder. Castle’s plan is to get the students to write stories, hoping one of them will reveal what they saw in their writing. When the children balk at the idea, Castle tells them, “We are all writers. If you can tell a story, you can write a story.”

This line from Castle stuck with me, and in many ways was my chief motivation in signing up for NaNoWriMo in 2014. The first thing I did before sitting down to in front of my computer on November 1st was write that quote on the white board on my wall, where I could see it from my desk. When I hit a rough patch or struggled with writer’s block I would look at the quote, and renew my determination to continue.

I finished my NaNoWriMo goal on November 26th – four days early – with 50,308 words written and I’m still going (though my pace has definitely slowed since November). When I first started the month I didn’t think I could really write 50,000 words in a month, but I ended up finishing four days ahead of schedule. Speaking as someone who has talked for years of writing a novel, it feels really good to finally accomplish just that much and know that if I can write that much, there’s no reason I can’t finished the entire novel. I learned a lot in November, and I thought today I would share five of the lessons NaNoWriMo taught me.

1. You don’t need to have a plan

When I was an undergrad I took a class on writing children’s literature. Part of that class involved creating chapter outlines for an entire children’s novel as well as writing several chapters of the novel itself. I had an entire 22-chapter book outlined, but never got past the third chapter of the book. In fact, I’m not even sure where that manuscript is now, as I haven’t seen that flash drive in a very long time.

My takeaway from that class was that it’s important to outline a novel before you begin writing. However, even though I had every chapter outlined for that book, knew exactly where I wanted to go, and every twist and turn, I still didn’t finish the book. I don’t know where the file is, but I still remember the characters and the plot of the story, and maybe someday it will get written.

In contrast, I started November of without any kind of plan. I didn’t even make the decision to sign up for NaNoWriMo until 10:00 at night on October 31, just two hours before NaNoWriMo officially began. When I sat down to write that first day I had an idea for a character, but absolutely no idea where what the story was going to be about, or what would happen to her. That process was repeated almost every day. I would sit down at my computer desk not entirely sure where the story was going to go, but I kept writing anyway. Sometimes the characters surprised me. I was expecting one thing to happen, then realized the story was actually going to head in a completely different direction. Even if I had planned out what I was going to write, I probably would have thrown out the outline by day two.

My novel deals a lot with Celtic mythology, something I hadn’t anticipated – particularly because I’m not that familiar with Celtic mythology. So I’ve also found myself doing a lot of research and reading during the month, discovering who my characters are and how they fit into the world I was building for them.

This process of discovery was one of my favorite aspects of the month. I loved not knowing where everything was going and what was going to happen. I felt like an archaeologists uncovering things as I went along. The story isn’t finished; I can’t wait to see what happens next and how it ends.

2. Just Keep Writing

One of my biggest problems in writing anything is my constant need to reread and revise everything I’ve already written. I would take forever writing the simplest paper for class because I was never completely satisfied with what I had already written; I was always coming up with a better way to word something. To me, the revision process is never complete.

I remember hearing one time that if it hadn’t been for friends like C.S. LewisJ.R.R. Tolkien may never have published a single novel because he was never content with the way it was written and was constantly revising. I can’t imagine life without Middle Earth, but I know that feeling.

Going into NaNoWriMo I forbade myself from rereading anything I had written previously. I would occasionally consult a certain place in the novel if I was concerned about a large continuity error, but apart from that I would not sit and read through everything until I was completely finished with the novel and ready for the first round of revisions. I even reminded myself that continuity errors weren’t that important at this point, I could catch them while revising. The important thing was to get words on a page and I would never do that if I was spending all of my time reading over everything I had already written. I would never make my word count if I was just revising.

So I didn’t reread or revise, and I still haven’t. I’m still going forward, writing and not looking back. I think this was really one of the keys to successfully completing the NaNoWriMo goal. I’m sure I would never have made it if I hadn’t set this restriction for myself.

3. Hold Yourself Accountable

On top of posting word counts to the NaNoWriMo website that keeps track of your writing, I also made sure I posted my daily word counts to my Twitter page, and occasionally to Facebook. I knew that if others were aware of my progress I would be more driven to be successful and not just slack off. I told all the people around me what I was doing, because I knew I wouldn’t want to face them on December 1st and admit I hadn’t met my goal.

There are a lot of people who sign up for NaNoWriMo but don’t meet the 50,000 word goal, and for good reason. Life can get in the way. But I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I possibly could to make sure I was on track to accomplish the goal I had set for myself, and the easiest way to do that was to hold myself accountable.

Another reason to do this is not just so you don’t have to tell your friends you didn’t make it. I had people cheering me on along the way. Encouragement can be a great motivator, and knowing I had friends tracking my progress and encouraging me helped me to work harder to make sure I didn’t let them – or myself – down.

4. Believe in Yourself

As simple as it may sound, you have to believe that you can do this. If you don’t believe you can write a novel, you never will. I didn’t believe I could do it. I talked about it all the time, and it’s one thing I’ve dreamed of doing for half of my life, but deep down I never really believed I was capable. I still don’t know if what I have written is anything anyone will want to read, but the important thing is that I have written it.

Right now it’s what I am sure Anne Lamott would refer to as a “shitty first draft” but hopefully future drafts will improve it. And even if they don’t, this is just my first attempt. I don’t have to get it right on the first try. The important thing is that I finally set my mind towards writing a novel, and if I can do it once I can do it again. If this one is bad, then hopefully the next attempt will be better.

Just believe in yourself. Believe that you can do it, and you will get it done. If you need writing encouragement there are great books out there that can help. A few of my favorites are Bird by Bird by Lamott, On Writing by Stephen King and The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes. Each of these books taught me that all the struggles I go through as a writer have also been dealt with by some of the very best in the business.

5. This is Just the Beginning

The goal for NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in a month, but 50,000 words is really only about half the length of novel (much less than half if you’re George R.R. Martin). So really, this is just the starting place. My goal is to try to double the current length of my novel and eventually I hope to publish this novel. If I’m lucky people will read and enjoy it. I haven’t even finished this novel but I’m already working on plans for a sequel, since these days publishers seem to want series, or at the very least trilogies. Whatever happens, this is just the beginning.

And there’s what I learned from participating in NaNoWriMo. I hope in sharing these lessons they will have encouraged some of you. Becoming a writer has always been a dream of mine, and NaNoWriMo has put me one step closer to achieving that dream. Whatever your dreams may be, I hope you are doing everything you can to make them come true.

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