Tag Archives: National Novel Writers Month

NaNo Update: We Have a Winner

The muse is over-rated. Experienced writers know that. The best motivator is a hard deadline.

Last weekend I was ready to give up my quest to “win” the National Novel Writing competition for the third straight year. Winning means writing a 50,000-word first draft of a novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. By November 22, I had fallen behind—not by a lot but by enough. I was under 40,000 words with a week to go. After an unproductive weekend in which I did not meet the daily word count of 1,667 words on either day, I decided to pull the plug.

Then, on Monday, I changed my mind. I had come this far. I had written more than 35,000 words. I couldn’t give up. I had plans that night and when I returned home, I decided to write. It was nine o’clock and I was tired, but I would give it one more shot. To my surprise, I became immersed in the story and I wrote 1,800 words. Then, I wrote 1,800 words on Tuesday and 1,000 words on Wednesday. I even cranked out 1,000 words on Thanksgiving night. I was at 42,000 words with two days to go.

I knew a productive Friday could put me over the top. I went to Starbucks early in the morning and wrote 4,000 words. I took a break, did some errands and sat down and wrote another 3,600 words. I finished early Saturday morning and uploaded the novel to the NaNo site, where it was validated as a winner at 50,600 words. I was exhausted, but thrilled.

So what did I learn from this year’s experience? Let me share these lessons:

• Write every day. Our Municipal Liaison advised a first-timer that the key was to write every day, even if it’s not 1,667 words. The worst thing to do is to fall behind. Even when I was about to give up, I still sat down and wrote and that is one of the most valuable benefits of NaNo: the daily writing habit.
• Pressure produces creative ideas. I wrote myself into a corner. My basic story was over at 35,000 words. I had to invent a new story on the fly that put the main character in mortal danger and I did. I wouldn’t have been able to do it, though, without the intense pressure of a hard deadline. Otherwise, I would have procrastinated and ruminated for weeks.
• Fatigue is an excuse. Many of my writing sessions took place after nine o’clock at night when I was tired and just wanted to go to sleep. Often I wrote until 11 or later and produced some of my best writing.
• Challenging yourself produces results. I found I could do more than I ever thought I was capable of doing. I had been working on this piece for months as a novella and had gotten nowhere. Starting afresh under extreme deadline pressure produced a workable first draft.

To every writer out there who thinks NaNo is an impossible challenge, my advice is: Go for it!

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Do NaNo Novels Get Published? A Case Study

On the eve of the National Novel Writing Month competition, the perennial critics always question the value of a novel written in just 30 days. Keep in mind, though, that any completed NaNo novel is just a first draft. Still, an impressive number of NaNo novels have eventually been published by traditional publishers.

According to the NaNoWriMo website, more than 100 NaNo novels have found their way to publication. These include such bestsellers as The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Morgenstern’s book is an interesting case study.

Morgenstern began writing what would become The Night Circus during the NaNo competition in 2005. She would rewrite and resubmit it two more times for NaNo. “It was good for me,” she said of NaNo, in a published interview. “I had done a little bit of playwriting in college, but I didn’t really finish anything.

“National Novel Writing Month was a great tool for me. I’d write that page and still hate it and then had to write another,” she said.

Morgenstern eventually submitted the manuscript for publication, but there were no takers. She participated in NaNo in 2009 with a different book. She returned to The Night Circus manuscript in 2010. “I pulled it back out in January and spent the winter and spring of 2010 rewriting the entire thing. That’s when the competition between the magicians (Celia and Marco) was added,” she said. The competition between the two illusionists—spurred by a bet between their rival sponsors, of which they were not aware—provided the fuel for the story. I won’t reveal any more details because I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read this wonderful story.

What lessons can we draw from Morgenstern’s experience? First, she clearly benefited from the discipline she gained from participating in NaNo. By her own admission, she had done some writing, but she had never finished anything. NaNo forced her to write in compressed time frame. Second, she honed her work by redrafting it in subsequent years. According to NaNo rules, writers can use previous work as the basis for a novel, but each new word must be original. Third, even after a third rewrite, Morgenstern came up with a key plot change that transformed and invigorated the story. This was more than four years after she began working on The Night Circus. NaNo novels, like any first draft, require revision, revision and revision, and then polishing and then more revision.

It’s a long process from idea to publication, but the writer has to start somewhere. NaNo will help writers jump-start their novels.

What about you? Are you planning to participate in National Novel Writing Month?

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NaNo Update #2

November 15 marks the halfway point in the annual National Novel Writers Month competition. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. As of November 15, I was at 27,500 words. This should be cause for celebration, but I’m worried about not having enough “story” left to get to the magic 50,000 number.

I’m getting helpful advice, though. One of the great benefits of “doing NaNo” is the opportunity it provides to network and brainstorm with other writers from your region. At a recent writing session the other night at a coffee shop in Hartford, CT, I shared my dilemma with my NaNo compatriots. Our Municipal Liaison, aka Fearless Leader, made a couple of good suggestions: add a dream sequence or another murder. My brother gave me the same counsel on the dream sequence. I’m not a big fan of dream sequences. They take the reader out of the story and can often confuse or disorient the reader. But, hey, this is NaNo. This is the time to try something unconventional. If it doesn’t work, I can always cut it later. The second murder idea intrigued me. I did this in last year’s NaNo entry and it added a layer of intrigue to my story.

Other suggestions from my colleagues included adding another character and a new story line and writing out of sequence, which I did last year to great effect. These are all sound ideas, but this is where my cautionary light goes on. When considering things like new characters or story lines, the writer must be careful not to merely pile on extra character or stories just for the sake of stretching out the word count. These enhancements only work if they flow organically from the core story. For example, if a writer is contemplating adding a murder, it cannot be a gratuitous killing of a minor character, which will have little effect on the story arc and serve only to distract the reader. And the writer must also select the right character to kill off. In any case, the act must flow naturally and logically from the prior events of the story. The writer must also consider how the solving of the murder plays into the resolution of the story.

One could argue these are questions for the revision phase of the process. The great thing about NaNo, though, is that for 30 days, writers can write with reckless abandon if they choose. Or not.

 

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Are You NaNo’ing This Year?

A colleague at work approached me several years ago about “doing NaNo.” I looked at her as if she was out of her mind. “What’s NaNo?” I said. She explained it was the National Novel Writing Month and the goal was to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. A look of terror came across my face. I thought, “Now that’s really crazy.” At the time, I had two awful starter novels in the drawer and was struggling with a 120,000-word opus that would become my first published novel. I knew what it took to write a novel. I couldn’t wrap my mind around producing 50,000 words of fiction in just 30 days. Thirty months maybe, but 30 days? No way. Undaunted, she said, “You should try it sometime.”

Though it seemed an impossible feat, the idea of cranking out a 50,000-word novel in 30 days intrigued me. It was the ultimate challenge. The idea of a confirmed “pantser” like me attempting a feat that required writerly attributes like planning, outlining, character development and the like, was farfetched, but if I could pull it off, it would prove I possessed the discipline to meet a daily word count.

I didn’t “do NaNo” that year, or for the next three years, but last year I decided to give it a try. The deciding factor was a full-blown idea for a novel that had been rattling around in my head for 10 years. I never could sit and write it. My trepidation was that the story was in a different genre (murder/mystery) than I usually write. It was a huge leap for me, but the story was terrific. It had all the elements of great fiction: suspense, conflict, romance, murder, and, baseball—one of my passions in life. So I climbed the steps to that high diving board and leaped headfirst.

I learned a number of things. The most important lesson was that coming up with 1,667 words a day, even armed with a fully fleshed out story, is really hard. Another big lesson was to expect the unexpected. On October 28, 2011, the northeastern United States was hit with a freak snow storm and the region lost power for nine days. That’s right. No electricity. No laptop. So I adapted. I used pen and paper to write the initial chapters by candlelight. I hunkered in coffee shops with my laptop. We traveled to Vermont to stay with relatives for a weekend and I increased my word count from 3,000 to 11,000. The biggest lesson, though, was the value of discipline and determination.

On November 29, 2012—one day ahead of the deadline—I finished my 53,000-word first draft of Bonus Baby. What was then a first draft is now my work-in-progress.

Here are some lessons for writers thinking about doing NaNo:

  • Plan out your story ahead of time. If you have a premise and major characters, write an outline a month or so ahead of time. Don’t wait until October 31 to work out your story arc. Having a complete story outline was the difference for me. Even then, I found myself wondering if I could meet the word count and I ended up making a major plot change mid-course, which brings me to my next point.
  • Be open to unplanned changes to your story. For many writers (myself included) the first draft is a period of discovery. The major story elements are there, but those moments of intense creative brainstorming often produce magical surprises that enhance the story.
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to come up with the perfect sentence, paragraph or scene. Just write and keep moving forward.
  • Carve out time every day to write. Tell your loved ones and friends you may not see them for a month and ask for their support. If you are married tell (beg) your spouse to take on more of the household chores during the month.
  • Take time off. I took some time off from work around Thanksgiving just in case I fell behind and needed to catch up. It made a difference for me as those days produced strong word counts.
  • Become part of the support group in your region. When you register on the NaNo website (www.nanowrimo.com) you will see a link for the regional online forum in your region. Each region as a leader called the Municipal Liaison (ML), who organizes in-person meetings, writing sessions, and orientations for newbies. We are blessed in my region with an energetic and committed ML who organizes meetings, including the legendary “Night of Writing Dangerously,” an all-night writing marathon.
  • Take advantage of the resources on the NaNo website, which include inspirational essays and online forums where you can get answers to just about any question you pose (including how to poison someone, which was the question I posted last year).

If you have done NaNo, what tips do you have to offer to newbies? If you have not done NaNo, what is holding you back?

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NaNoWriMo by Candlelight

It’s not as romantic as it sounds. In truth it’s not romantic at all. While most of the world gets to use the latest in technology as they tackle the challenges of  National Novel Writers’ Month, I get to experience how novelists worked in the 18th Century. As many Connecticut cities and towns deal with Day 3 without power as a result of last weekend’s freak snow storm, I will be starting my first NaNoWriMo entry using the old tools of the trade–pen and paper by candlelight. This is not my normal method of writing. I prefer to write on my laptop, but that’s not an option.

Many writers prefer writing their first draft by hand. I’ve never done it, so I am going to get a chance to compare it against using technology. I am looking forward to it. Writing in the dark adds to the normal challenges of cranking out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I start tonight.

Stay tuned for updates.

 

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