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Lessons from NaNoWriMo

A month ago, I confessed to you all that I hadn’t finished a manuscript in the past three years. Finishing is a habit, just like writing, and I had gotten into a bad one. I set out into NaNoWriMo this year with the goal not only of getting my 50,000 words, but of finishing the damn manuscript.

And I did it.

I am convinced that the difference between this year and the past three is that I went into November not just with a plan for what the story was going to be, but with a plan for how I was going to finish it in the month. A story plotted out in 29 scenes. One scene per day, with a day’s worth of wiggle-room.

Lo and behold, it worked. Yesterday, I wrote the final scene. I didn’t even end up needing the wiggle room. And it shows in my wordcount graph, which I don’t think has ever been as steady-looking as this:

Sure, some days I wrote less, some days I wrote more. I missed a couple of Sundays and Turkey Day. But having a plan, knowing “I need to get to scene number 17 today,” kept everything on track. I knew there would be days when what I thought was one going to be one scene would morph into two, or I’d think of a new scene to add that I hadn’t when I was planning. And sure enough, that happened. But this year, it didn’t derail me because those additions did not change the cold fact that “I need to get to scene 17 today.”

Having that plan, holding myself to it, made all the difference.

All the pre-planning didn’t stifle my creativity for the writing phase. It didn’t shackle me into notions of the story that could not then change. All it did was put me in a position to say “sure, I can make this change now, but it means I’ll have to write more today, or tomorrow, to stay on track.”

I say this not to gloat (ok, maybe just a wee bit) but because if it worked for me, I don’t see why it can’t work for anybody. It’s so simple I kind of feel stupid even to explain it. It’s just math. How many scenes do you need? How many days do you have? Divide.

Why haven’t I been doing this all along?

This doesn’t mean I can write any novel in a month. What it means is that I now understand how I can write and finish any manuscript before any reasonable deadline. I like a NaNoWriMo-sized novel. It’s enough to be challenging, and to tell a good story. I have a list of other NaNoWriMo-sized novels to take on in future years. But I also have some in mind which are going to be bigger than that. Substantially bigger.

Those novels have felt daunting. And I suppose they still do. But from where I stand today, they feel less daunting than they did 30 days ago. Thirty days ago, those big projects still had the aura of chaos about them. They held a whiff of unwieldy danger, that I might not be able to wrangle them to the finish. But now, I know how to fix them within finite bounds before I begin writing. Now they become tractable.

Still big, but tractable.

Perhaps you are a bolder writer than I. For your sake, I hope so. But for anyone who has had trouble finishing a manuscript, perhaps taking your planning process this one final step may help.

November 30, 2011 19:03 UTC

Tags: writing, NaNoWriMo, plotting, finishing

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Finishing NaNoWriMo

Gentle readers, I have a confession.

I love NaNoWriMo. I have done it every year since 2005, and I have never failed to get my 50,000 words. Sometimes it has been close—like 2008, when post-election burnout induced me to slack of for twelve whole days after the annual Seattle-area Halloween midnight kickoff write-in. Boy did I have to write HARD after that to finish—but I’ve always made it. And I’m proud of that.

That’s not my confession, though. My confession is this: I haven’t finished a manuscript in three years. There, I said it.

That 2008 novel? Aside from blowing off 12 days out of the month, part of why it was so hard is that it wasn’t coming together. It felt forced. Fake. It was supposed to be this YA sci-fi/horror thing, and while I still think the core premise is a worthy one, it just didn’t have the overall feeling I was going for. I got to 50,005 words on November 30th, with basically just the novel’s big climax scene to go, and just... stopped. So close, but I just couldn’t make myself finish it on December 1st. I didn’t like it.

In 2009, I hit November 30th and 54,350 at about the 2/3 point in the novel, coincident with a part in the storyline I hadn’t planned out as carefully as other parts. I kind of lost steam through December and the holidays, and somehow, just never got back to it. But I still love that story, and I insist I’ll come back to it one day.

In 2010, I won NaNoWriMo with 53,587, again just shy of the novel’s climax. And trust me, it’s going to be an awesome climax. But last year my book doctoring business was really taking off, so when December came around I had to get back to my client work, and there went my evening writing time.

Blah, blah, blah. It’s always something. Those aren’t reasons for not finishing so much as excuses. I may just as well say “the dog ate my thumb-drive.”

Stephen King said something in On Writing that I can’t quote verbatim from memory, but goes something like this: the reason writers establish writing routines is because finishing things is a habit, and not finishing things is a habit, too. I have gotten myself into a pretty bad habit, here.

So this year, I am determined not only to win NaNoWriMo—I’ve got that habit squarely established. I know exactly what it takes to get to 50,000 words—but to finish as well.

This year, I have a plan.

I’ve always been a plotter. I can’t start NaNoWriMo without a solid outline for my story. It’s a defense against writer’s block, really, but hey. Whatever it takes, right? I can write my way to 50,000 words no problem, so long as I’ve got that plot outline to follow. What I’m apparently lousy at doing, though, is gauging how many words it will take me to convert that outline into a story.

Well, not words. The words aren’t the problem. It’s more like I’m not good at knowing how many scenes it will take. My natural scene length is around 2000 words, which is basically a day’s work, so when a section in my outline I thought would be one scene turns into three, suddenly I’m behind. Not behind in word count, but behind in pacing the novel to the month of November.

So this year, since I’ve got 30 days to work with, I’m plotting out the novel in 30 scenes. One scene per day. That should work, right? NaNoWriMo has this big conception of being done on November 30th. As an event, that’s when it ends. Over. Finished. Maybe your brain works differently (and I hope for your sake that it does), but for me the relief of being done with NaNoWriMo and having reached that 50,000 word goal seems to translate into a feeling of being done with the writing, too. Even if I’m not actually done with the writing. Then, come December 1st, it’s hard to get back in that groove.

But one important lesson NaNoWriMo has taught me, from the first three years when I was somehow able to finish the novel in December, was that writing a novel is hard work and to do it, you grab on to any source of motivation you can find to help you keep going. Anything at all.

Perhaps public shame will do it. I’m desperate, folks, so I’m putting this on my blog to keep myself honest. I’m pledging, out in the public sphere, to keep myself honest and get this puppy done this time. If it works, I’ll hit 50k without any trouble, and should actually finish the damn novel on November 30th.

That, pardon the pun, will be a novel experience. I wonder what it will feel like?

How about you? Now that I’ve spilled my guts, share your NaNoWriMo experiences down in the comments!

October 21, 2011 16:07 UTC

Tags: writing, NaNoWriMo, plotting, finishing

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