I have a confession: at the beginning of October, I had absolutely no idea what NaNoWriMo was. I’d heard the name, knew many thousands of writers got seriously over-excited about it once a year… and that was about it.
Somewhere in the back of my head, I had vague, unrealistic images of writers gathering in hotels and retreats all over America to churn out a novel in the space of a month. All very well and ambitious, I thought, and maybe one day, but not exactly achievable for a stressed and busy mum with a job to hold down and a husband who considered writing a hobby, not a career.
So, signing up for my very first attempt this year came as a bit of a surprise, and here are the top three things I learned by doing so:
1 – What’s it all about, anyway?
Earlier this year I joined Twitter (yes, yes, I know, slow to cotton onto the Technological Revolution or what) and NaNo was referenced all over the place. After clicking on a few links, I discovered the truth: NaNoWriMo takes place all over the world, with the online community providing support, advice and cheers or commiserations. It takes place in cafes and living rooms and offices and anywhere people can sneak in a few minutes writing time as they try to meet the daily target of 1,667 words of their first draft each day. Meet that target, and you’ll hit the Holy Grail of 50,000 words and a completed novel by the end of the month. Well, in some genres – in my preferred fantasy, that’s about half a novel.
2 – There’s nothing like a challenge to provide a little focus and get the creative juices flowing
Since that would still be half a novel more than I had at the time, I thought – why not? Sure, November’s a bit manic, what with deadlines at work, and Christmas and kids’ birthdays approaching. Oh yes, and I’m supposed to be moving house in November, and the Husband is away for work for two weeks so it’ll be chaos trying to keep house and kids ticking over. But hey, that’s just life.
Did I mention I’m a bit crazy for a good challenge?
Having signed up for the whole shebang – and announced it on Twitter and Facebook so I couldn’t back out without severe embarrassment – I realised I was going to have to pull my finger out. The WIP I’d been half-heartedly outlining and writing occasional scenes from needed a lot more work if it was going to turn into a fully-fledged novel by the end of November.
The time pressure of first finishing the outline in October, and then keeping the word count up on the first draft during NaNoWriMo itself was incredible. Locking away the inner editor (and outer perfectionist) is a must, or you just get too hung up on whether what you’ve done is any good to keep pushing forwards. When the plot gets stuck or you’ve written yourself into a corner, instead of going to sulk and vegetate until inspiration strikes, you have to force yourself to move it forward. What if became two of my favourite words, and whenever I had to stop and ask myself, I came up with answers that surprised me, sometimes even delighted me, and certainly advanced the story.
3 – Writing is revision
Yes, I know. That sounds like a horribly sucky lesson to have taken away. But in actual fact, it was the most important and liberating thing I learnt this November.
Writing blogs, Pinterest, Twitter and the NaNoWriMo community said it over and over again: the first draft will always, always, be terrible. Published authors said it, including several who have genuinely made me speechless because of how good their stories are.
Its’s so important, I’m going to say it again: First drafts are rubbish.
Once you accept it, the pressure is off. You can just write, get the story down, knowing you’ll be coming back to solve all the problems and plot holes at a later stage. Got a character who developed a complicated backstory halfway through? Fix it in revision. Changed the capital city’s name in Chapter 16? Fix it in revision. Supposed love interest or sidekick turned out to be the antagonist? You got it…
And at the end of the drafting process (which may not be at the end of November, even if you hit the 50K target) you will have something you might never have expected: A complete manuscript. One which needs a lot of work, sure. But you finished the story. And that’s got to be worth an awful lot of revision.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering? I made it, despite all those real-life complications. Over 67,000 words by the end of November, and having developed the habit of daily writing I’ve carried on (at a slightly slower pace) and I’m now up to almost 74K.