9 Things I Learned Doing NaNoWriMo

For most of November, I posted very little except for my progress on NaNoWriMo. For those of you who don’t know what that is, November is the month during which writers—especially those who aren’t full time professionals—attempt to write an entire novel. The premise is that the smallest novel is about 50,000 words, which can be achieved by averaging “just” 1,667 words per day. Those of us who write in genres that call for larger books will simply apply their 50,000 words toward a larger novel, which is what I did, seeing as my next book will weigh in around 120k.

I’m delighted to announce that I wrote 50,092 words in November, bringing me to over 80,000 for the book so far. It wasn’t easy. In fact, I was pretty sick on the first of December, having given up more sleep than I should have in order to make my goal. But I’m glad I did it, not just because I’m that much closer to finishing book two, but because it made me a better writer. Here are nine things I learned from NaNoWriMo.

1. Patient partner

I have to start off with this one, because it’s the most important. Simply put, my partner is the most supportive and patient person I know. Juggling a full-time job, household duties, and daily writing can put a dent in quality time, but she didn’t complain once, and even adapted her schedule a few times to allow me more writing time. I’m a lucky guy!

2. Too much free time can be a bad thing

This one seems counter-intuitive, but I have evidence. Due to my partner’s work schedule, I had Wednesday evenings to myself, and made grand plans of pounding out two or three thousand words during my alone time.

Yeah, right. Not once did those plans come to fruition. For whatever reason, those unstructured hours were magnets to all sorts of other activities: shopping, work projects, household chores, video games. Writing got crowded out because everything else was looking for a spot in the schedule too. It turns out my most productive writing times were the small morsels of time that I grabbed on the fly—five minutes here, twenty minutes there. Those moments felt precious, so I made the most of them. Yes, I also wrote almost every morning, but at least half of my words were written during those “stolen” moments. Maybe it’s because they were unexpected that I took advantage of them.

3. You can’t get behind, hoping to make it up later.

One thing I’m most proud of was never ending a day behind schedule. I often missed my daily quota, but I always had enough “in the bank” to stay ahead of the game. It’s rare for me to catch up on a long term project once I fall behind, so I try very hard never to let it happen. My logic is that catching up is harder than keeping up, so if I can’t make my daily quota, what makes me think I can do more the next day?

4. I can’t write when I’m hungry

This is fact. A rumbling belly short-circuits my brain, and my powers of concentration go right out the window when my blood sugar is low. I found I was better off spoiling my meals by eating early than trying to force myself to type through hunger.

5. Having an outline is a must…at least for me

I know some people simply sit down and write with no more than a general idea of their plot and characters, but I need more structure. Otherwise I spend too much time sitting and daydreaming about ideas, and that’s time I could be spending writing. I applaud those who can do both simultaneously, but I can’t pretend to be one of them.

6. Knowing all my character’s motivations is also a must

For that matter, I also need to know what my characters want. There’s nothing more boring in fiction than agreement. Even allies have to argue about what to do and how to do it, even if they have the same long term goals. If they don’t then at least one of them is unnecessary. And like with the plot, I need to know my characters’ view point before I start to write, otherwise the words won’t come—or if they do, they won’t be good.

7. I must give up the search for the perfect word

Every writer wants to write beautiful prose. To that end, word choice is critical. It’s not enough for a character to walk from one place to another—they must hike, stomp, trudge, limp, or sashay. Even skipping is acceptable. But deciding which one should not be my primary goal during the first draft. I’m better off waiting for the editing phase before looking for that exact shade of blue, the precise facial tic, or the perfect description, because writing and editing require completely different creative muscles. It’s like trying to juggle and bench press at the same time—you’ll just drop everything, and probably hurt yourself in the process.

8. Given enough time, I can enter a state of flow and bang out thousands of words in one sitting.

If everything works out—if there’s no one to interrupt me, and my belly is pleasantly full, and I’m well rested, and I have an outline and character sheets, and I’m being smart about not looking for the perfect word, I can sometimes enter a phase psychologists refer to as “flow” during which I can pump out a couple thousand words in under an hour. It’s a beautiful thing when it happens, and the best part is it rarely needs much editing because it comes from a part of the brain that has internalized everything I know about writing.

9. You don’t have to have flow to write. But it sure helps.

The vast majority of what I wrote was not done in a state of flow. If I had waited for perfect conditions, or for inspiration to strike, I would never have gotten any writing done at all. Most writing is a struggle. It’s rough, it’s dirty, and it needs a lot of polishing before it’s ready for an audience, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun anyway. You have to fill a lot of pails full of sand before you can build a sand castle, and that’s all a first draft should be.

So I promise this is the last I’ll write about NaNoWriMo, at least until next November. December won’t be quite as productive for me, mostly due to traveling commitments. But when I do find the time to write, I’m getting a little more done than I used to. And that was really the whole point.

For those of you who enjoy free books, here’s another batch for you: the Kick Ass Heroes Instafreebie Giveaway runs from December 17 to 31, and features several volumes of varying genres, all with strong, heroic protagonists. I’ve already picked a few to read myself!

Happy Reading