Sunday, December 5, 2010

I Wrote a Novel Last Month

In November, for the first time, I took the NaNoWriMo challenge. In case you still don't know, that's National Novel Writing Month, and it has been the subject of some controversy. See here for another rant.

Moderation, IOW, seems in short supply when NaNo comes up in conversation.

So why'd I do it?

For one thing, the timing was right. In October I turned in the first book in a new series. I was due to start outlining the second book anyway. So I thought, what the hey? Let's try it the NaNoWriMo way. My goal was simple: see what it is like to write this way, and expect that at worst I'd know my story better by the end.

Or, maybe I'd come up with something pretty close to the actual novel I wanted.

Also, some novelist friends of mine got in on the action. The small group included both "pantsers" and "outliners," all multi-published. I  thought it would be interesting to see how we all came out.

In the days before it began, I actually started to get jazzed, excited about just pure writing for awhile. I think the happiest days of my writing life were when I was unpublished. I was writing for the joy of it. Oh yeah, of course I wanted to be published. But there was something so free and easy about those early efforts. Maybe it was all just a delusion, but if so it was a happy one.

Over the years, writing with contracts and under deadlines, I lost a little of that joy. I never stopped loving writing. Still do. But I'm talking about the feeling I get when body surfing here in So Cal, caught up in a wave and letting it swoosh me all the way to shore.

I thought it would be cool to write with reckless abandon again, to just throw myself out there and take a risk. Usually I do a month or more of planning and outlining, and ease my way into that first draft. I finish a draft in four or five months.

NaNoWriMo was going to get one out of me in thirty days. I wanted to see what it would look like.

I made a few preparations. I looked at my daily schedule and decided to cut down on a bunch of time wasters: Net surfing, blog reading, movie watching, e-mail lingering, news shows. It's amazing how much time creep there is in these things.

Next, I gave myself a tentative schedule. I'd write my "nifty 350" words first thing in the morning. Just get up and let my subconscious provide the material. I would leave off the previous day's writing mid-sentence, a la Hemingway, so I could dive right in.

NaNoWriMo shoots for a 50,000 word novel.  My goal was to get to 60,000 words.

I would keep track of my novel by drafting in the stupendous program Scrivener. This would show me –– through color coding and synopses and an "outline view" –– where I was at every stage of the process. It would update me on my word count, and let me jot scene ideas wherever I wanted. And a lot of other things I won't go into. (Except one very cool feature is you can put your page on any background photo you have. I rigged it so I was writing with the interior of my favorite diner in L.A., Langer's, in the background. I could almost smell the hot pastrami.)

And so, on Monday, November 1, I began.

On Tuesday, November 30, I finished, with 61,587 words.

So how are those words? I don't know yet. I'm letting the thing cool, as I advocate in my revision book, and I will actually follow the process I lay down there (yes, he practices what he preaches). But I will tell you that the central plot element, the McGuffin as Hitchcock used to say, popped up spontaneously during one scene and said, "Here I am, pal!" It was awesome. It made the book.

I think there will be many scenes that will stay pretty much as is. I'll have some fleshing out to do, of course, but the skeleton feels solid.

Next week, I'll tell you some of the things I learned that may be helpful to writers. But let me say to those who took issue with NaNoWriMo, what's the beef? So long as people know they're not first drafting a publishable novel, why would anybody be against writers doing what they're supposed to do, write? It ain't that easy to do a fairly coherent 50,000 word story in a month. And my proverbial hat is off especially to those who hit 50k while also holding down a day job or family responsibilities or anything like that. I do this full time. It's quite another thing to complete the challenge with a packed schedule of other duties. To those of you who made it I say, well done!

I loved doing a novel in a month. I feel a sense of accomplishment, like I finished a 5k or endured the unedited version of Heaven's Gate.

So I'd love to hear from anyone who gave NaNoWriMo a shot this year. How was it for you?

And those of you who had a problem with it . . . You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?


  1. You had me in suspense the whole time with the post--did he make the 60K or didn't he?


    I did not do Nano, but if I can rough out a sufficient plot and answer some specific underlying research questions, I am going to attempt that same thing with ACFW's NovelTrack in January.

    And I agree--whatever helps a writer get words on the page is A-OK.

  2. I found my way to this fantastic blog by way of your wonderful book Plot & Structure. I checked it out from the library and found it so indispensable that I had to buy my own copy on Amazon.

    As it happens, I also did Nano this month, and wrote 50,000 words. Didn't finish the novel, but my plan is to do another 50,000 in December (I'm at 57,000 so far), which ought to be enough to wrap things up, and then start revising. And cutting. For me the process was all about quieting the internal censor and just writing. I know I'm going to need to trim stuff back, but the main thing was getting the story down on the page. In the past (oh, I should mention that this was my first time Nanoing) I'd start a novel and quit very early on because every page wasn't perfect. Nano gave me permission to write 57,000 (so far) very imperfect words, or 230 (so far) very imperfect pages. I know myself enough to know that I would not have those 230 pages now if not for Nano. From my standpoint, it's nothing short of a miracle.

    I'm certainly under no illusions that by December's end I will have anything other than a very rough first-first draft. I suppose I'll need to get your revision book!

    But in any case, it is for the reasons mentioned above (loved your book, love this site, completed Nano) that I took particular interest in reading your thoughts about Nano, and am glad to know that you're not one of the haters. :-)

    Thanks for your post, and since this is my first-ever comment on this blog, let me also say thank you to all the other great authors who contribute to it. You had me, as it were, at "hello."

  3. I thought a McGuffin was a plot device only meant to get the story going, a device with no real importance of its own?

    But congrats with NaNoWriMo! I can't wait for you to tell us more!

    DA, I know what you mean. If I write something, without perfecting every word and sentence the second after I write it, it usually turns out terribly, and I freak out when I reread it, all "That's so incredibly corny! Did I actually think I could WRITE? What if I had had the arrogance to show this to the public? They'd all be out there LAUGHING at me!" And I quit.

    ...Maybe I should try Nano.

  4. I’m sure it has to be good. I love a story with a good McGuffin.

    I don’t think your experience changes my objections to Nanowrimo in any way. I know a first draft can be done in a month. For that matter, if I did nothing else, I think I could do one in a week (not that I intend to try). The problem I have with it is that people who’ve never written a novel before take up this challenge with the belief that once they get their 50,000 words they are done. But I noticed you went into this with a goal of 60,000 words. I’m sure that was because you knew that your publisher would want at least 60,000 words. And you’re already planning revisions. Some of your fellow “winners” are likely drafting their query letters as we speak. I think Nanowrimo is a little like someone watching a PBS show on how to paint and then expecting someone to pay them for the painting that results from it.

  5. I feel like I just got validated! I did nano last month, have a day job, a class (that I passionately hate) and I got 62,675.

    I have no illusions about the state of my first draft, which still needs completion.

    Right in the middle, I created some scenes which interfered with the time frame-got to fix that.

    But I have a great skeleton. Now, maybe in January, I'll go back and fix a couple broken bones and begin molding it, giving it shape and life.

    Congrats on the nano!

  6. BK, I'm gratified a little post managed to create some suspense. I'll take it. Thanks for the good word, and good luck with NovelTrack.

  7. DA, welcome to Kill Zone, and thanks for the great comment. You are EXACTLY the kind of writer NaNo is for, and you handled it perfectly. It's about shutting off the editor and getting words down, and thus finding the true story, and not having any "illusions" that it will be a finished work. I applaud you and wish you good writing as you complete the novel!

  8. Anon, yes, you ought to try NaNo. As DA said, it's helpful to get you past that inner editor bugaboo.

    The McGuffin, as Hitchcock used it, is the "thing" that drives the plot. It's what people are after, or is getting everyone in a snit. Often it's hidden until the end. A classic example is The 39 Steps. What are they? Where are they? Why would people kill you if they thought you knew? Etc.

    Thanks again for the comment. Keep writing.

  9. Timothy, I think that's a valid objection re: SOME participants, but not all (as DA's comment demonstrates). It would be interesting to somehow get a feel for participants' expectations going in. My gut tells me only a small minority would expect a finished, salable novel in one month.

    NaNoWriMo does not hold out such promises. Indeed, on their website now is the following:

    Ah, rewriting. It hurts so bad, but it helps so much. If your book was born in November, it's going to take many, many months (if not years) of revision before it's ready for the bookstore shelves. That's the bad news. The good news is that novel rewriting is even more rewarding than novel writing.

  10. Crafter, yet another great comment about real world expectations. And I'm in awe of your accomplishment. 62k+ with a day job AND a class. Way to go!

    Writing this way does bring up those scenes that take us in unexpected directions. That's one of the benefits of NaNo. Then you have to take it all apart and put it back together.

    Ray Bradbury writes this way. He says he wakes up in the morning and explodes, then spends the rest of the day putting the pieces together.

  11. Jim, congrats on hitting the mark and making your goal. What a great feeling.

    "I think the happiest days of my writing life were when I was unpublished."

    I feel the same. Sometimes ignorance IS bliss. I enjoyed a number of years of just writing for fun. It's hard to recapture that freedom once that first book is published and you have to deal with a deadline.

  12. You're so right, Joe. Plus, the more we do this, the more we know, and our standards go up (or should). Each new book presents that challenge, to reach higher. I think re-capturing a little of that early joy and risk taking can only help.

  13. I also did Nano to get to know this story - what some authors call the "zero draft". And I found a few surprises along the way.

    I started out with a plot-point outline, but the plot points shifted. And the motivation of my main character was a complete surprise.

    Other friends used Nano for different reasons: One completed a short story collection. Two of my writing buddies, including a mom w/ nine (!) kids, used it to write every day. Another did what you did, wrote to get into the freedom of just writing again. We all "won" because we accomplished what we wanted.

  14. suelder, more very good reasons for NaNo. Thanks. And props to that mom!

  15. Congrats on completing NaNo! This was my third year doing it, and I love it for all the reasons you mentioned; it lets you put aside all expectations and just WRITE.

    This year I must admit I cheated. I wrote 26k words, realized the project needed to be completely restructured to work, so I hopped over to another idea that had been nagging at me and wrote 24k words of that. So I did hit 50k, even if I didn't exactly follow the rules. The way I look at it, November is all about just writing. The worrying comes later. :-)

  16. Congrats to you, and all who "won" Nano. It's inspiring to hear others' stories of how they participate and write.

    I wrote for Nano with a goal of 70,000. I, too, love the experience of pure writing, and feel that since I outlined and story-mapped for weeks before GO, the story has good bones. I finished the 1st draft story on Dec 3 at 77,000, and am letting it sit for a few weeks now before rewrites begin.

    For me, the compressed writing schedule frees up the mind to pursue the story while it's fresh. For me, it flows, and I'm less likely to get stumped. Still pursuing having a novel published, but am happily working toward that goal.

  17. Anna, there are no umpires and no score sheet. Congrats on getting those 50k words in. Well done.

  18. Jennifer, wow! That's a great accomplishment. You're doing exactly the right thing, too. Letting it cool and then going to revision. I'll have more to say on this next week.

  19. Hi Jim,
    Way to go! I haven't done Nano but I did do ACFW's NovelTrack in July (55,000 words), and will be doing it again in January as BK mentioned. I'm still not sure what I've got because my editor told me to drop everything and concentrate on revisions for book one.

    I finished those revisions yesterday, YEAH! Turning in my first book today. What a feeling!

  20. Jillian, what an awesome feeling that is, turning in your book. Now all you have to do is do it again. What a breeze, eh?

  21. What a wonderful post. I also did NaNo this year, for the first time. I'm a complete novice, I've only ever written for my documents file and my dog's ears ... it was only recently that I admitted to the world that I write. I did NaNo as a kind of CBT exercise and it worked for me. However, the backlash (especially on Twitter) was violent - and almost put me off the whole thing altogether. Why are people so cruel? No one got hurt. It was an amazingly fun 30 days and I made some wonderful friends. I also gained a little more self-belief. What more could you ask for?

  22. I've come to think that the problem for many writers is that they don't write enough to really know what works for them, what's hard, etc.--and when you're writing something as long as a novel, it's hard to do enough writing to discover these things. NaNoWriMo provides a supportive, safe place to log some miles and in this great spirit of "reckless abandon."

    I started NaNo knowing I had work deadlines that would compete--and then I had a computer meltdown. In the midst of cleaning that up, I realized I'd still been averaging 1000 words a day by periodically taking a break to jot down a "nifty 350." So I wasn't "losing," but my competitive streak (I didn't know I had one) was awakened and I closeted my self for Thanksgiving and made my goal: 50,500.

  23. Joanna, that's a mystery to me, too. I can see someone offering up a mild critique of NaNoWriMo, but why the vitriol? It just isn't justified. I'm glad you didn't give up. That's one sign of a real writer.

  24. Ann, that's a great account. I'm glad you have that "competitive streak" so long as it's aptly applied: to yourself. You did that. Way to finish.

  25. I didn't do NaNo this year, Jim, but I did last year, finishing it right on time, albeit with only 43,000 words. I felt pretty good about it, so on December 1, I started another one and finished it on New Year's Eve, this one weighing in at only 35,000 words. I then spent the next eleven months fleshing them out considerably and shaping them up until they're now ready to go.

  26. Hey, Mike, that's very cool. Any large chunk like that is worth it, IMO. Then, as you say, adding the flesh. Excellent.

  27. Congratulations on hitting your goal. I think it's great that NaNoWriMo runs the gamut from unpublished wannabes like me to published folk like you and several others. Your post was a great encouragement. This was my sixth try and fifth 'win' at NaNoWriMo.

    I harbor no delusions that any of the drafts I've churned out are even close to being a publishable work. I do know that with NaNoWriMo and additional writing in the off months, I have been learning about writing, discovering my strengths and weaknesses, and have over six stories at least partially written that I never had before. After the holidays, one of these stories is going to get some more attention. Maybe I'll finally get a usable Draft #2.

    Now that Scrivener has a Windows version available, I'm going to give it a try. I guess I'll need to get a copy of 'Revision and Self-Editing', too.

  28. I did it and churned out 50,000 words of crap in 28 days. However, I have learned I don't enjoy writing in the first person, nor do I enjoy writing noir. The characters from a series I'm doing and they were kind enough to furnish me with plenty of information I can use elsewhere, so while I will never use this novel in this form, you can bet it'll be cannibalised and used elsewhere. So really, NaNo has been a productive learning experience, if nothing else!

  29. Bill, another great comment. You learn so much by pushing through and finishing a novel, and NaNo helps you get there. I'm impressed you've finished five times. In all modesty (which itself is an immodest statement, but what the hey?) I think Revision & Self-Editing will help you a great deal. Thanks for giving it a read.

  30. Hi Icy. That's a good insight, too. You can discover what you don't like to write, too. Hey, if it only took you one month to learn that, so much the better. Thanks for the comment.

  31. Ann said: "I've come to think that the problem for many writers is that they don't write enough to really know what works for them, what's hard, etc."

    This is so true. I've only completed one manuscript so far. But with only one manuscript, I'm still not sure what the best approach is for me. Novel #2 will be just as much an experiment as #1.

    I'm very hopeful I'll get the bones of a plot down and some basic research done this month so I can do NovelTrack come January. I think it will be very beneficial.

  32. Congrats - I am certainly tempted to try and get myself in nanowrimo mode (if only the kids would let me:)!) - sounds like it was a terrific kickstart for your next book and I'm envious of the word count!

  33. Thanks, Clare. I think you'd like and all.

  34. I'm late to the party, but still wanted to chime in...

    This year, after five NaNo "wins", I decided to adapt NaNo to my needs. I broke NaNo rules left, right, and centre -- starting with a work-in-progress, stopping in the middle to do major surgery on a couple of chapters that weren't working.

    But at the end of the month, I had 25,000 new words on a novel that I've been struggling with, in between other writing projects, for years. They're still mostly first-draft words, but as first drafts go, I'm pretty happy with them. And the novel hasn't stalled -- I'm still writing. That's a win for me.

    Like Jennifer, I find that NaNo speed really helps the writing to flow -- you live and breathe the story in a way that you don't if you're writing at a more sedate pace. And like Ann, I find it a wonderful, safe way to practice and explore.

    Something about all the creative energy that flies around, all these people writing and talking and encouraging each other, is very exciting and conducive to creating. I look forward to NaNoing again next year, whether I follow all the rules or not...

  35. Wonderer, you bring up another great point, the communal aspect of NaNo. It was fun to be in touch with others along the way, via Twitter and email. We rooted each other on. And "breaking" the rules of NaNo seems to me a perfect NaNo thing to do. If you can make it work for your benefit, why not? That's the whole point. Get writers writing, breaking barriers, getting closer to publication. Thanks.

  36. I did NaNoWriMo this year (see for details) and enjoyed it. I've done it for five years now and it gets easier each year. I find that afterward I have far more rough draft for a manuscript than had I not done it. I like it for that reason alone. My problem with it. I only get about 75% of the story down before time is up. But, it's the best rough draft device I've found yet.

    Dick Hannah

  37. Thanks for chiming in, Dick. Pub or perish indeed.

  38. JSB- I was really excited to read about this post on Twitter. "Wow! James Scott Bell did NaNo!" (I think I said out loud.) "How cool is that?" This year was my second NaNo. Honestly, I had no idea anybody had a gripe with it. How can you complain about people trying to figure out how to get themselves in the chair and write? Thank you for explaining it so well! My experience was that I enjoyed it tremendously, felt exhilarated afterwards, and learned how to work through discouragement, illness, exhaustion, and laziness. (60,000 & 51,000, in that order.) How can that be bad? If I wrote junk, it won't be published. If I came up with a great story (after much revision) it might be. What I have learned, either way, has been immeasurable. What I have gained, in confidence, is priceless!

  39. Thanks for trying NaNo and sharing it with us. Can't wait to hear how you think your words came out. I've always been intrigued by the idea, but never in the position to actually try it. Maybe I'll do my own NaNo next time I'm ready to start a project. Like you said, seems like a good way to get to know the newest project.

    I like how you point out the time-sucking things in our lives had to be eliminated from your day or at least lessened. Being a CPA, I track every 15 minutes of my day, and it's amazing how easily the internet, email, blogging, tweeting, etc. can suck those minutes away.

    Can't wait to hear more about this.