Doing NaNoWriMo – the right way

Doing NaNoWriMo – the right way

Today’s blog post is once again written by Pamela Merritt, author of the forthcoming The Cat’s Pajamas and host of the Way of Cats blog.

Doing NaNoWriMo – the right way

Since 1999, increasing numbers of writers have been participating in the drafting marathon known as National Novel Writing Month. With a goal of 50,000 words, NaNoWriMo can be a dreaded, daunting, or delightful experience.

It’s about our expectations, and our preparations. Because we have to be ready. My own experience this year is good, my best yet. Not only in terms of keeping up with the 1,667 word daily average which crossing the goal line demands, but also because my timing is properly aligned.

To get the most from NaNoWriMo we need a novel at the stage which is not too soon, and not too late. A Goldilocks situation.

Starting too soon

A 50,000 word month can’t readily happen for a novel at the stage where it is a mere bud of thought. John Fowles, the author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, began with a single mental snapshot of a woman standing at the end of a pier. If he’d started NaNoWriMo at that point, he might have wound up with a lot of dead ends. Which can be fine, since every novel needs to know what it is not.

Still, that approach seems wasteful of words and effort. This bud stage of novel can take place entirely in our mind. There is a school of thought which claims this can be an excellent way of doing a “first sort.” Even without notes, this theory goes, we can tell the strongest scenes by how often they appear, and how effortlessly they expand.

Once the idea catches fire in our imagination, we can accumulate scenes as easily as woolly fabrics attract cat hair. Once explored, these snippets start to have some weight, developing specificity and character, names and emotions. To jump into a first-draft-in-30-days scenario, we need enough of them to support the 50,000 words to come.

The value of outlining

I realized I was at this promising stage as this year’s NaNoWriMo approached. In the months prior, I had reached a critical mass of ideas and events. Enough for me to start outlining. This is my next stage, though it took a while for me to figure out how to make it work for me.

I used to have to write a chapter to find out if it worked. It was an idea, and I would force it like bulbs in a greenhouse to see what I had. But it would turn into a slog, and slogs aren’t fun. I decided it would be better to outline, instead.

I outline to create cascades of actions, using snips of dialogue and descriptions. I could see where plot lines would combine, collide, or crash. I discovered chapters which refused to be written were telling me they didn’t belong. This insight could come without struggling to write a chapter I would wind up cutting.

But don’t forget to be flexible

Still, I had to accept that the downside of this professional advancement was how this would blow up my carefully crafted outline. I had to accept a downstream effect, where I had to come up with more outline snippets to fit into the sudden gaps. But since this made my work better, I grew happy with it. Following the story as it developed gave me more, and better, snippets.

I now understand this process as an organic one. I wasn’t good at outlining all the twists and turns my plot would, and should, take. Part of this was because my characters were still in need of development. Another part is how writing these scenes was part of my process. I needed to see enough of them to know whether they were fitting in or not.

But I didn’t have to painstakingly write and polish these scenes to know whether they fit. I realized I could use outline flexibility at every stage. So when I was  ready to lovingly polish my prose, I was shining up only stuff that belonged in this work.

Everything else is practice. Which isn’t a bad thing. But it is a good illustration of what doesn’t belong in NaNoWriMo. This is about word count. We sit down, and we let the words flow.

And stay loose

What if the words don’t flow? We are, paradoxically, trying too hard. If we are sweating it out, drop it. Pick another snippet from the outline. We don’t even care about the old snippet. Leave that for later. Leave everything for later.

By actually writing only what comes easy, skipping the snippets that don’t work and throwing in new snippets that occur to us while writing, we revamp our outline as we grow our draft. We can get to those 50,000 words without all the angst, even if we have already decided we won’t keep some of those words.

It all counts.

50,000 words of an outline? Sure. It’s a full-bodied, hourglass-shaped, Amazon warrior of a outline. There’s whole chapters, fragments where we aren’t sure, and bare branches where we haven’t yet figured out much of anything. Except they do need to meet again, or they must escape from that elevator shaft.

We have to be loose for NaNoWriMo. We have to be willing to write anything. I recently did 900 words about a boarding house room where a typewriter sits on a desk. I threw a new person in there because my main character couldn’t just sit there, so it turned into a case of the person who was being waited for showed up. So they could both talk about why they are in the room.

I had no idea I would be writing this scene, because the scene became necessary from a new idea. This was part of an idea which completely revamped the first third of the book. It was skimpy when I started. It’s now growing up, and filling out.

The true power of NaNoWriMo

That’s the true power of NaNoWriMo.

Done right, it teaches us about the power of words. About the vital skill of generation; the bringing of new life.

Words are the coal we throw in the engine of our imagination. Words are how we breathe life into our characters, so they say things about what they plan to do. Words are how those plans take twists and turns we, and our readers, might not have anticipated.

NaNoWriMo is about drafting. A skill that is misunderstood and under-utilized because we demand form when it’s only a snippet. We block it with editing and polishing when it’s not time for that, yet. Let the words flow. Create enough space so they can easily flow somewhere else if we get blocked.

Build the mountain. Let it rain. Follow every trickle until it stops.

That’s how we get a mighty river. One that will take us places.


The blog will be on hiatus until 2021. Everybody enjoy the holidays.

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