Are you trying to decide whether or not to participate in National Novel Writing Month this year? Then listen to the excellent, definitely entirely trustworthy advice of this veteran NaNoer who has been attempting to write novels every year since 2005 (possibly 2004, if the NaNo website is correct? But if I did write something that year I have deleted it in utter embarrassment because I cannot find it) except for the year that I had a three month old baby who nursed non-stop and never napped. If you have succeeded in writing a novel in a month while nursing a non-sleeping infant, please let me know so that I can buy you a beer, because that is seriously impressive.
Before 2017, I didn’t used to plot my novels at all. I would generally have a premise, which could be anything from a paragraph of notes scrawled on a piece of paper, to maybe an entire A4 document of random ideas that kind of linked up together. I have actually started plotting my stories this year (like five-thousand words of plot with an entire story arc before I even start writing the novel, eek), but this is a very, very recent development. The years that I actually finished NaNoWriMo were produced off summaries like this one, which I’m going to guess I wrote on something like the 28th of October when I was like “Oh, crap, I should decide what I’m going to write” (there’s also a chance that this started out as a Tumblr message to one of my writing buddies who dared to ask “Hey, what are you writing about next month?”).
1. At the time of writing this summary my characters did not have names. I probably decided upon their names at 8am on the 1st of November while I attended to start my novel during the half an hour in which my toddler was eating cheerios and mesmerised by My Neighbour Totoro.
2. I did not know whether my novel would be set in a sci-fi or steampunk setting until I actually started writing. Genres? Settings? Ha, who needs them?
3. Thus, as you can tell, I had done zero research.
4. Hot Pirate Captain was supposed to be a secondary character but he kind of took over the entire book and got his own point of view and oh god
5. I wrote a love triangle. A LOVE TRIANGLE. I swore I would never do that.
6. Nevermind sci-fi vs. steampunk, I decided to write about an engineer despite having no knowledge of engineering? Again, I had researched none of this.
7. Why is an engineer tending some guy’s wounds? I don’t know. I don’t know why this was one of the few plot points I had in mind, and I’m 90% certain I threw a “she trained to be a nurse!” backstory info-dump into my novel in order to account one of the few parts of the story I had decided on in advance.
8. Despite the fact that I mention in my summary that the heroine is “one of only three employees”, it is revealed in the first chapter of the novel that there are four. Apparently I can’t even follow a tiny three-paragraph plot summary. I am ridic.
But, I wrote 70K in one month and it’s an entire draft and it might be riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies and have some truly hilariously awful action scenes, but it’s a draft. It’s a starting point. And once you have the words on the page, you can rewrite them and edit them and turn them into something you’d actually let other people read.
The thing I love about NaNoWriMo is that it encourages me to keep writing. I’m surrounded by people who are also furiously trying to get their ideas on to the page. There’s something about knowing that other people are writing messy first drafts that motivates me to keep going. It tests my ideas, and allows me to see if there’s enough there to turn into an entire novel that I’ll actually care about enough to rewrite and improve.
Sometimes I have to stop writing in November because life happens, sometimes I hit a decent number at the end of the month but it takes me a couple of months to actually finish that draft of the novel because my momentum runs out after November. I go from writing every day to every second day to sometimes just twice a week, but I do keep writing.
Honestly, I feel like I need the exercise of daily writing in November just to get me back on track again, even if I know that by February my motivation will have gone right down. My inspiration always peaks in October when I get excited over starting something new and fresh–and it also motivates me to finish whatever project I’m working on, because I’m not allowed to do NaNo unless I’m done with that.
I love the experience of being immersed in my characters lives and just living with them for a month while I write an absurd amount of words in a short space of time. I make playlists and listen to them before I start writing in order to get myself into the right mood for those specific characters, and then I sit down in some coffee shop or library or just our living room and leap into the world of my novel and bash out a couple of thousand words.
A lot of those words might get cut or rewritten, but the world is there. The characters are there. It’s something to build on. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time, and I’m definitely not as quick at rewrites and edits as I am first-drafting. I procrastinate when I’m editing, I spend ages focusing on one sentence or paragraph here and making it perfect and by the end of it I hate the entire novel and never want to look at it again, so I drag out whatever mess I wrote during NaNoWriMo the previous year and discover that
…actually, it’s not as awful as I remembered. I mean, clearly I need to learn how grenades actually work and the heroine’s hair colour changes in every chapter and I should probably make the setting more clear, but there’s an actual story here. One that’s worth salvaging and improving and maybe one day showing to my critique group.
In the eleven years I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo, I’ve abandoned several novels, and written a couple that will never see the light of day. But I’ve also produced three full-length novels that I wouldn’t be too terrified to show people, one of which I even submitted to an editor who advised me on how to improve it and encouraged me to resubmit. I can chart just how much my writing has improved and what I’ve learned in the somewhat ridiculous first-drafting process that I go through every year.
I do write novels outside of November, but I do it in the same way–frantically bashing out the first draft before taking a break and diving in to edit it into something more readable. That’s the way my brain works, the way I work best–fully immersing myself into the world of my characters and residing there until their stories are completed. I’m entirely aware that this first-drafting technique might not work for everyone, but once I was able to push through the fear of “I need to get this right the first time” I was able to write so much more freely and actually finish what I started.
If you think this technique might work for you, give NaNoWriMo a try. Being surrounded by other writers who are also writing wonderfully messy new creations is a great motivation. We’re all going to have plot holes and disappearing secondary characters and timelines that are horribly inconsistent and unexpected love triangles complete and action scenes that will definitely need to be entirely rewritten and never shown to anyone, ever–or whatever the thing is that we discover in November that we really need to get better at. (For me, it’s definitely action scenes. Haha. Seriously. You’re not getting to read any of them).
No one’s first draft is publishable. It’s not supposed to be. It’s a first draft. And getting that first draft on the page is a massive feat. You might end up with half a dozen unfinished drafts before you hit the novel that you finally finish and turn into something you want to share with the world.
Keep trying. Keep writing. And if you’ve brave/ridiculous enough, attempt to bash out an entire first draft in a month and see where it takes you.