Saturday, October 9, 2010

Gearing up for NaNoWriMo

Three years ago at the end of October my family moved to a new state. It was a big change for our all of us. New schools for the kids and new careers for my husband and me. It was the year I quit teaching and decided once and for all to focus on my writing. Only a few days after moving into our new home, before the pictures were even up on the walls, I signed up for NaNoWriMo. It changed my writing life.

For the uninitiated NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Participants pledge to write a 50,000-word novel by the end of the month of November. Sign up and you get helpful writing advice from published authors, a cool-looking page where you can chart your progress, daily inspirational emails, and the instant support and encouragement of a community of writers on the same journey.

That’s what I knew going into it. But here’s why it changed my writing life. My previous method for writing a book was this: I would come up with what I thought was an interesting idea or two, create a few characters, and begin writing. And revising. And reworking. And editing. And revising some more. I literally could not move onto the next sentence until I felt that the one before it was perfect. It took me two years to write a book this way and by the time I was finished, I hated the thing’s guts and couldn’t bear to look at it again. I also patted myself on the back for having what I believed was not a first draft. After all I had revised it to “perfection” as I wrote it. I submitted it to publishers. It got rejected.

But the moment I began a book NaNoWriMo-style, I realized my revise as I go method was not going to work. Take 50,000 words and divide by 30 days and you get 1666 words per day. Subtract out weekends (not going to happen. I had a family. We were adjusting to a new town) and Thanksgiving (jeez, why’d the Nano people pick November? Don’t they have to cook 20-pound turkeys for visiting relatives?) and I was left with more than 2500 words per day. Let me tell you something. You try writing 2500 words in a day and see how quickly you move past the revise as you go method. Perfect sentences—ha ha. Forget it.

So this is what happened. I did it. I wrote a big 50,000-word mess of a book. And I couldn’t kid myself—it was truly a first draft. It had digressions and a string of loosely strewn-together scenes. Strands that went nowhere. Characters that disappeared and characters that popped up in the final chapters. But it was a thing of beauty anyway. It was funny. It was heartbreaking. Yes, there were long passages of bad writing, but there were also nuggets of the best writing I’d ever produced. It was not perfect. But it was finished. And here’s a saying from one of those inspirational Nano emails and something I’ve clung to ever since: a first draft IS perfect simply because it is finished.

Now I don’t recommend this type of writing for everyone. There are many successful writers who swear by the revise as you go method. But I found that Nano-writing forced me to let go of my crippling perfectionism and silenced the negative editor in my head. Nano helped me embrace the free-spirited creative voice and follow it wherever it wanted to go. Usually to a place I hadn't planned. Writing a book this way is exhilarating.

When I read that first Nano draft in January, I found the bones of a pretty decent book. This time when I revised, I had the whole thing in front of me to work with. I could do real revision and not what I had been doing before, which I realized was actually line editing.

This November if you want to kick-start your writing career, join me on NaNoWriMo.
If you stick with it, in 30 days you’ll be toasting your own beautiful mess of a first draft.
(Tips for revising Coming Soon)


  1. Well, now you got me thinking maybe I should try this, only I'd have to stretch it out over 2 months because of my art classes. I revise as I go and I often wish I could shrug off that technique in favor of a more liberating approach. This could be it. Do you outline first? Do you know exactly what's going to happen? Anyhow, best of luck, Jody.

  2. good luck, Stella. Two months would work. Resist the urge to go backward. No, I don't outline. But I do have a vague sense of the end. It's the middle that's unknown. The fun part is writing to figure out what's going to happen.