Tuesday, November 12, 2019
By Kristy McCaffrey
If you’ve been on Facebook or Twitter, then you might have seen posts about National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. During the month of November writers from around the world collectively put their butts in the chair and pound out a novel. There’s a website where you can register your project, track your daily word count, and interact with your friends and colleagues who are also participating. To win NaNo, you must write 50,000 words by November 30. If you’re a writer, you know how tough this can be. And if you’re a reader, you might wonder what all the fuss is about.
I’ve successfully completed two previous NaNo’s—the first was for my western romance THE BLACKBIRD (2014), and the second was my romantic suspense novel about great white sharks titled DEEP BLUE (2016).
How does NaNo benefit a writer? It forces the internal editor to take a vacation. Believe me, this is far harder than it sounds, and is probably the biggest battleground an author will face in trying to complete NaNo. The internal editor not only encompasses good sentence structure and proper grammar, he/she also wants fully-fleshed characters right out of the gate, will insist on researching the name of the road in that western town in 1877 before allowing any more forward movement in the story, and wants to investigate every Irish surname for a secondary character who only appears in one scene. The internal editor can be the harshest of critics, and many a writer has succumbed to crippling self-doubt as a result.
But if an author has already published several novels, he/she must have found a way to work with this ridiculously overbearing boss, right? Excuse me while I laugh hysterically. Okay, I’m back. The short answer is, no. But all is not lost, and that’s where NaNo helps writers to shine. It forces us to push past the persnickety side-commentator and get the story down. NaNo is all about the first draft—those random and sometimes illogical beginnings of our stories. As a reader, all you’ve ever seen is the spiffed up final version of a project, so it’s hard to understand that it didn’t always look that way. Most first drafts would shock the spit right out of you. Just kidding. They’re not that horrifying, but they can be quite the hot mess.
To write 50,000 words in one month (and November only has 30 days), a writer must punch out 1,667 words per day. I usually round up to 2,000, because life doesn’t stop for me to write, so there will be days when I don’t hit that goal. Since my novels tend to be 75-85K in length, writing 50K won’t be the entire book. This leads to the most important advice I can offer about NaNo—make sure you get to THE END. This means that some scenes will be skipped, heavy description and backstory will be lightly touched upon, and character development will be invariably sketchy. But this is a good thing. Getting to the end offers insights that can’t be found any other way, and it will make the first revision pass much more fruitful.
One quirk I’ve learned during NaNo is that my scenes end up out of order. Since I know this about myself, I don’t spend too much time in my transitions from one incident to the next, because I’ll likely be moving them around later. I simply try to find the interior energy of a scene and expound on that as best I can. Then I move on. You can’t dilly-dally during NaNo.
And while it’s true I’ll be forced to discard large chunks of my preciously speed-written prose during the refining stages of the manuscript, it’s never wasted. I almost always learn something from the misstep, either about my characters or a plot direction that wasn’t going to work. I’ve also had delightful surprises. I didn’t find the great white shark star of my suspense book until the very end of the first draft. Her name was Bonnie, and when she arrived she changed the whole tone of the story. That’s why it’s important to get to the end. Once I knew about her, it was clear how I needed to lay the groundwork for her presence earlier in the book, and it completely informed the direction of my revisions.
This year, I’m unofficially participating and I won’t lie, it’s stressful. Some days I just can’t figure out what should happen next, and my mind’s innate tendency to wander off—online Christmas shopping! Let’s do that!—must be held in rigorous check. The manuscript (ANCIENT WINDS, the third book in my suspense series) is unfolding in a choppy and somewhat haphazard way, and it’s downright maddening. But … I’m finding those little gems along the way. (I have a fabulous scene in the Amazonian jungle with my hero and heroine and an anaconda that quite surprised me.) And this is because NaNo doesn’t let up; it forces you to write something. Anything. It inspires innovation.
So, if you’re a writer and haven’t given NaNo a try, consider it. You might astonish yourself. And if you’re a reader, have sympathy for those participating. We won’t be grumpy lunatics for long.