What is National Novel Writing Month about, anyway?
For many years I scoffed at the idea of writing an entire novel in one month. It seemed like a quick way to generate a terrible book. Writing for the sake of reaching an arbitrary goal (50,000) words in a window of 30 days? A recipe for garbage. Plus, how could a book so quickly churned out even make sense? After working on my novel for years, I learned how tricky it is to get structure and pacing right, how to make characters resonate for readers, how to ensure that the story arc I set up in the beginning came full circle in the end. Doing all of that in one month sounded impossible. Also, November is a tricky month since Thanksgiving usually means several days of hosting visitors and/or travel, so for me the 30 day window is really more like 25.
As I learned more about NaNoWriMo, I started to see the benefits in it. First, the benefit of a daily writing habit. If for nothing else, NaNoWriMo is useful for instilling that. You can see what it’s like to write a lot of words every single day, even if you’re sick or exhausted or have a million other things you really should be doing. You somehow make the time to pound out 1,500 words, or 3,000 words, or 5,000 words. All in one day. And then the next day, you do it again.
A lot of writers I’ve heard interviewed about NaNoWriMo appreciate this aspect of the project. The other way many writers use it (and the way I’m using it) is to kickstart a novel and finish a first draft in one month. The thing about first drafts is, they’re crap. You just want to get the bones of the story down, like an artist with her preliminary underdrawings or sketches. First drafts are fun to write—they’re an opportunity to be loose and free with your writing, without the tight focus and logical thinking you must use down the road on revisions.
I planned my NaNoWriMo experience this way: first, I wrote the outline of the historical narrative of my novel using Scrivener’s index card feature, one index card per scene. I wrote one- to two-sentence synopses of each scene. I assigned points of view to each scene, printed them out and shuffled the cards around. I tossed a few and added a few. I will continue to do so for months. I’m not wedded to this exact sequence of scenes, but it’s a foundation. It’s the general overarching story I want to tell, with a beginning hook, a middle build, and a final payoff.
Now I’m plowing through each of those scenes, day by day. On the NaNoWriMo site, you register your novel and fill out an author bio. Then you add your word count total at the end of each day. A graph shows how many words total you’ve written and how many you have left to reach 50,000. It also tells you how many words per day average you need to achieve your goal.
Through the author groups I’m a member of, I’ve met a bunch of other NaNoWriMo peeps and we’re “buddies” on the site. I don’t think any of us have time to hang out and chat on the site, but I can see the feature being useful for some folks. There is another feature I’m waiting for called “pep talks,” wherein famous authors post encouraging words to all the participants. So far I’ve gotten a lot of entreaties for donations but no pep talks. In addition, there are local NaNoWriMo meetups at cafes and libraries where you can write en masse. I think any activity that encourages people to just go for it and write a novel is a fantastic way to generate positive energy and creativity in our world.
For the record, I’m at 9,000 words as of this morning. And—full disclosure—I started a few days early, on Oct. 29, to make up for the days I’ll be missing due to Thanksgiving later this month. I’d better get cracking if I’m going to reach my goal!