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How Not To NaNoWriMo

photo by Jon Linnell

I’m not a huge fan of rules about writing. I don’t write every day, for starters. I neither write what I know nor do I not write what I don’t know. So there are very few blanket pronouncements I would make about writing, and I would never tell people not to do NaNoWriMo, attempting to knock out the better part of a novel in just one month.

But I will say this: I’ve done it a few times, and sometimes it turns out really well, and sometimes it’s a spectacular crash-and-burn failure, and the difference between the two is never whether I actually manage to get 50,000 words onto the page.

So I have some ideas about what makes you more likely to succeed or more likely to fail. Here are my guidelines for what not to do, and I can tell you exactly what happens to at least one writer who tries to NaNoWriMo (yes, it can be a verb) this way. Because I am that writer.

Don’t just say “any word is a good word.” I recently finished the first draft of my next novel, which I worked on as my NaNoWriMo project two years ago. I’m a sloppy writer and a big advocate of just getting words on the page. So what’s the difference between the 25,000 words I eked out two Novembers ago and the 100,000 draft I just finished? About 90,000 words, for one thing. During that November, I tried writing in different voices, from the POV of different characters, and paid no attention to whether or not all the scenes came together. Accordingly, almost none of them did. I did a great job developing characters… many of whom didn’t even make it into the novel. Part of NaNoWriMo’s usefulness is to get past your inner editor, but I left her so far in the dust that she has pretty much shrugged her shoulders and given up on me. Have some kind of a plan, even if it changes along the way.

Don’t just write because it’s November. Six Novembers ago I had plenty of time on my hands (no kids, a husband busy with business school, and reasonable work hours) but only a kernel of an idea. I didn’t take the time to develop the idea, because – hey, it’s November! Now’s the time! I exceeded the 50,000-word goal well ahead of November 30 and once December came I literally never opened the file again. From what I remember, the protagonist liberally quoted Fiona Apple lyrics and referred to her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend exclusively as “F**king Ruby Bruno.” I’m pretty sure it’s not going to fit into my future publications. I tell people that no writing is wasted because you always learn something from it, but I learned less from that novel than from any of my others. I guess what I learned is, well, don’t just write because it’s November.

Don’t let anyone else define “success.” This is what it comes down to. I feel like I went about NaNoWriMo “wrong” for a couple of years, as you see in the above examples. But another writer might get exactly the same results and see it as success. Even 10,000 words out of a 25,000-word manuscript might be 10,000 words you never would have arrived at otherwise, or they might be 10,000 amazing words, and so you’ve succeeded in some way. If you want to write, write. If you decide halfway through that you don’t believe in your project and you want to spend your November doing something else, no one’s keeping score. NaNoWriMo — or don’t! – just the way you want to.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Any tips on what not to do?

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About Greer Macallister [1]

Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist. Her plays have been performed at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. Her debut novel THE MAGICIAN’S LIE was an Indie Next pick, Target Book Club selection, and a USA Today bestseller, and has been optioned for film by Jessica Chastain’s Freckle Films. Her next novel is GIRL IN DISGUISE, about America’s first female private investigator, Kate Warne (Sourcebooks, March 2017.)