I signed up for NaNoWriMo for the first time this year. It was more of an experiment than anything, though I had two good reasons for wanting to ditch my usual work practices for the month and concentrate on getting as many words down on the page as possible. Firstly, I was presenting a pair of novel writing workshops in mid-November, and I knew many of the participants were attempting NaNo. I figured my presentation would be more relevant for them if I’d shared the experience in all its frustration and frenzy. Secondly, my current writing load is ridiculously heavy (memo to self, learn to say No) and I figured that getting the first 50,000 words of the new novel done in a month would be a fantastic, morale-boosting start.
I know NaNo is not for full time established writers. Those of us who earn a living writing fiction would not be where we are if we couldn’t get work finished, complete a respectable number of words per day or per week, stay focused on a task, and do effective revision and editing of our work, whether it’s as we go or after a first draft. NaNo is about quantity, not quality, though a few writers have used their NaNo efforts as a basis for highly successful published work, eg Erin Morgenstern. But the general idea of NaNoWriMo is to slap an average of 1667 words per day down on the page, and never mind if what you write is diamonds or dross.
So did I write 50,000 words? Was I a NaNo pass or a NaNo fail?
I wrote just over 30,000 words of my YA novel (sequel to Shadowfell) between November 1 and November 21, with three days off in the middle to prepare my workshops. A quick check tells me that is exactly 1666 words per day, which meant I was on target until that point. Around Nov 21 I made the decision to pull the pin on NaNo. Why?
- I don’t need to prove to myself that I can achieve a set word count if required. As a full time pro I do this all the time.
- Maintaining 1666 per day often meant I wrote when too tired and cranky to do it well. Note, a weekly word count is often a more useful guide than a daily one – it allows better flexibility and continuity.
- The weight of my current workload – one book deadline in December, another in April, with a third book at the proof-reading stage, not to mention workshops and competition judging – means I can’t afford to spend time writing a lot of material I won’t use.
- The method was too far removed from my normal work practice. I am a planner par excellence, and I edit as I go. The need to forge ahead without re-reading previous chapters meant what I wrote was quite repetitive. Out of that 30,000 perhaps 20,000 might make it into the final book if I’m lucky. And despite the fact that I was working to a plan, maintaining that daily word count come hell or high water meant I disregarded some of the basic wisdoms of effective storytelling, such as grabbing the reader’s interest with a dynamic opening scene. If I were the kind of writer who does a quick and dirty first draft followed by several complete reworkings, that wouldn’t matter – it could be fixed later. But I’m not that kind of writer. I hate structural editing. My usual practice is to write about three chapters then go back to edit the entire ms before proceeding. I don’t throw away much at all; once I get to The End, most of the ms is fairly polished. The thought of ditching a big chunk of work is anathema.
So at 30,000 words I bailed out of NaNoWriMo. I turned my attention to the other project on hand, doing a final run through my adult novel, Flame of Sevenwaters, prior to submission. I’ll go back to the YA project later.
Of course, we all have external factors that get in the way of completing the NaNo word count, or indeed any word count. Every one of us has a life outside writing. We may need to compromise; to be more realistic in our expectations. Tackling NaNoWriMo showed me that my current work practices suit me and are efficient in their control freakish way. Working in pantser mode for those few weeks did not make me feel more creative and free, just exhausted and stressed out! For others the experience may be far more positive.
Note, if I added up the number of words I wrote while preparing workshop handouts and critique notes, not to mention various other pieces of writing I’ve completed since Nov 1, I’m sure I’d discover I’ve actually written 50,000 words this month!