Things I Learned From NaNoWriMo

Well, folks... another NaNoWriMo has come and gone, and I am very happy to say that I made it through alive! Exhausted, but alive. Of course, this is setting the bar high because I am now two for two for November NaNos (I'm not counting August's Camp NaNo), so whenever I participate again, I will have to try to keep my record spotless!

I've been to a few author talks by now, and since they all took place in late summer/early fall, there was a lot of heated discussion about the virtues (or lack thereof) of NaNoWriMo. I was surprised to find out that many of the authors don't approve of its crazed 30-day madness. I'm all for anything that gets people to sit down and write, but this time around - sapped of energy, fingers aching, with a ghost of a book that may or may not have any character development - I'm starting to see where they come from.

Is it better to pound out 50K as fast as you can, just to have something down on the page, even if it's complete and utter crap? Or is it better to savor the process and have a more polished product, even if it takes you months or years?

After writing four-and-a-half novels, I've done both, and I have to say... I still don't really know.

But here is what I do know, and what two NaNoWriMos have taught me:

  • I need an outline. Hopelessly. Desperately. There is no way I can do NaNo without at least some plotting. If you made me pants it, I'd probably turn into Jack Nicholson in The Shining and just type "All pantsing and no plotting makes Julie crazy" until I hit 50K.

  • That being said, I need to leave the ending open. I only plot about 50% of a book before I write it, because even with a road map, things change. I need to be able to adapt the story should it decide to go in a different direction, and I can always continue plotting later.

  • I can't write every single day. Yes, I know that is the whole point of NaNoWriMo, but it's just not realistic for everyone who works full-time. Plus, writing 1,667 words is nothing. For me, that's barely half a chapter. When I sit down to write, I need to dive in and give it my full attention, and that means writing at least 3K.

  • There is no wrong way to write a book. (Unless you're not writing at all.) I won both NaNoWriMos by doing full-on weekend sprints. Both times, I felt so guilty when I didn't (or just couldn't) write as much on weekdays. But the technique works for me. I have 50K written, just like the people who did it the "right" way.

  • The idea needs to excite me. Duh, right? But inspiration helps me when my motivation flags... and it is guaranteed to flag at some point. I need to be writing something that I 100% love and believe in. It's much easier to write when I want to know what happens next.

  • I will never finish a rough draft in 50,000 words. Never. I am so ridiculously wordy (as anyone who has CP'd for me will tell you) and my first drafts are always full of word vomit. My past books ended on average around 80-85K, so that's what I'm aiming for with THREADS.

My end-of-the-year goals: 1) Finish THREADS (which has less than 30K to go!) and 2) start writing FOTL, my epic fantasy. I'm scared, but I know it will be a good learning experience in terms of world-building and writing an ensemble cast, two things I want to work on.

How are you guys doing? Did you do NaNoWriMo/NaNoRevisMo, and how did it go?

Hope all of you fellow Americans had a great Thanksgiving!


Connie Keller said...

Congratulations!! I'm throwing confetti for you.

Jay Noel said...

I start with the 7 point story structure, then I outline an entire book chapter by chapter.

I stick to it in the beginning, and then I veer away by quite a bit as I write. It's the panster in me, I guess. But I do need an outline to begin.

NaNo is great. It helps writers remove the biggest stumbling block of all - having the discipline to write.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It works differently for each writer. I start with a very detailed outline - one I've spent month on. I've played the story in my head dozens of times. It helps me to produce a first draft that isn't a total mess.
Of course, I write carefully and try to chose the right words and phrasing. Add to the fact that I am a slow typist, and it takes me a good five hours or more to hit the daily minimum.
But with two published books that were written that way, it's the way that works for me.

Marisa Hopkins said...

Woo hoo, Julie!! *tosses confetti*

Azia DuPont said...

Congrats on winning NaNo! I'm totally with you when it comes to being on the fence with NaNo-- this is my third year participating and my first year winning-- and I'm just sort of looking at my MS going WELP THIS IS CRAP. And it's a bit frustrating knowing what a giant-rewrite it will be. But, alas- a labor of love, no?

workofheart09 said...

Yay, I was so excited to see a post from you! Congratulations on NaNo and good luck with the rest of the book! I'm with you on the wordy first drafts. I will always, always, always prefer to have too much than not enough, though. Also: so agreed about plotting but still keeping the ending open. Having a guide to follow is so important, but this way there's the freedom to let go of the initial plans, too.

Hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving, too!

Medeia Sharif said...


If I ever do NaNo, I'll have an outline first.

Good luck with your goals.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Well done! I won, too, and even though my draft is really a mess and not even close to being finished, I'm happy with the idea overall. I'm letting it sit now and will pick it back up in January.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Congratulations, Julie! Way to go! I made it to 50K, too, but I'm a long way from done on this puppy, so I'm still typing away.

Louise Bates said...

Congratulations! Two for two - that's awesome!

NaNo, I have decided, is not for me. At least not at this point in the writing game. For one thing, November is usually when I back off my writing a bit so that I can start working on Christmas sewing/knitting projects. Also, though, the "just get words down even if they're crap" has never worked for me. I'm a slow first drafter, but I don't need as many revisions, because I put so much time into that first draft and feel free to go back and change bits and pieces when I need to, even while I'm writing. The pressure to get a specific number of words down to meet an arbitrary deadline would drive me MAD.

But I love what it does and how it helps other writers, so I'm definitely a supporter of the notion!

Tony Laplume said...

I hear you on all of these points except for the part about endings. I need to know my ending before I reach it. I wouldn't know what to write without that valuable knowledge!

Neurotic Workaholic said...

Congratulations on Nano! I wish I could have participated, but I had to work on my dissertation, sighhh....I think Nano is good because it motivates so many people to write, and that's always a good thing. And I think it makes writers feel better to know that they're part of a community.

Tiana Smith said...

Yay for you :) I agree with you - sometimes NaNo works for me and sometimes it doesn't. I think it depends on the writer. For me, I've found that I usually do better with a bit more time and less word vomit, but it did help me get started, and I learned that I *can* write a novel. Without that first NaNo so many years ago, I don't know if I'd be where I'm at today.

Meika Usher said...

Yay, Julie! I was so jealous of everyone participating in NaNoWriMo this year. I really wanted to do it, but I knew I needed to focus on my current WIP right now. I'm horribly stuck, though, which has me itching to write All The New Ideas!

As for what I've learned from NaNo's past, I find that just getting the words out is more helpful than planning each and every sentence. If I have a deadline and I HAVE to write those words, no matter how crappy they are, I tend to write a lot more. And, sure, it is one awful rough draft come December 1st, but it's a start of something I otherwise wouldn't have written!

PS: I cannot WAIT to read these books you're writing. They all sound SO good!

Michael Di Gesu said...

HI, Julia,

Congrats on finishing with NaNo … you did learn a lot.

Such great experience.

I tend to agree that writing 50k in a month is a bit extreme, but it does work for some people.

Good luck with your future plans and have a great holiday!

DL Hammons said...

Boo-Yah!!! Never had any doubt you would hit the mark. We are VERY similar in our approaches...although I could never do NaNo and I do plot my endings.

I'll send an email soon...ready to put my nose to the grindstone. :)

Julie Dao said...

Connie: Thanks, lady! <3

Jay: I love NaNo, too! It's such a nice way to get most of another novel written each year.

Alex: That's my favorite process, too, actually. I can't do NaNo every year because it's just too frantic, although it does help me get something new written. I'm a slower writer myself.

Marisa: <3 <3

Azia: Thanks, girl! Congrats on winning NaNo this year! HAHAHA and that is my exact reaction to what I have written. But at least we have something down on the page to fix later! Definitely a labor of love.

Shari: Thanks, sweet friend! I too prefer to have too many words. You can always cut them out later (which I always do during the revision stages).

Medeia: I definitely would not be able to NaNo without an outline. Thanks!

Madeline: Ah, congrats! So cool to hear how many people made the goal. I think it's a great idea to let the book marinate for a while :)

B.E.: And congrats to you as well! I am also a long way from done, so I'll be right there typing too.

Louise: Definitely. I think that the authors I went to see are the same way. They don't approve of NaNo because it's encouraging people to focus on quantity rather than quality. It works for a certain type of writer, but personally, I think I'm not really a NaNo-style writer either. It's just fun to get something written down, as long as it's clear that there will be a LOT of revisions needed!

Tony: I know basically what my ending will be, too. It's just how the story gets there that is left up in the air, and lots of unexpected stuff can happen.

Workaholic: Sorry you couldn't join us for NaNo this year! November is always a crazy month. Agreed that one of the biggest draws of NaNo is the community feel. But I am lucky to get that every day of the year with my blogging buddies like yourself :)

Tiana: Thank you! That's cool that the first NaNo helped you get to where you are. I'm the same way - quality over quantity - so I definitely could not and will not do this every year.

Meika: Sorry you couldn't participate this year, but I'm sure you're making progress on your WIP! Even if you're just thinking/dreaming about it. Same here... NaNo forces me to write a lot more than I normally would. And it keeps me from editing every sentence and hemming and hawing over word choice.

Michael: Thank you, and I hope you have a great holiday as well!

Don: Thank you, sir! Not a big surprise that we are very similar in our writing approaches :D So excited for you and I am looking forward to your email! Hope you and the family had a great time at Disney World!

Shelley Sly said...

Yay, congrats! I don't really think there's a right or wrong way to NaNo (though I know people say there is). As long as you're writing, you're doing it right! Go you! :)

Jemi Fraser said...

I adore NaNo and was thrilled to win again. I wish there was the same kind of excitement for me for editing - I am so sloooooow!!! And I wish I could plot better - but I'm working on that too :)

Haddock said...

Congratulations on that.
Some valuable points here. Will keep these in mind when I take up writing on a full scale :-)
Following you.

LD Masterson said...

You're doing great. Best of luck on hitting those end of year goals and writing into 2014.

Julie Dao said...

Shelley: I agree! As long as you get some words down, that's the right way to do it.

Jemi: Congrats on winning! And good luck with editing. I like drafting better myself, but it's nice to see a tighter manuscript after the revisions!

Haddock: Thank you, glad these points helped!

LD: Thank you so much!

Cynthia said...

Congratulations on surviving NaNoWriMo! That is truly an accomplishment.

For me, I considered my experience with NaNo as an opportunity to draft out a general outline of my book. Like you, I needed an outline for that month, so I guess you could say I needed an outline to write my more extensive NaNo outline. =)

Margo Berendsen said...

Yup, I have to be PASSIONATE about an idea for it to work for NaNoWriMo. And I need an outline too even though I depart from it by about week 3! My initial idea for NaNo this year got me excited for exactly one day. I knew it could never carry me through a month. I actually went rebel and revised part of an old manuscript I'm still passionate about.

Julie Dao said...

Cynthia: I like the idea of having an outline for our outlines!

Margo: I depart from my outline eventually, too, but it's nice to have something to stick to in the beginning!

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