NaNoWhoNow? NaNoWriMo Dos And Don’ts

Writing Advice

Writing a novel is having a baby. A lot of pushing and pulling, and by the time you’re done the floor is covered in blood and amniotic fluid, and then somebody’s got to shove a bulb up somebody’s nose to clean out all the snot, and then there’s the crying, and then you have to pay for college.

Wait, no. That can’t be right.

Writing a novel is like building a chair! Yes. Yes, that’s it. It’s a craft in which you saw and sand, measure and plan, and next thing you know you’ve accidentally slipped and pressed your face up against a belt sander, and your nose goes sliding off into oblivion, and now you’re the noseless freak that the whole neighborhood makes fun of, and anytime they walk by you they do that “I Got Your Nose” shit with their thumbs and two fingers and then you’re forced to plot their murders…

Damn, that doesn’t feel accurate, either.

Writing a novel is like captaining a ship.

Writing a novel is like knitting a sweater for a unicorn?

Writing a novel is like fighting a cyborg bear!

No, no, and no.

Writing a novel, as it turns out, is like writing a novel.

And, if you’re engaging on that month-long expedition into the word-choked dark called NaNoWriMo, then you’re about to do that very thing. I don’t know that you’re so brave and intrepid I’d compare you to Admiral Byrd or whomever, but writing a novel is a pretty crazy process: lots of squalling, many hurrahs, and frankly, when you’re done the floor really is covered in blood and amniotic fluid.

(At least the way I do it.)

I received a handful of emails asking, “Hey, are you going to blog anything else about NaNoWriMo?” And I thought, “Uhh, no, I guess not.” Except, now I am. In the past, I’ve been a little critical of the NaNoWriMo setup, but I’ve never been critical of those who endeavor to actually push through this process and birth their struggling word-baby into the world. You people writing the books? You rule. Literally. You rule your own little fiefdoms and islands, your own city blocks and households, your own sky castles and undersea empires. You rule because you’re the writer.

So, I thought: hey, maybe I’ll do up a quick list of dos and don’ts. (I always want to write that “do’s” and “don’t’s,” but that looks assy, doesn’t it?) Some quick bumpers on the walls to maybe help keep your bumper car aligned — guardrails to stop you from flinging yourself into the wordless oblivion, into the yawning chasm of a no-novel existence.

Ready? Get ready to rock NaNoWriMo’s face off. Or at least its nose. Like with a belt sander.

Do Make Discipline Your Takeaway

You want to know how most writers fuck up? Seriously, here it is — the fatal flaw of the writer: we are lazy no-goodniks, forever hopping from project to project. We’re like meth addicts, our dopamine centers blown to ragged tatters, forever in search of the next high. Except, writing can’t be about the high. It can’t be about that one great day of word count. It also has to be about all the shitty ones. What NaNoWriMo will give you is discipline: the ability to staple-gun your shit-can to a chair every single day and pound the keyboard the same way a beat cop pounds pavement. It can’t get done unless it gets done.

Do Not Believe That Haste Is A Critical Ingredient To Your Word Soup

And yet, NaNoWriMo sets a very arbitrary pace: 50k in 30 days, or ~1,667 words per day. It’s certainly doable — I tend to write 2-3k a day. But I was only able to do that steadily after years of freelancing, and that’s when I have a deadline (and money) waiting at the end. Writing a novel can be a different creature, and it isn’t so easily boxed into the same schedule. Most novels I’ve written took me about three months to write from start to finish — still not a bad stretch of time, but certainly not 30 days. So, if you find that NaNoWriMo’s pace doesn’t fit your own — then stop caring about NaNoWriMo, and start caring only about the novel. Your goal is the novel. Your goal is not to “win” an Internet experiment-slash-experience. If you need three months, take ’em. If you need six, take ’em. If you need eight… well, let’s try for six, okay?

Do Take Time To Smell The Word Count (And Do A Little Planning)

Writing isn’t about writing. It’s a misnomer — a myth. The actual writing, meaning the pen-to-paper fingers-to-keyboard part, actually comprises a very small portion of the writer’s life. So much else exists between those spaces: planning, marketing, selling, rewriting, editing, researching, and so forth. Assuming that NaNoWriMo is very much about a taste of the job and the life, then for yourself and for the novel I’d recommend taking time in your day away from the writing to concentrate on some other elements. Hit your word count mark for the day, then attend to other matters your novel may require. Put your back into a little planning for tomorrow’s word count. Start writing up a sample query letter and treatment to keep yourself on task. Do up some character notes. Think in beats, scenes, sequences, acts. Then, when all that is said and done? Sit back, relax, and enjoy what you have accomplished so far. Take pride. Eat candy.

Don’t Stop Writing, Neither For Hell Nor High Water

And yet, despite this side prep, don’t stop writing. Writers can easily get lost in the prep. Lift your head from the murk! Clear your brain of the crazy bees. And always, forever anon, sit your ass down and write. This novel isn’t going to write itself. Unless it is? And if it is, then you need to tell me where you bought that awesome novel-writing robot. I seek to purchase a clone of NovelBot for a hefty sum. And if NovelBot one day goes nuclear and attacks the United States, I reserve the right to scowl at you. I’d sue you, but it won’t matter, because the entire infrastructure of our country — the legal system included — will be surely defunct thanks to the cruel reign of the word-crunching NovelBot. Damn you, robot.

Do The Work, And Realize That It Is, Indeed, Work

Surrounding NaNoWriMo is an existing giddiness, an airy and intrepid spirit — and that’s a good thing. Yes. Have fun with it. Smile now, you poor bastards because you may not be so giggly and gassy after two weeks have gone by. The reality is, writing is work. Like, work-work. It can at times be as exacting and punishing as dentistry, and sometimes you might feel like you’re a Chilean miner trapped in the deepest, darkest earth. This is, contrary to how it feels, a really good revelation. If you go into this thinking that writing a novel will be fun from day one until day 30, you’re fucked right in the ear. This isn’t a log flume ride, pal. This is a mountain climb. And climbing a mountain is a hard slog. And you might fall. Or encounter mountain lions. Or even cyborg bears. Point is, be excited for the thrill, but be ready for rectal misery.

Don’t Believe That 50,000 Words Is A Proper Novel

Writing a novel is work, and writing 50k of a novel is a lot of work — but it isn’t a complete work unless we’re talking middle-grade or young adult. For the most part, a novel is going to need to be somewhere around 70-90,000 words. Which means, uh-oh, you’ve got a lot more work to do. Now, this means one of three things — a) you create a complete 50,000 word “novel” now, then go back in and flesh it out and beef it up; b) you write 50,000 words now and realize that you’re going to, in the subsequent month, hammer out another 20-40k; or c) try to write a 70-90k novel in 30 days, which is all well and good until you pull a mental hammy and shit your brain-diapers and end up having to eat mushed-up peas and bananas for the next six months. Again, do what needs doing for the novel, not for the “contest.”

Do Consider This A Zero Draft

I consider a first draft a proper draft. It is your first completed draft, a draft that doesn’t need to be good, but needs to be utterly whole. Let this NaNoWriMo draft escape the pressures of that. Let it be a “zero draft.” It’s allowed to exist a little bit unbaked — soft in the middle, uncertain, still finding its feet like a goo-slick calf. That’s okay. Take the pressure off. You have time. Unless you’re dying from some terrible disease. And if you are, then, uhhh. Sorry? Good luck? Here, have a Hallmark card!

In Fact, Do Think Of This As A Very Powerful Outline Or Story Bible

Write this draft like it’s a very deep, intensive outline, story treatment, or story bible. Yes, yes, it’s still a novel, and it’s still a technical draft of your novel — but with the kind of haste and waste you’re going to make churning through this work, you might find yourself better served looking at the end result as a clumsy “first go.” This means it makes a truly excellent and highly-detailed preparatory tool. You take this draft, you finish it, you find the mistakes and mis-steps, then you rewrite the whole damn thing with a deeper devotion toward all those fiddly bits that make a novel truly great — character, dialogue, action, theme, mood. Oh, yeah, and plot. If one thing is going to get its head lopped off on the altar of haste, it’s plot. So, for now? Fuck plot. Just write. This is your outline, after all. A really big, really robust outline.

(Which Means You Don’t Need To Work So Hard This Month)

You say, “I’m writing a novel,” and (for me) that’s a lot of pressure. But you say, “I’m writing a novel that’s really just an outline for an even awesomer and ass-kickier novel,” then — ahhh. Woooo. The shoulders unclench. Your sphincter loosens (but not so much you make a mess on that most critical of implements, your writing chair). You let slip a few drops of happy pee. Now? The pressure’s lessened. This is just a plan. This is just really exacting prep. You’re not foolishly rushing onto the battlefield. This is a battlefield simulation! This is your own X-Men Danger Room. Breathe easy. And learn how to bring down Juggernaut.

Don’t Stop With Your Zero Draft

All that being said, don’t stop with this draft, whether you think of it as a first draft, a zero draft, or a really plump outline. NaNoWriMo is one month, but your novel cannot and should not be contained to a single month. It needs more time. Trust me, it needs more time. You’ve got more drafts to write. Possibly one, two, even ten. You don’t write until November 30th. You write until it’s good. (Or, put differently: drink until she’s pretty.) To continue the alcohol metaphor, it’s like a wine. You uncork it too early, it’s going to taste like piss and vinegar.

Do Embrace The Community

NaNoWriMo’s shining awesomeness comes in the form of being connected to something greater. You’re all embarking on a really weird journey together. Use that. Enjoy the camaraderie. Listen, a writer’s career isn’t formed just on what she can write — it’s formed on who she knows. It’s build in part on the backs of relationships. Make those relationships. Both professional and personal. It will not only give you the morale to keep on kicking, and it won’t only let you boost the spirits of others — but it’ll hopefully create lasting relationships that go well beyond November, 2010.

Don’t Rely On It, However

And yet! The writer’s life is a lonely one. Online relationships are only so real, after all, and your devotion is not to other people. Your priority isn’t social. It’s mental. Your job lurks in the words, not the words you write to encourage others but the words you write on the pages of this beast you call a novel. It can be easy to get caught up in other people’s drama, and the last thing you want to do is duct tape your novel’s fortunes to those who aren’t helping you — so, be a part of the community but know its limits. Know that the only thing that gets the book written is you writing the goddamn book.

Do Take Yourself And Your Work Seriously

Once again I’ll point out that the motif of NaNoWriMo, the prevailing mood, is one of fun — it’s a challenge! It’s a game! Hoot! Gibber! Eeeee! Well, okay, that’s very nice. But my assumption is that you’re serious about wanting to be a write. Otherwise — why do it? If you’re doing it “just to see if you can,” well, hoo-hah for you. Except, I’m not talking to you. You can go now. Shoo. Go on, skedaddle. You, glib dilettante, will soon learn that writing is a devotion, a discipline, a craft (and to some, an art), but it is not a throwaway piece of cake left on the counter for the ants. It’s serious business. And so those engaging in NaNoWriMo, I encourage you to take this seriously and more importantly, take yourself seriously. You are an ass-kicking, neck-throttling word jockey. You command the powers of the verbal elements. You make characters dance, fight, fuck, eat, love and kill. You can set the mood of the room the way most people set the temperature in their house. You are a god here. Accept that mission for what it is: a responsibility.

Do Not Take It So Seriously That You Start Sending It Out To Agents And Editors Immediately, Because That Makes Word Jesus Turn Evil And Doom The World

The one flaw in NaNoWriMo (and why it sometimes earns the ire of professional writers) is that it kind of floods the marketplace a little bit. November 30th rolls around and suddenly you have a world with thousands of new novels birthed screaming into an unkind world, and while that remains a truly sublime act of creation, it also means that you have a lot of writers who don’t have the sense of a tree grub, and these writers decide to abdicate their own sense of work and responsibility by throwing their unformed fetal drafts into the world. They choke the inboxes of agents and editors with their protoplasmic snot-waffle novels and they think, “Gee golly gosh, I’m a real writer now!” Except, they’re not. They’re rosy-cheeked, empty-eyed shitheads. Don’t be that shithead. Don’t just loose your garbage onto an unsuspecting world (which creates more work for agents and editors who already have a hard time finding diamonds in a sewage tank). Take time. Polish your work. Give it six months. Give it a year. Give the novel the air it needs to breathe. Give yourself, as a self-serious novelist, time to realize when this book is ready to roll or (a bigger and more mature revelation) that this book just isn’t “the one” — and that it’s time to write another better book, a book that doesn’t beg to be written only from November 1st to November 30th, a book that can be written whenever your fluttering wordmonkey heart so desires.

157 comments

  • I like a person who can effectively use the word “Fuck” in a multitude of ways. FYI: The 4 letter “f” word of a sterotyped, obscene nature is my favorite word, used at least 20 times a day.
    I think this post is great, inspiring, and a good description of the crazy nature of the writer pysche.
    My noodle is currently sloshing around 2 additional stories… and I am still editing 1 novel, and working another.

    *Dumb question moment*
    Would editing a novel already completed count towards Nanowrimo worthiness?

    I will answer my own question and say “No!” So this writer will continue plugging away at one new idea for the month of November.
    Thanks again Chuck for the encouraging words provided.

  • Sweet article.
    I’m doing the young writer NaNoWriMo (Im 13) and I’m really enjoying it so far. Most of my friends in school HAVE to do NaNoWriMo in school as a project…my friend told me about the site and I had to join. But the teacher told them to write a wimpy 8,000 words this month. I think that’s kind of pathetic if you ask me.

    And my online friends on deviantart.com all say “quantity over quality when it comes to NaNoWriMo”. Bullcrap.

    This article helped me realize I’m not the only actually taking this seriously for the quality over quantity.

    I am a beginner writer though…so I think I’ll work on this novel for over a year, and than hopefully publish it :]

  • I’m sending all the members of my region your way. They all need to read this, not only to bring a smile to their faces for the way you put some things, but to make them really think as well (the ones who are serious “I want to be a writer” writers anyway, not the “this’ll be a fun activity for the month!” jackasses.)

  • This is possibly the best article on writing…ever. Wow *stands shaking head in dumbstruck awe.*

    Thank you for shouting the truth with style. I am now a fan and looking forward to more.

    Kristen

  • Excellent. Exactly the kick in the pants (and good laugh) that I needed – even if it’s going to be applied to a comic rather than a book. 😉 Thanks a bunch!

    (Found this article through Kristen Lamb, just for the records.)

  • Read something similar here.
    http://www.43folders.com/2006/04/10/lamott-birthday
    From author Anne Lamott;
    “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
    You need to get past the the mental block of being able to write a bestseller at the first attempt, that in order to be good at something, you are going to suck at it, for a while. The only way to get better, is to do it again, and again, and again. Over and over, honing your craft.
    But this is true of everything we do, right?

    BTW, to build any type of new habit, takes at least two years of doing it on a daily basis. At least. Or so I am led to believe.
    Anyway, great post, thank you.

  • Actually, I hate to be picky, but you can write a novel in 50,000 words. Slaughterhouse 5 and the Great Gatsby are both less than 50,000 words. Does that mean they are not real novels?

    • The definition of a novel is a work of prose/fiction that is at least 50,000 words in length. So if “Slaughterhouse 5” and “The Great Gatsby” are both under 50,000 words then technically they are novellas. But who the heck cares? A great work of fiction is a great work of fiction, regardless of length.

      I think Chuck’s point wasn’t so much that 50K isn’t a novel as that most novels you’ll find on the shelves these days are longer. It’s an industry trend, but the actual definition hasn’t changed.

  • I’m gearing up for my first NaNoWriMo, and reading your post was a great way to get focused on the task to come. I’m trying to be realistic about it being a ton of work. It’ll be exciting as hell — but also a long slog up that 50K mountain. And your last part was a big dose of reality, too. I certainly wouldn’t consider my book finished at the end of November. All that slogging during the month will certainly result in some meh writing. So editing, re-working, polishing is definitely needed. Great advice!

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