25 September 2017

Nano, Nano

by Steve Liskow

At least one source claims that over 300,000 people signed up for National Novel Writing Month (November) last year, and I'm guessing that about 5% of them actually achieved the 50,000 word target by the 30th. If you're thinking about joining in this year, you have about five weeks to gird your loins, sharpen your pencil, or polish your keyboard.

I present workshops on preparing to write for NANO and I encourage people to sign up for several reasons.

First, if you're one of those people who has always believed you have a book in you, now's a good time to find out. Keep in mind that the catchy title is misleading. You won't write a book in a month, partly because a novel is longer than 50,000 words and partly because you're going to have to revise everything several times to make it coherent. If you don't believe that, maybe I can discourage you after all.

Second, trying to write 50,000 words in a month will help you find your most efficient process. Do you write more comfortably early in the morning or late at night? Do you work better in one long stretch or in shorter bursts of 30-45 minutes? Do you find it easier to type at a computer or use a pen or pencil and write your first draft out longhand? Can you simply jump in and start writing, or do you prefer to outline and create character biographies first? Writing, especially fiction, is a personal and intimate process, so nobody else can really tell you how to do it. You need to experiment and learn from your mistakes. Once you can get words on paper, you can learn more about plot and character, better point of view choices, and all the other mechanics.

But the first task, especially if you're new at this, is learning how much effort it takes to produce an average of 1667 words--roughly six and a half pages in 12-point font--every day. For the newbie, this is a daunting task. Even the act of sitting long enough to do it is rough, and you need to resist the urge to check your email, play computer games, or edit your picture files. Many established writers set daily word limits for themselves. Stephen King expects to write 2000 words, roughly eight pages, daily. I'm not sure, but I don't think he outlines. Neither do Dennis Lehane or Tess Gerritsen. Robert Crais outlines and plans, maybe because he got his start writing for television.

Keep in mind that if you're going to produce that much every day, not all of it will be brilliant. That's the biggest secret I can offer you. There are no obscure psychological tricks I know except giving yourself permission to produce lots of crap. Think of your first draft as a block of marble. The revision is the sculpting part: chipping away everything that doesn't look like an elephant or the Venus de Milo. Don't worry about whether what you're writing is good or bad. That comes later.

Some people (I'm one of them) like to do a rough outline or character background. I try to create a sequence of fifty scenes before I start the actual writing, then plan to produce at least one complete scene daily ( I NEVER quit in the middle of a scene because I'll lose the rhythm overnight). For whatever reason, my scenes average about 1600 words, so aiming at one a day keeps me on the target. By the time I write a complete first draft of the book, I'm often on the fifteenth scene list, or even more.

But sequencing and pacing come with practice and NANO is a great first step toward that goal.
If I write that quickly, I begin to find the rhythm of the book, too, and learn when a scene is in the wrong place or needs a different point of view. Then I change it on my outline/scene list. Actually, my first draft is that scene list.

Remember, if you write 50,000 words in a month, it's only the beginning.

But it's a great beginning.

7 comments:

Art Taylor said...

I've tried Nanowrimo a couple of times and never made it through to the end. I don't write that way, unfortunately--though wish I was quicker indeed, and may try it again to break free of some of the sluggishness of my pace! Good points here, and your workshop sounds fun!

(Small other point: I think one of your sentences got cut off, that bigger paragraph toward the end of the post. Just FYI.)

janice law said...

It is always so interesting to hear how other people work. Must say I don't outline fiction, although I do outline non fiction carefully. As for stopping in the middle of a scene, I find if I am getting tired stopping works out just fine as I have a running start on what needs to be done the next day.

As for length I always tell people who want to write a novel that if they write a page a day they will have a decent sized novel in a year.

keenanpowell said...

I tried NaNo a couple of Novembers ago, hit a wall at 15,000 and quit. This past July, I came prepared with an outline. Got to "The End" in 45,000 words. Hardy a novel but more like a pile of "clay" I can mold. I'm glad I did it. I don't think I'll pants again; I keep hitting that same wall at 15,000 words.

Mary Sutton said...

I've done both NaNo in November and Camp NaNo a couple times. I generally wind up with my 50,000 words proclaiming me a "winner," but a) that's never "The End" and 2) as you say, it then has to go through a lot of polishing. But it's more than what I had at the beginning of the month.

I don't "outline" in the traditional sense, but over the weekend one of my critique partners said she's convinced that "Draft Zero" is my outline - mostly because I seem to start at one place and discover so much during the process. For example, in my latest project the killer finally revealed himself when I was about 75% of the way through - and it wasn't who I started out thinking the killer was (I stopped, made copious notes about what had to change earlier and finished the draft as though this person had existed all along).

Because absolutely no one ever sees this draft, I'm comfortable referring to it as my "outline." So now I can proudly proclaim I write a 250+ page outline before I write the book! LOL

Mary/Liz

Eve Fisher said...

I've never done the NaNo, and have no plans to. (Short story writers of the world unite!) But I can imagine that it would be a breakthrough experience for many - in many ways.

Steve Liskow said...

Art, you're right. That last sentence looks weird, but I no longer remember what else I may have meant to say when I wrote it a couple of weeks ago. Maybe I should just add a period.

Mary, is it Sue Grafton who writes a whole binder of planning and notes and an outline that's almost as long as her books? I don't remember. You've mentioned an important point though, especially for the new writers: Nobody ever has to see anything unless you show it to them.
That means it's fine to make mistakes and wallow around. For me, that's the most exciting part. And boy, do I wallow.

Keenan, I agree. What you have isn't finished, but it gives you lots of possibilities for playing...

And Janice, yes, I've heard that page a day advice before, too. And it's certainly true, isn't it?

Jeff Baker said...

Bravo, Steve! Encouraging and informative! I write a lot of short stories and know the value of putting pen to paper every day---the word counts accumulate! And I loved your title! (And I didn't think of it! "Shazbot!" :) )