How NaNoWriMo has helped me to be a better writer, even though I fail every November

When writing is a struggle, a flutter of wings at the window is a welcome distraction; when it’s going well however, a herd of wildebeest could stampede through the garden and I’d not look up. But how do you get from one stage to the other? I wrote about how long it took me to listen to the best advice about giving things up and carving out regular writing time here, the figures below show just how valuable a routine can be in increasing productivity – but I say “can” because nothing works for every writer, and sometimes it doesn’t work twice for the same writer.

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Tryfan, its top hidden by cloud. Hopefully the image will make sense by the end of this post

Just in case anyone doesn’t know, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month and each year people commit to writing 50 thousand words in the month of November. I have never officially signed up for it, nor come close to achieving it, but the goal of writing every day and concentrating on words written over content has worked well. Previously I was an edit-as-you-go writer, with the result that each day I would look back at the previous day’s efforts, tweak it a little, then ponder what came next, and all too frequently go backwards rather than forwards.

I’ll admit that I scoffed a little when I first heard about NaNo, so many people believing they can write? And writing fast? How can anything of value be created in such a quantity and speed obsessed fashion? People said that writing without looking back or editing was freeing, but I frequently found myself cursing the need to keep an eye on the word counter when I wanted to spend half an hour mulling over a scene and rewriting one paragraph twenty times until I captured exactly the right words and tone and imagery. As I made myself push on – leaving * signs and notes with “rewrite” “find better similes” or “too clunky!” I did at least move on with the plot and too my astonishment on reading back after a month away a lot of it read far better than I remembered it feeling at the time.

Possibly most valuable for me, as someone who has spent hours mulling over the right way to transition from scene to scene and frequently written pages of post and pre scene analysis for my characters where they have internal reflection on what has just happened (and too often just pointlessly repeat it) – the freedom of just ending the scene and writing “later” was astonishing. All too soon a few words flashing forwards or backwards to make sure a passage of time and location was all I needed and I had a story that flowed as naturally as a stream downhill, rather than a forced series of starting and stopping, liked a blocked drain.

Another plus was that where previously I would spend an age thinking about how to introduce a scene or change of subject and would run it back and forth in my mind from different points of view, and would rewrite constantly trying to emphasise different senses and sights and sounds, now I just write the barest essentials to establish place and players and then crack on with action and dialogue, intending to go back and flesh out later – but I frequently find the succinct sketch of the moment and location is all the more evocative for its brevity. Who knew? Making the sharpest of sketches for me was also enough on a later re read; by staying in the moment as I wrote and moving on, rather than coming out of the writing and looking at it critically, I not only kept the plot and word count moving, but I was creating clearer, more precise, moving and intimate moments. (It is possible that this revelation is mine alone, not everyone writes interminable waffle or needs an editor as badly as I do.)

I kept a tally of my word count, and also a few other insights as they occurred, here are some telling ones.

  • Day 1 – The freedom to just write and not worry too much
  • Day 2 – being able to just write “moving on” or “later” rather than agonising over the right way to shift scene or pace – it’s fine to do that esp as these scenes may all end up cut so why agonise now over how to seamlessly joining them?
  • Getting to know the characters by just letting them talk – they keep surprising me with flashbacks and my h is pricklier than I expected – the H is lovely
  • Day 4 – Is this just one long date?!
  • Day 7 – Is this just the world’s longest synopsis? He said, she said, they did – where’s the nuance and unexplained tensions and subtexts, the emotional side? I get at least one paragraph a day which I enjoy where one of them, usually in flashback, paints a picture using many senses that shows us how they have felt about something, but the rest of it is arched or furrowed brows, bitten lips and gleaming glances, urrrgh

In fact, on re reading, I found a lot more than just what they said and did, there is a lot of emotion and a fair amount of description, although not as much as I always like to write. But at least I have the bare bones of an entire book to work on, not the usual 3 and bit chapters that I would have written in that time.

  • My words counts looked like this.
  • 594, 2297, 0, 1,054, 3,050, 2,035, 2,109, 753, 0 & 0 over a family weekend. 3,066, 1,934, 2,702

As you can see, I can write fast when the story is clear in my head (a prerequisite for Nanoing I think. As I wrote before, I looked forward to those hours, longed for them, was plotting all day in my head so that as soon as I fired up the laptop I knew exactly what I wanted to write. I can do about 2K an hour when all is going well although I’ll admit that a serious downside to speed is my typos; it took weeks to spell check the entire manuscript and even longer to correct the first read through.

2014 Nano was stopped by a severe cold that led to a chest infection that still had me coughing by Christmas. 2015 lasted 5 days, I got the word count but wasn’t feeling the story (although a lot of it was useable later) I started again daily in April this year and gradually built myself up to previous writing levels until when the family went away for a weekend I wrote 10,572 in exactly 48 hours. I carried on daily and after 1 month and 5 days I had written 50K words, the most important of which were “The End”.

So, am I for or against NaNoWriMo? As far as November goes, no. But as the spur I needed to get me writing daily and writing forwards rather than always looking back, yes. I have not yet finished the edit and rewrite due to a shift in day to day life, but it’s well under way and a sequel has been started – that may be a serious threat, that the initial first fast draft becomes the pleasant, “easy” bit. The one time I plotted a novel out with scenes, characters, arcs and plot points – I couldn’t write it. Once I knew where it was going I felt no urge to explore the writing of it. I’m hoping that that the editing and rewriting will continue to feel more like polishing a jewel rather than a forced march uphill. Or perhaps the metaphor should be that I hope it will feel a steady, tricky, but rewarding climb up a mountain where the air grows ever clearer and the mists recede until a perfect vista is laid before me, ready to be shared.

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View from the top of Tryfan
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2 thoughts on “How NaNoWriMo has helped me to be a better writer, even though I fail every November

  1. ‘The Craft of Revision’ might help when you’re done- it’s out of print (Donald Murray), but does encourage healthy pruning. Another title I enjoyed was his ‘Write to Learn’ – you don’t _know_ everything before you start, and the characters, your story and understanding actually _emerges_ which is what you were alluding to I think? Definitely the writing _velocity_ sounds like it’s been good for you though…

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  2. Hi, the velocity has certainly been great, as has the general productivity and getting into a regular writing grove. And you’re right, being so immersed in the process so that the story seems to emerge of its own free will is a wonderful feeling. I’ll look out for the revision book, I hate to cut anything once it’s on the page so all pruning help is most valuable, thank you.

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