Lessons From the NaNoWriMo Trenches

We have now entered the last week of November and, like every other year, I’m amazed by the amount of work fellow NaNos and I have produced, and the intoxicating community of writers surrounding this event. From the daily support of fellow WriMos to the pep talks from professionals, this is an amazing experience. I’d like to extend a heartfelt thank you to the non-profit coordinating this crazy venture (simply named National Novel Writing Month, formerly known as The Office of Letters and Light) and the Municipal Liaisons (volunteers who organize local writing events throughout November)  for their time and dedication.

I’ve seen a few negatives reactions about NaNo around the web, people complaining about the number of encouragement/bragging on social media or arguing that writing 50k in a month will only produce drivel. Sure, we get a little word count obsessed and some people only write random stuff for the fun of it and don’t care about the outcome, but that’s not true for everyone.

Fair enough, I concede on both arguments anyway.

However –you knew that one was coming, didn’t you?– by dismissing the whole event, detractors are missing out on some valuable writing lessons learned in the blazing trenches of NaNoWriMo. Because of the incentive to produce and the fast pace of the challenge, we learn a lot about ourselves and reflexes that can make us better writers. So, without further ado, I’ll present my top three lessons learned during NaNo, how to capitalize on them and why they work in favor of a first draft.

I’m stuck! – Kill Someone!

On the course of the month, it’ll happen quite often that someone’s shoulder will slump before he/she says: “I’m stuck.” Without missing a beat, someone else will recommend, “Kill someone!” or, alternatively, “Take their clothes off!”

There is a reason why this is one of the top advices heard during NaNo: drama keeps the story moving forward. When we find ourselves unable to write a scene, there’s likely a lack of conflict. If it is supposed to be a high-octane scene and yet the words don’t flow, the stakes aren’t high enough.

The “kill someone” advice causes us to ask ourselves what would be a huge wrench that derails our plot and gets us excited to write the next couple of chapters. That wrench needs to be in our story, not just for NaNo’s sake, but for the reader’s sake too.

Questioning the amount of tension when we get stuck is a reflex worth developing to avoid trudging through a bad scene, exhaust ourselves and hit writer’s block. It forces us to clarify the stakes and motivations which solidifies the plot. I’ve found that editing is much easier if the draft nails the core of the drama, even if it’s clunky.

So when you hit a wall, ask yourself: What are the stakes? Where is the drama? How can I crank them up? If this is a transition scene, how can I build in nods at the stakes and drama to make it interesting?

Slow Writing = Slow Reading

After a few days of NaNoWriMo, we ramp up to a cruising speed and such a routine makes dips in productivity unmistakeable. Every time writing is like pulling teeth, I ask myself if I’m tired, sick of writing in general or if the scene is especially tricky; these are valid productivity hindrances. If the answer to these questions is “no” yet the last thousand words took me twice the usual time to write, I make a note for myself and keep writing.

These notes come into play when I start editing: my first pass of edits on a NaNo novel is to read it while paying special attention to the marked section and questioning their relevance. Some of them are good and were just written on an “off day”, but most of them need some serious TLC or an axe in the forehead. The marked scenes fall flat, either because they lack drama (see previous point) or because, when I look hard enough, they’re useless.

I wouldn’t notice as many slowdowns without the imperative to produce.

[Insert Cool Science Thingy]

Research may very well be the number one source of procrastination for writers, and WriMos simply can’t afford to spend a couple of days researching the mating rituals of squids in captivity to write one 500-word scene.

In my experience, doing too much research while writing a draft caused me to get hung up on the details and overshadow the conflict with complex information that, in the end, isn’t necessary. I can fix it in editing, but I’d much rather be not spend energy on writing it in the first place.

Several WriMos use the [Insert blood pattern description that indicate a slashed throat] method to isolate the research that needs to be done for the scene. This enables us to pin point what we need for the plot and keep writing. We’ll do targeted research and fill in the blanks during the edits.

Yes, sometimes the research feeds the plot, so it may be needed, but the pace of NaNo forces us to question the relevance of stopping for that. Most of the time, we’ll keep writing.

It’s important to not get bugged down in the first draft and this technique can also be used to [add transition] and skip ahead to the next plot point. Once the core of the story is out, we’re more informed to make these transitions interesting during editing. 😉

Closing Words

NaNoWrimo makes us sit down and write a good amount every day, whether we feel like it or not. That’s already a good habit for a writer. The pace of productivity can also strengthen our first draft process, if we care to use the challenge to our advantage. Fellow WriMos are there for support and may become trusted critique partners for the rest of the year. The pace also helps us get to know ourselves as writers: how much outlining makes us more productive? Which time of day works best to churn out words? Coffee, tea or jelly bellies?

I encourage every aspiring writers to get through NaNoWriMo. You’ll grow, even if you only do it once.

Fellow WriMos, what is your top lesson learned from NaNo?

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About Aheïla

Somewhere in Quebec City, Aheïla works as a Game Design Director by day and writes by night. Known for her blue hair, unyielding dynamism and tasty cooking (quails, anyone?), she’s convinced “prose is the new crack”. She satisfies her addiction daily on The Writeaholic’s Blog and weekly on Games' Bustles View all posts by Aheïla

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