Five Things I Learned from NaNoWriMo
I survived NaNoWriMo. What is NaNoWriMo? It was the kooky idea of a handful of friends who challenged each other to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November, and that launched an international movement to get others to join in, and now, a dozen years later, NaNoWriMo is a juggernaut where normally sensible people do insane things. Let me tell you about how NaNoWriMo went for me.
I vowed, rashly, to get out of bed at 5 a.m. and write my fingers off every day until I had hit my 50,000 word goal. I planned ahead, writing myself an inspirational note on the kitchen chalkboard (“NaNoWriMo 5am BITCHES!”) and pre-setting the coffee-maker. I pre-plotted a little tiny bit. Like, the first two chapters. After that, I was in the land of Pure Imagination…
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing or a good thing. In NaNoWriMo, the motto is, “No plot, no problem.” Just keep writing. So I got myself out of bed, poured the coffee, wrapped up in a blankie and wrote. And wrote. And wrote. Things went along pretty well until I got to about 40,000 words, and then I hit The Wall. In NaNoWriMo circles, this is a very common occurrence. About the third week of November, the enthusiasm wanes. The adrenaline wears off. It becomes a slog through mud. A deathmarch toward 50K. I had run out of plot. I had a crick in my shoulder that wouldn’t go away. I was sleeping on a heating pad and popping ibuprofen daily. What time is it? Advil o’clock. I was afraid I was out of story. It worried me. I mean, what if my imagination had run dry?
Then I went to a write-in without my laptop. I took a notepad and a pen and hand-drafted a chapter. Then another. By the end of the two-hour session, I had consumed a Mexican hot chocolate and a currant scone, and drafted the last five chapters of the novel. I went home and hit the laptop. The only day I couldn’t write was Thanksgiving Day, and it was a maddening day, torn between peeling potatoes and vacuuming cat hair and making a cheese platter while my eyes glazed over, thinking of what was in store for my heroine. I tell ya, the life of a novelist is no picnic.
But I finished. November 28, and I slammed the door on this (extremely) rough draft. I’m taking the month of December to let the draft marinate, so to speak, and revisions begin January 1. This, the second volume of the Veronika Layne Hot off the Press series, will be out in spring.
So what did I learn from NaNoWriMo?
1) Goals are important. Set them. Pursue them. Try to make them. Adjust the timeline if you have to. But give yourself something for which to strive, as a writer and as a human being.
2) Don’t live in a vacuum. Pay attention to the world and let it affect your writing. You are not a precious flower under a bell jar. You are a creature of the universe, and your work should reflect that. The Ferguson/Michael Brown case unraveled in November, and I found myself writing some of that passion/compassion into my novel.
3) Pursuant to item 2, go write with friends. Don’t be a recluse. I discovered a handful of women writers in Alameda I never knew, who have — through this firewalking experience — become my friends. I see us writing together and supporting each other’s work in the foreseeable future. And those are Good Things, as Martha Stewart says.
4) Take a walk every day. Whenever I needed to work out a scene or a sticky plot point, I took a walk. The act of moving the body, breathing fresh air and the change of scenery made a huge difference to me and the story.
5) Write a crappy first draft. Don’t sit in judgment of your rough draft. Let it flow, and then revise the heck out of it. Anne Lamott said it years ago, in Bird by Bird: Write a shitty first draft. Don’t edit until you’ve drafted something. In NaNoWriMo, you don’t have that kind of time or luxury. And the good news for writers is that the longer you write, your first drafts will get better, too. You won’t be working with dreck. You’ll be working with a rougher version of the story. And that is an encouraging development.
The result of this year’s NaNoWriMo experience is that I find I’m a better writer than last year, and the year before that. I know how to work out the kinks. I know how to take care of myself in the stress. And I have learned to take friends with me — don’t do it alone. All of these are winning strategies for more than just spewing out a novel in 30 days. I anticipate using my lifeskills for — pretty much — forever.
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Have you read Veronika Layne Gets the Scoop? It’s online at you-know-where and you can order it from your local bookstore, too. I have to ask, because this is the biggest shopping season of the year. And it’s Cyber Monday today – so if you’re thinking about cyber-shopping, why not pop into Amazon and click, click, click?
Julia Park Tracey is an award-winning journalist, author, and blogger. She is the author of six books: three novels, one poetry collection, and two women's history. She was the Poet Laureate of Alameda, California, in 2014-17. She's also the conservatrix of The Doris Diaries, the diaries of her great-aunt Doris Bailey Murphy. She has a BA in journalism from San Francisco State University, and MA in Early 20th C. British Literature from Cal State Hayward. Julia's articles have appeared on Salon, Thrillist, Paste, Scary Mommy, Narratively, Yahoo News, Your Tango, and Sweatpants & Coffee. Her articles have also run in Redbook, Woman's Day, Country Living, House Beautiful, Town & Country, the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Magazine, Quill, and MadeLocal. She was the founding editor of weekly Alameda Sun and literary zine Red Hills Review. Her poetry has been in The East Bay Literary review, Postcard Poems, Americus Review, Cicada, Tiferet Review, and many others. Julia has been recognized several times by the San Francisco, East Bay and Peninsula Press Clubs as well as the California Newspaper Association for her blogging since 2003.