Friday, 8 November 2013

Learning from NaNoWriMo: a Survivor's Guide

It's November again, which means that it is three years to the month since Daisy and Hazel began their adventures on the very first page of my very first draft of the book that would one day become Murder Most Unladylike.

Yes, Murder Most Unladylike started life as a NaNoWriMo novel. NaNoWriMo, for those who haven't heard of it before, is a project that aims to get aspiring authors/nutcases to write 50,000 words of a novel in the 30 days of November. To achieve your target, you must write 1,667 words each day, every day, without fail, even if your dog just threw up right in front of you and you have pneumonia and you've worked a 12-hour shift . . .

Basically, NaNoWriMo is self-inflicted literary torture, but people are supposed to do it FOR FUN.

I've written before about my very mixed emotions regarding the use and worth of NaNo. The idea of it is wonderful, and it truly works for many people. A lot of very good and very beloved novels began as NaNo projects, and I'd be a big liar if I didn't acknowledge its role in my own book's creation.

NaNoWriMo class of 2005
But I'd also be untruthful if I pretended that the word document I ended up with on the 30th of November 2011 in any way resembles the book that will be available for purchase come May 2014. After NaNoWriMo finished I couldn't even bear to look at what I'd written for about four months. I picked it up next in March and proceeded to completely re-write the entire manuscript. Then I put it down for another year (while I did my MA), then I did another complete re-write, then I submitted to agents and then (I am seriously not exaggerating any of this) I knocked 25,000 words off the manuscript I had submitted at my new agent's suggestion.

So, did NaNoWriMo help me write a book? Yes. Did it help me write a good book? Er, no. And that's (at least partly) because NaNo's most basic flaw is that it values sheer quantity of words produced over quality. Writing at speed can produce amazing results, but what it usually produces is a pile of utter pants that needs to be mercilessly reworked before it is ready to show to other human beings.

My NaNo draft of Murder Most Unladylike (and I can't stress this enough) was HORRIBLE. It was AWFUL. I knew about Daisy, and Hazel, and I knew who the murderer was (I wrote their name down on the first page of my notebook and then felt proud because I had Created A Plot), but I had no idea how my detectives were going to end up solving the mystery, or even what the mystery actually was. Basically, I had no understanding of the world I was creating or the story I was telling - which, when I look back on this now, makes me feel a bit wobbly.

Last week I went to a Holly Black event where someone asked a question about writers' block. Writers' block, Holly replied, shouldn't be seen as a problem in itself. What it is is a symptom, and so instead of behaving like you have been struck down by the black spot and there is nothing to be done but despair (she didn't say this, I'm paraphrasing), you should use your feeling of writers' block to diagnose the deeper plot issues you're having.

NaNoWriMo class of 2011
I love this attitude! I think it's incredibly true. I can't ever write a scene if I haven't seen it very clearly in my head first. I also need to know who the characters in the scene are, why they're there and what they're saying to each other, and I can't know that if I don't know the story I'm telling. For me, writers' block is a big red flag that says YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT THE HELL YOU ARE DOING, GO AWAY AND COME BACK WHEN YOU ARE MORE PREPARED. And, for me, a project like NaNo doesn't allow this kind of breathing-space, or warn its participants that such a breathing-space is necessary.

But, see, I don't know if I'd have discovered that if I hadn't had full and shocking experience of what happens when I don't know my story. I learned that I do need structure, and I do need to plan (and then I discovered colour-coded plotting on huge spreadsheets,but that's another story). So in a way, NaNo's big problem gave me a very big revelation that I've been using ever since.

NaNo also gave me a big wake-up call about output. Those 1,667 words a day taught me that writing a sentence doesn't need to take twenty minutes. It can take that long, and sometimes it needs to, and that's OK, but the way I pre-plan scenes (I watch them in my head, like puppet-shows, several times over) means that when I come to actually write I am capable of turning out 1,000 words in an hour without breaking a sweat. Actually, if I try, I can do a lot better than that. I recently finished work on the first draft of something totally non-Daisy and Hazel related, and I think I must have written the last 10,000 words in about five inspired hours one afternoon. Afterwards my brain felt like someone had cleaned it out with a stick, and I am absolutely sure that those 10,000 words will need an enormous edit, but again that's OK, because re-writing is the part of the writing process that I really love. And that's another thing that I've learned about myself since my first NaNo effort.

These days I mostly write my books during my morning commute, which at the moment is 50 minutes on the train. I sit down, I open my laptop, and then I gather all my NaNo knowhow and sprint-write for 45 minutes flat. And that's my wordcount done for the day! I've learned how to leap into to my world and my scene and just go with it, and that's an extremely valuable writing lesson that doing NaNo has taught me. You can edit later, and you ALWAYS ALWAYS SHOULD. Please. Seriously. You need to. But if you don't get those words out, there will be nothing to edit, and then you'll really be in trouble.

So what I think I'm saying is this: all writing exercises are incredibly valuable, even if what you get out of them initially feels more negative than positive. Projects like NaNoWriMo can help you kickstart yourself as a writer, and I'd advise all aspiring novelists to have a go. I'd even advise you to stick at it all the way to the end of the month, even if you're hating it and not making wordcount. But what I wouldn't advise is for you to do it again, if you gave it a real go and still discovered that it doesn't work for you. Writing isn't school (thank goodness) - there's no 'correct' way to make a book. Try everything, and then ignore what doesn't work (no matter how popular it is) and just do what feels fun and right for you. Because, seriously, the only writing advice that will actually help you is this:

KEEP WRITING THE BOOK UNTIL IT IS FINISHED. And then go back to the beginning and write it again.

Happy November.


  1. I agree about NaNoWriMo. I've never understood the point of it.We all need a plan and a structure to write by but I also think characters grow with the story....which is another reason why you have to go back and re-write...EEK

    1. I think the value of NaNo is that is teaches you to stop being precious, get off your ass and write the book ... but, unfortunately, that's just stage 1! Re-writes not included!