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My NaNoWriMo Experience

I “won” NaNoWriMo in November 2012. It was the first time I’d tried the month-long writing marathon. WriMos attempt to complete a 50,000 word manuscript for a novel entirely during the month of November. That entails an average of 1,667 words per day. For more on NaNoWriMo, visit their webpage.

I found a shareware spreadsheet for word count tracking, and WriMos also use the website nanowrimo.org to update your word count each day. The charts the site generates and the spreadsheet are great motivators, unless you slip far behind. I didn’t really struggle too much to get this done. I had a pretty good outline and other inspiration for the work. I spent about an hour each day on the writing, with a few days during which I spent as much as two hours.

During the month, I took a week-long business trip to Doha, Qatar, which on the one hand gave me some long airplane flights during which to write, but on the other hand had me with fully-scheduled days and jet lag. I wrote at least something every day but one during the trip, but on some I fell to just a few hundred words output. On the flight home, 14-hours long, I wrote about 8,000 words and caught up. I was unable to make a NaNoWriMo write-in in Doha, which would have been fun. The write-ins are a part of the experience, with local groups gathering at coffee places to write together.

Some WriMos write from their gut, with no plan or not much of one. Some plot/outline/plan carefully, to up the chances that they can succeed and finish. I did that, though I found as I moved through the story, I had lots that I hadn’t yet figured out, and lots that decided it wanted to be part of my story. New characters showed up, incidents happened, and backstories and details emerged as I wrote. That happens to me in ordinary fiction writing too, but everything in this effort was on an accelerated pace.

I liked the NaNoWriMo experience not the least for the bragging rights—people thought it was cool. I now have a rough story with some potential to become a decent novel. My main character emerged well, and some of his friends and family began to also. It took me a while to find the new voice for this story. I had been writing, and will return to, a novel in the third person, and set in history, in 1916 and 1917. I wrote my NaNoWriMo story in first person and set in in the span of years from about 1965 to 1991. So, it’s historic, yes, but its history that I lived and know reasonably well.

I was surprised at how much the voice of my narrator changed as I got further into the story. It took probably two weeks for that to happen, half the month. If and when I begin to edit the novel, I’ll probably cut out 2/5ths of what’s there, and have to add back even more than that. It’s got a lot it needs.

This experience was liberating in a way, but unsatisfying in others. I liked the freedom to just write, and did almost no fact checking during the writing. And writing quickly to get a story told did well by the story, if not the prose. But it was unsatisfying for several reasons. First, I like to research, I missed it. Second, I didn’t like writing ugly prose, cliché stuff, flat characters, and so on.

Another problem, good writing advice is to show it, don’t tell it. I fight that problem in my work anyway. Dashing out a manuscript quickly made it flow out as a “tell” in too many places. My first experience writing first person contributed to that too, since my narrator knows everything, he doesn’t have to observe it and describe the action the way a detached, 3rd person narrator does.

Sometimes during the writing, the story was pulling me along. Sometimes I was pushing it along. Since I had to produce each day to get it done, there was little chance to say the hell with it, and stop. So there were some days of pushing out stuff that wasn’t very interesting or satisfying to write.

The social aspects of NaNoWriMo are a key appeal, but I didn’t partake much. It was fun to discover several people I know who were doing it, including my nieces Joanna and Isabel, who are veterans, and a friend’s daughter, an accomplished high schooler, also a veteran. The meetups were mostly in the evenings, and mine are largely spoken for. I had hoped to make a few, but didn’t pull it off.

During the month, I tweeted with the #dcnano hashtag, and a few folks shared a thought or two with me and me with them. That was nice, but I didn’t get the full social experience, and would try to, if I take this on again next year.

I am ambivalent about whether I’ll try NaNoWriMo again, or if I’ll adopt some of the “just write it” approaches that doing it required. There’s good in that, you get some real flow going, and learn not to stop and fuss, stop and edit, or stop and research. Those things were good for me. And still there was time in the program to find a pace where you can write stuff that is at least not shamefully bad (usually).

Is there a punchline here? Maybe. I looked back at my ongoing manuscript, one built over the course of almost a year’s effort. It’s just over 51,000 words.

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