NaNoWriMo 2015 Retrospective

50,000 words in 30 days.

That’s pretty intimidating when you start breaking it down: that’s an average of 1,666-7 words a day, if you want to be consistent. Sure, there are ways of writing a little less during the week and then cranking out even more on the weekends, but NaNoWriMo always falls back into the game of consistency and perseverance. Or stubbornness, I suppose.

If you’re like me, you’re not used to writing every day — not in a creative, literary context, at least. Sure, I write all the time: emails, promo copy, scattered thoughts in a journal…but I don’t sit down and start writing out stories every day. Which means I am one of those many people who look at NaNoWriMo as a daunting mountain which I must scale; it is a challenge.

Of course, there is the fact that when presented with a challenge, I’m the stubborn fool who determines to bully her way through it. It’s not the best tactic for everyone, but it’s helped me through more than one term paper, edit project, and, yes, NaNoWriMo.

My record with National Novel Writing Month is, thus, far pretty spotless if you take into account only the end results. Yes, I’ve written at least 50,000 in 30 days for each of the three years that I have participated in the project. But my day-by-day results? Well, those aren’t so pretty.

Let’s go back to my first NaNoWriMo in 2013:

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According to my stats, I wrote an average of 1,709 words per day, and I reached the blessed 50,000 mark on the very last day of NaNoWriMo. Looking at each day, I see a relatively consistent track of writing. The bars grow steadily, but usually only up to the target number of that day. A few are above, a few are even below, but on the whole? Steady.

In retrospect, what do I see?

General ambivalence.

Oh yeah, I made word count, but only because I hated the idea of failure. I can remember the story I was trying to write and I can see in my progress how I was interested in the story, but I didn’t love it. I’m not the type for whom words usually fly right off the page, but when I love something, I try to crank through it for as long as possible — code for: usually until I’m so tired that I can’t keep my eyes open anymore.

The first year of NaNoWriMo taught me some valuable lessons:

a) Creative writing, especially literary creative writing, is supremely difficult, especially if you’ve never tried it before.

b) Writing original fiction is nothing like fanfiction — this is, admittedly, where I have my roots in terms of creative writing — and there is no manual to teach you how to tell your story the way you want to.

c) The only way to get better is to DO THE THING without distractions and roadblocks. As Nike likes to say: Just Do It.

ROUND 2: NaNoWriMo 2014

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The stats here tell a very different kind of story from 2013. These bars are not pretty: they don’t make a steady route towards the top — in fact, they stall right in the middle of the month.

You know what that is?

That’s realizing in the middle of the month that something has gone horribly wrong in your story.

I had gone into 2014 with a good deal of excitement: I was more interested in my story than I had been in 2013, so I figured it would be so much easier to make word count and, hey, maybe even finish a little early.

Obviously that did not happen.

Right about the time those words stalled, I was at a point in my story where I knew that I did not like where it was going? So what was I supposed to do: scrap it? Well, not if I wanted to win NaNoWriMo. Thus, I did what I usually do: stubbornly bullied my way through the end and cranked out so many words in the last couple of days that I made that word count by the skin of my teeth.

Usually I like to silence my inner editor while I work. It’s a distracting little voice that walks the fine line between genuine help and overwhelming self-doubt. I am also a video editor by trade, so editing comes more naturally to me than just writing. Turning off that part of my brain is very difficult and is the NUMBER ONE THING that can stall anything that I try to write.

I am my own worst enemy.

But it also means that I can create a battle plan.

ROUND 3: NANOWRIMO 2015

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 9.10.09 AM.png

Looking at my stats from this year is actually kind of inspiring, and a true testament to the phrase, “Third time’s the charm.”

This was the year I made some changes to my process.

Step 1: Start marinating the story before November.

Long before it, in my case. I started thinking and writing everything down in notes documents. When I approached point in development where I had questions, I went to the internet and to books to research. This is a process I had virtually ignored for the past two NaNoWriMo years, but I figured this was the year to DO THE THING and research. Most of my research was actually pretty shallow and scattered: it was to answer questions or back-check anything I said that, if easily refuted, could seriously damage the narrative. Thankfully, there weren’t too many things in that regard.

Step 2: Get a serious NaNoWriMo buddy.

Like I said before: I’m not one who does serious literary creative writing on the regular. It’s not quite my bag — I’d rather video edit. But I happen to know someone who does write creatively almost every single day. In fact, she’d already completed book which she was in the process of shopping around to publishers with open submission guidelines. She also happened to be someone I trusted, and that is key. If you don’t trust the person who needs to kick your ass into gear, and to whom (if you’re like me) you are going to talk to about your story, then you’ve got the wrong person and this process will only end in tears.

Step 3: Finding a flow.

Some people are writers and others are typers. I’m a hybrid: I can type fastest, but when I get stuck, then I’m a pen-to-paper person all the way. Perhaps it is my background in music that makes handwriting so much easier for me than typing, especially when I’m stuck. But I think there is also another reason: I have a minor  form of ADHD, which means looking at a typed page half-filled with words or even completely blank tends to send my brain into a weird, dizzying spiral. Or maybe it’s because I tend to think of my typed pieces as virtually-finished products and, so, am more willing to forgive any not-so-great passages when I handwrite them versus when I type them. The typed word can be unforgiving when you look upon it later. Whatever the case, I found my flow with this novel in writing almost everything via my computer, but handwriting whenever I got stuck. Somehow, that helped.

Beyond that, I had to really look at what had caused me so much trouble in previous years of NaNoWriMo.

I’m almost infamous for never finishing stories that I start, so what was it I did that always made it easy for me to just stop?

Mostly, it’s the question of the gardener versus the architect. As usual, I’m a bit of a hybrid who leans far more towards the gardener. But within that, I’m also a jumper — I don’t always write in linear/story-order. I’m the one most likely to have millions of side documents that are snippets of ideas and scenes that might not ever even make it into the final document. During 2013 and 2014, I wouldn’t keep these documents separate; I would literally just type some dash-marks and put them right into the big manuscript. Needless to say, it left me with a cluttered mess.

Thus, this year, I kept those documents separate and did not add them to my word count. My word count was only those words which appeared in the “official”/“final” document. I also made an effort to write from beginning to end, allowing myself to derail into side scenes if that’s where the flow was taking me — silencing the inner-editor who would imitate Star Wars IV: A New Hope with a “STAY ON TARGET” mantra — and continuing with the story no matter how much exposition made it into the manuscript. The side snippets and scraps would get added in if they made and, sometimes, they were just forgotten about and I continued to write.

I shot for an average of 2K words a day which, by and large, I made. Sometimes I only wrote 800 words and sometimes I wrote over 3-4K. Why? Because I had done enough research that I knew my story and the characters in it; I had a writing buddy who constantly encouraged me — and still does, but now to just finish the novel; and because I knew that the moment the typing slowed, I just needed to switch to pen and paper and keep trying. Heck, I once even sat on a tough scene and wrote, re-wrote, and re-wrote again until it went in a direction that finally seemed to work.

At the end of the day, NaNoWriMo is about discovering your own process and trust me when I say that you might not figure that out the first go-round. I certainly didn’t. It took me three years to figure out what really worked for me and how I would want to tackle future NaNoWriMo years.

NaNoWriMo teaches me about myself each and every year. I mine a new bit of me out from the clutter and dirt of my greatest enemy: myself.

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