Write like the wind! Secrets of winning NaNoWriMo

I won NaNoWriMo with The Bloody Sun and the Black Moon!

I reached word count last Monday (November 20, 2017) which is a good thing, since I never get anything written when I’m visiting my family, which I did for Thanksgiving this year. Actually, unless I’m specifically attending a writing retreat, I never really get any writing done when I’m traveling, period. Which is one of those things I want to make note of, and plan around.

This is the third year in a row that I’ve hit word count and I believe I have Annie Bellet to thank. At Orycon 2015 she recommended a book called 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron ($2.99 for the eBook). It’s one of the most useful how-to books I’ve read about writing. I don’t know that her techniques would work for everyone — I think you have to be a moderately fast writer to start with — but they resonated a lot with me.

The most useful bit of advice she gives might be to monitor your own process for a while until you figure out when and how you’re most productive, then try to engineer those circumstances. Are you more productive at home or at the coffee shop? In the evening or in the morning? Right at the start of a writing session or after you’ve been at it an hour or two? At a standing desk, or lying in bed? A lot of the time we have visions of how we think we want to write — in beautiful seclusion in a cabin in the woods! — that don’t match the reality of when writing works for us the best.

Then, once we gather that information, we have to be honest with ourselves. For example, see above: I have finally accepted that I will never get any writing done while on vacation or with my family, and particularly, while on vacation with my family. (Mostly, this is because of the social dynamic, but sometimes it’s because they hid my iPad and it’s the middle of the night so I can’t ask anybody where it is.) I always think I’m going to write on airplanes, but I don’t. I just need to accept this and roll with it.

Last year, I wasn’t sure I was doing NaNoWriMo until relatively late in the game — I was so distracted by current events that I didn’t want to commit to having the focus it would take to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. But what I found was that I picked the right project, so my 2016 NaNoWriMo project became pretty much the only thing that provided any meaning or joy to my life. It was incredibly successful as a writing project — not only did I hit 50,000 words on a book I didn’t even start writing until November 12, but when I went back to do edits — expanding the portions that were only sketched out — I realized that what I thought was a first draft of a single book was actually a first draft of three books.

The elements of 2k to 10k that really paid off there, I think, was her advice to plan what you’re going to write before you start writing it. This is the aspect of novel-crafting that comes least naturally to me. I started out thinking, “oh, you just start writing and see where it takes you.” That can be fun, but it also can lead to dead end after dead end after dead end.

The 2017 book  had a few wrong turns — after a week or so of writing I put what I had done in a “first draft” section (to keep it in my word count total)  and started the whole thing over with a tweaked outline. What I had done that first week was sort of feel out the story — what were the elements at play, what were the major events, who were the important characters — and once I had figured that out, I realized I had written a bunch of stuff that wasn’t going to work. In my word count totals by day, you can see the pattern — Saturday November 11 was when I started working on the new outline and wrote 8,524 words that day. It was raining all day and I didn’t go anywhere. The next weekend I wrote 10,301 words on Saturday and 6,129 words on Sunday and by then I was almost at 50,000 words.

So, I know that for me writing binges are a really effective technique. You know how it feels when you’re reading a book and you just can’t put it down? That’s how it starts to feel on my own book. I’m writing all weekend because I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT but since I’m the writer, the only way to find out is to write it.

This is another aspect of 2k to 10k that resonated with me — you need to be the number one fan of your own book. If anything bores you to write, you already know it’s going to bore someone else to read. So if you’ve worked out this intricate clockwork plot that requires this one scene but every time you go to write that scene you’re like “ugh, this scene”? You should probably toss it. For me, that was really liberating. I think I had picked up this idea — somehow, somewhere — that writing something “hard” was a good thing. It’s work, right, and work is good? The problem is that forcing yourself to slog through something that bores you is the wrong work.

A final note about winning word count contests — if that’s what I’m trying to do, I have to be writing a first draft of something. Otherwise, I can’t measure progress clearly in terms of a steadily increasing word count, but also, I don’t have that same driving need to find out what happens next.