What NaNoWriMo Can Teach You

We’re almost halfway through NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) now, and I’ve somehow managed to keep up with the word limit. Approximately one thousand, seven hundred words every day doesn’t seem like a vast amount until you actually have to write it, and there are all kinds of opportunities to kid yourself — “Oh, I’ll just catch up with this tomorrow,” “Including notes is a perfectly valid way to bump up the word count,” “If I just have the main character say the same thing over and over again, for three pages, that counts, right?”. I’ve been tempted by all of these cop-outs and more, but have gotten through them by reminding myself that this novel is for me, not for a word count or for a little sticker saying “winner!” at the end of the process. It’s fascinating watching the novel develop, too, in all sorts of ways I would never have predicted at the start — and, as a habitual outliner, ways that would never have occurred to me if I’d been writing my novel in a more conventional way.

Having completed NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) in April, the difference could not be more stark and obvious. During National Poetry Writing Month, most of my time was consumed with ideas, themes, and working out how to convey certain unusual (read: desperate) topics in my usual style. A few of my poems ended up being, I thought, decent, and with a good deal of development after National Poetry Writing Month some other people started to agree. Albeit grudgingly. After I pestered them for weeks. During National Novel Writing Month, by contrast, most of my time has been devoured simply by writing. It’s not ‘automatic’. I, like most other people doing NaNoWriMo (I suspect), still require valuable gazing-out-the-window time, and visits to Cracked and similar humour sites to trick myself into thinking I’m having fun. It does feel much more like a natural growth than NaPoWriMo did, though, and a lot of the things I’ve found out through NaNoWriMo are, quite simply, fascinating.

For starters, and as the most obvious thing you can find out about yourself through writing, there are all the writing tics and quirks that you’d never have noticed if you were writing more carefully, or even if you were writing just as carelessly over a longer period of time. As an example, all of my characters are constantly looking places, throwing glances about the place with reckless abandon, staring at stuff. This probably sounds quite normal, but if you saw the frequency with which it actually happens, you would be forgiven for expecting all of my characters to be Beholders.

Twenty-Sided Dice

Dungeons and Dragons references are totally where it's at. For a given value of "it".

There’s also a prevailing focus on doors, passageways and rooms which is quite hard to shake, as well as an awful lot of swearing. There are some bad reasons for this; staring places can be a lazy way to work in an excuse for some description of setting, character or props. Doors, passageways and rooms can be clumsy ways to instigate and separate important plot events. Swearing can be used to pad out the word count, although so far I think I’ve steered clear of this. For some reason, I also seem to get fixated on minor characters and events, and really need to rein in the fleshing-outs I keep giving them. Sure, a little bit of background is great for your minor characters, but if you devote a good page and a half to the little foibles that you’ve decided they have, the chances are good that you’ve fundamentally misunderstood what a “minor” character actually is.

More surprising have been the personally revealing traits: look out for these, they usually manifest as personality traits that are shared among all your characters, including (especially?) the narrator. Most of my characters exhibit, or exhibited before I went back and revised the first draft, pronounced nervous twitches and spasms. They didn’t feel comfortable in social situations, and they were all fairly nerdy in their interests and speech patterns. My narrator happens to be quite different from this, so it might have been less noticeable to a casual reader, but it was still there; most of my characters, despite their shallow traits, were very similar on a deeper level. Similar, in fact, to me. Another revealing aspect has been the narrator: as opposed to the common third-person omniscient narrator, he is first-person, writing in the present tense and involved in, even controlling, large parts of the action. Although this initially merely felt like a natural choice, it has become increasingly apparent that the voice is similar to that of early, text-driven video-games. It’s also pretty obvious that I’m interested in metal and the genre of the New Weird through the text, given the fairly violent, bizarre nature of some scenes. There’s a sardonic tone to a lot of it. It goes at a breathless, over-excitable pace. All-in-all, even a casual skim would suggest very strongly that the writer of this text was a specific type of twenty-something nerd.

There’s also more subtle things that come through. When I’m tired, people pass out, are knocked unconscious and wake up a lot more: people fumble things, accidents happen with more frequency. When I’m angry, people start to die, the angrier I am the more horrible the death. When I’m upset, everything becomes saturated with this atmosphere of hopelessness. I even fell for that old writerly trap, people suddenly turning up in bare white rooms, or not knowing what to say or do, when I was struggling with writer’s block. I did edit the most egregious examples of this out, to be fair. NaNoWriMo is almost a direct reflection of the writer’s consciousness at times.

I’d recommend to any NaNoWriMo-ers that you give your text a quick read-over, if you haven’t already. I get that it feels like you’re wasting valuable writing/word-count time whenever you go back to edit and/or read your work. It’s really worth it, though, because with the more raw, more instant and therefore more personal style that NaNoWriMo forces you to adopt, you see much more clearly what your work tends to look like to the reader, and can therefore catch yourself when you find those stylistic malfunctions occurring in your more considered, more carefully-produced work. You can deceive yourself all you want as to who you are, when writing prose, but NaNoWriMo forbids you from doing that with its strict time-and-word limit. To writers, this is impossible to price.

The last thing NaNoWriMo can teach you is how dedicated you truly are to writing. If you take up NaNoWriMo, you are setting yourself a challenge to remain passionate and committed to writing even if it gets in the way of ordinary life, even when writing becomes something of a chore to complete rather than a reward you grant yourself, even as you’re desperately casting about for those last precious hundred words to kick yourself over the one thousand seven hundred, fifteen thousand or twenty-five thousand mark. Even if you can’t quite make the word count, or ‘real life’ commitments get in the way, if you still find yourself drawn to writing after such a traumatic experience, I think you’ve learned something pretty important about yourself: that you can’t do without writing something, no matter what.

I’d describe my incipient novel as “Burn After Reading meets the New Weird”, but no-one ever listens. Best of luck to everyone involved in NaNoWriMo, it’s one of the most draining and difficult things I’ve ever attempted: it’s also, so far, one of the most satisfying and enjoyable.

Old Samael…

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4 thoughts on “What NaNoWriMo Can Teach You

  1. I’ve always thought nanowrimo was a great chance to just get that amount of text written, regardless of what it looks like at the end. It’s been said by a lot of authors, as well as a lot of people who have completed nanowrimo themselves, that the majority of the plot, dialogue and even character descriptions gets done in editing. You might end up deleting up to half of what you’ve already written, but at least you’ve got the text there. That, for me, I think would be the important thing.

    If I started reading through what I’d already written during the process, chances are I wouldn’t want to continue at all (and would possibly spend a lot of time hiding under a table in despair as a result). If I ever actually take this on one year, I’d like to just use it as a chance to see if I can actually dedicate enough time to getting the words out uncensored, rather than feeling bad about how many traps my writing falls into. It seems like a really good time to just try things out – when you say you get caught up describing the minor characters, I say go with it. They might end up being the people you actually want to write about.

    A lot of this is in that book that I have yet to lend you. But I will do this. SOON.

  2. Yeah, the hiding-under-a-table instinct is tough to fight.

    In a way, the idea of just getting the text down is what makes it so informative, for me. Without any kind of preconceptions about where it’s going to go, the style, the characters, it’s just much more revealing.

    Looking forwards to the book.

    Thanks for putting my post upon your blog, hope you can write a post for mine some day!

  3. kiwikar says:

    This is my very first attempt at NaNo this year and I have to agree, it is straining, but some how fulfilling and there is nothing more satisfying than seeing that you wrote 2000 words in one day and watching your word count go up. I find myself oddly drawn to the whole thing, it’s fascinating.

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