Sunday, September 19, 2010

Write a novel in a month

National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) is rapidly approaching. Literally at the speed of time. Every November tens of thousands of writers strive to produce a 50,000-word manuscript in thirty days. Why 50k?* Because in publishing, that's the official definition of a novel. Today 90,000-word novels are common, but they are a recent development. (Or at least younger than I am.) Take a look at your copies of The Old Man and the Sea and Brave New World. Time was most novels were that slender. Though most were not that good.

More than a month devoted to writing, NaNoWriMo is an active internet community – something of a global glee club – with daily encouragements, prods, and reminders to keep you going. In many cities NaNoWriMo writers get together one or two nights a week for group writing sessions that take the loneliness out of what is usually a solitary pursuit.

The purpose of NaNoWriMo is not to produce great literature, though creating great literature is not discouraged. The purpose is to get writers – especially writers who do not think they have enough time for writing – to sit down at the keyboard and write. And in that respect it has been a great help to me over the years.

I have NaNoWriMo-ed five times – the last in 2006 – and twice finished the month with a manuscript of more than 40k words that told a story with a beginning, middle, and end. None of these manuscripts are ready to be submitted to a publisher. And of the five, only my last will become a novel some day. Right now "Dram Rock" is a 42k outline of what will be the second novel in my Coastal Carolina mystery series.

Chris Baty's No Plot? No Problem!, the book of all things NaNoWriMo, has been on my essential reference shelf for half a decade. (Though it's not at the moment; I loaned my copy to an aspiring romance writer who's preparing for this coming November.) While much of Baty's writing advice is NaNoWriMo-specific, there are clear lessons on discipline, priorities, and time management that should be in every writer's tool kit.

One example, useful to anyone who's ever lost an evening of writing to puzzling over how to fix a scene that doesn't seem quite right no matter what you do: Use bold. (Actually, Baty suggests italics, but bold is easier for me to spot.) When you're having problems with a scene, or a bit of dialog or a chapter ending, highlight the troubling section by putting it in bold to remind yourself the problem is there and get on with your writing. That way you do not lose your creative momentum and get more words out of your head and onto the paper where you can work with them.

Don't go back to your bold sections until either your subconscious – which never stops working – has provided you with a solution or you finish the rest of the manuscript. I work in Word, so the easiest thing for me to do is view my ms in "print layout" and shrink the images to 25%. That saves paging through looking for areas that need work because the bold passages show up as dark smudges. I just click on a smudge, go to 150% (I have old eyes – large print is my friend), and get to work fixing whatever needs fixing. Sometimes I can't think why I bothered to highlight the section. Other times the solution is obvious. Usually it's something in between. But no matter what I find, I'm able to make clear editorial decisions quickly because I did not waste time trying to edit when the words were flowing.

If you have trouble using your writing time productively – or if you have trouble finding writing time at all – I highly recommend taking part in NaNoWriMo. It's a fun and challenging way to prove to yourself you can overcome the excuses and get words on paper. Can't go wrong investing in Baty's book, either.
Either will show you you've got more time to write – and can write more in the time you have – than you knew.

* = I originally had the word count wrong. I corrected it when a commenter pointed the error out.


Leatherdykeuk said...

Isn't NanoWriMo 50K? The target always used to be 1666 words a day. I completed it six times and one of the nano books (though longer and carefully edited) goes on sale tomorrow at Lyrical Press

G said...

Took me a very long time (almost two years into blogging) to figure out what this particular thing was all about.

Still don't get it, especially since writers usually write year 'round and focusing on a particular month for writing somehow says that the writing for the other 11 was a waste of time.

But that's just me.

Sometimes things that don't really make sense are things that people enjoy the most.

Good luck with it, even though IMO there really isn't anything to be gained by it. I mean, if it wasn't, wouldn't you still be writing a novel just the same anyways?

RKBentley said...

Yep, it's 50k.

Some of us in my area are doing 100k or more.

KeVin K. said...

Yep, 50k it is. An indicator that if I'm going to write about something I haven't been involved with for four years, I really should drop by their site and refresh my memory before posting. (Tempted to go correct my error, but I'm going to leave it as an object lesson.)

G: NaNoWriMo is aimed at writers who want to develop their writing speed, ability to prioritize functions (like writing when you're supposed to be writing instead of editing/researching/sharpening pencils) and related time management/self discipline skills. It is primarily aimed at writers still growing into their craft. But just as a concert pianist must practice scales daily to keep her edge, it never hurts a pro to exercise the basics now and again.
I will not be taking part in NaNoWriMo directly -- I've got a couple of projects that can't wait. But I will be clocking my daily word counts on those projects through November along with everyone racing to complete their novels.

Leatherdykeuk: Congratulations on your novel going on sale!

RKB: 100k in 30 days? That is impressive. I cruise at about 250 words per uninterupted hour, so that would take me (uses phone as calculator) 13 hours and 20 minutes a day to complete.

RKBentley said...

Yeh, my word war buddy did 100k 2yrs back and 150k last year. Which is why she is my word war buddy. ;)

Gonna aim for 100k and see what happens...

Phyllis Bourne said...

I successfully completed a Nano book back in 2004. I worked on my Alphasmart exclusively and carried it with me everywhere.

I've tried it since, but haven't finished.

Liane Spicer said...

To each his own - I've never been tempted to participate in this. I don't want to disgorge 50,000 words just for the sake of doing it. I know I can write a novel-length project in a couple of months because I've done it several times already. There must be less wasteful (to me - not saying it's all a waste) ways of learning the object lessons inherent in this exercise.

That book sounds useful, though. My method of highlighting troublesome spots and moving on is to use the highlighter function in Word. I like the turquoise; It's much, much easier to spot than bold font.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I'd never heard of Nanorimo before today, sounds interesting, though I'm not tempted to try it. I feel like that much pressure would take the joy out of writing.

I employ your idea of the bolding scenes to be revisited, but I use red lettering instead. It jumps out at you. Sometimes I even use a combination of bold red lettering and the yellow highlighter function in Ms Word.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've thought about trying it a few times. But I usually have specific things that have deadlines durin the time and could not dedicate a whole month to one such project. Still, one of these days, it would be an interesting challenge.

Shauna Roberts said...

Like Liane, I use the highlighter function in Word (although I prefer yellow to turquoise). That bright color really stands out whether one is clicking quickly through a document or riffling through pages.

I've never done NaNoRiMo, although I've considered it. But November is my busiest month of the year. I have taken part in competitions where we competed to see who wrote the most words in a week. I learned a lot about my writing style from those.