By Corissa Haury
Writing a novel is not easy. Whether you put pen to paper, type on a typewriter, or use a tablet with a keyboard like me, you still have to do something hard. You have to write.
You have to write a lot, too. 50,000 words in one month is no joke. The daily minimum to reach 50k is 1667 words, or about 3 double spaced pages. Multiply that by the 30 days writers are given to finish the task, and that’s a minimum of 90 pages for the month-long project. An average published novel is between 100,000 and 175,000 words, so starting with 50,000 is a solid half a manuscript. You learn a lot about yourself, writing, and how to be a better writer. Here are the 7 major takeaways I learned this year while finishing my 79,000 word manuscript.
1. Say No to Yourself
One of the hardest things in the whole world is to not look back. There is even an “I told you so” myth about that very thing. This is great advice the folks over at NaNoWriMo.org already recommend at the start of the program, but it is hard to follow. The temptation to read what you wrote from the beginning, to see if it is the epic tale you had hoped for, will start on day one and follow you to day 30. Say no to yourself. Don’t look back. Keep writing.
2. Gestate Your Ideas Beforehand
Are you the writer that plans ahead? I tend to fly by the seat of my pants. When it comes to character development, plot, and chapters, I am often hopeless. That changed this year during the last two weeks of October. I grabbed a notebook and wrote down character ideas and names, created locations, did beginning research, and drew maps for reference.
Not only was it fun, it was a novel lifeline halfway through the month when I could not quite remember what part of the story I was supposed to write next. Lo and behold, I have notes I can reference. To help yourself, write a rough chapter outline before your next book. Prepare your ideas in a notebook, and you’ll have something to look at when you continue to plod onward. Er, plot onward…
3. Be Willing to Scrap Your Plot Completely
There will be times when your plot becomes convoluted, your characters get strange, and the whole story surpises you and flips itself on its head. You can learn something about yourself and about your characters by allowing this to happen. Let the story morph. Rewrite your plot. Outline chapters a dozen times if you have to. (I did.) Whatever feels right, do it. Don’t inhibit yourself with the idea that you must keep the first plot or that a messy story is bad. Messes are what make things interesting in your favorite books.
4. Finish Your Story
This may seem obvious, but I will put it here anyway because I needed to learn it. Getting to 50,000 words is an accomplishment, but if the story is not finished than neither are you. 50,000 words is a minimum goal. Do not allow yourself to get to the minimum and stop. I know I fall into that trap, with homework and writing. Do not stop writing if the story is not at its end. You will not feel like you have won, because you left a lot hanging. You can do it. You can finish your novel.
5. Every Month is Your NaNoWriMo
Something my husband said to me this month is important. “Every month is NaNoWriMo.” He said. “I don’t want you to stop writing.”
Writing is hard. It is tedious. It is frustrating. It is a discipline, a chore, a task that you must continue if you want to be a writer. Stephen King has a great essay (#23) in his book On Writing. He talks about how when he was a young writer in the 60s, most folks believed that writing was a nebulous, divine vision that came to the writer. There was no expectation of discipline or definition. King and his wife, Tabby, who were dating at the time, did not feel the same. They both laboriously crafted their stories with care, and for Stephen, a sense of fun.
Keep writing. Do not stop because National Novel Writing Month is over. If you have a retail job that is 40+ hours per week like me, and you still finished a novel this month, don’t let the end of November stop you from the continuation of your craft. You are worth it. You can keep writing.
6. Kill Your Inner Editor
National Novel Writing Month is not about making a book. It is about getting a story onto paper that you can mold into a book later. Whatever it takes, silence your inner editor. That bitch doesn’t need our encouragement or our credence while we are writing the first draft. We will need her in later months when we come back to critique our manuscript with an eagle eye, but for now, she can go away.
What does it take for you to kill your inner editor while you write your first draft? Sometimes a stiff drink does it for me. Sometimes being out in the world and writing at a cafe helps. Sometimes you just need to find the right soundtrack for the feeling you are trying to produce with your words. There are multiple methods to make sure that critical voice in your head doesn’t get heard until December. Find your method.
7. Acknowledge Your Accomplishments
“Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”
If you learned anything about your own writing while finishing a novel, you have more than accomplished what you set out to do at the outset. NaNoWriMo is about one thing: writing. Don’t expect your novel to be Sirens of Titan yet. This is just the beginning. After editing, rewriting, and several more drafts you’ll have something you can submit to a publisher or work to self-publish. You did better than yourself this month. Take a moment to appreciate your own accomplishments.
This is just the beginning. You have a manuscript to mold. You have a novel to make stronger, and more purposeful. Congratulations!