Is NaNoWriMo sensible? – About writing drafts, editing and why I don’t believe in the 50,000 word doctrine.

Some of you might already know that I am doing NaNoWriMo this November. Yet, I am not doing it “properly”. The original idea behind it is: Write 50,000 words in 30 days. Start on November 1st, end November 30th. This equals a bit more than 1600 words a day. Which isn’t that much, really, thinking that on a good day, when I have time and the writing juices are flowing, I might very well get 5000-6000 words down, but – and this is a big but – I don’t always have a good day. I also happen to have a life, as pretty much every other person on this planet. And I have something that in a more severe form would probably count as anxiety but which, in my case, is just a tendency to be a perfectionist and worry constantly about pretty much everything. For someone like me, the pressure of “Get 50,000 words done in a month” is substantial. If I went in with that premise, I’d end up hating not only myself but also the story, because I’d keep on pushing, keep on pushing, push the sky away…

And it would be bad for my mental and physical health and for the sanity of anyone in my immediate surroundings. So what I do is: I go in with a 20k headstart aiming to get to a “Skeleton Draft” by the end of the month. To tell that story. I don’t care about the word count. I want that very first story version to happen so I can work on that afterwards.

Another thing in NaNo is: “No editing!” – You’re supposed to type away merrily and not edit a single solitary sentence. Because it saves time.

I edit while I write. This is an inherent part of my process. I come across something that only makes lots of sense if something else earlier in the story gets changed, so I go back and change it. I also don’t write in order, so I keep hopping about between chapters a lot, adding bits and pieces here and there, which very often doesn’t lead to massive amounts of words, but still is a lot of work and time. Yes, it makes me slower, but not doing it makes me uncomfortable. So what is better: Feeling like shite for 30 days or accepting the fact that you’ll not make that weird word-goal but at least you’ll be able to live with your sentences afterwards?

Now, how does my November look for me this year life-wise? Well, admittedly, I have no idea yet, but it won’t be boring. I might have a new job or will still be looking for one. The only thing I know for sure is that I won’t have the job any more which I am currently working in. I’ll be finishing off my dissertation and prepare a presentation for December. There’s other things I will be doing… Would I have time to write 50,000 words? Probably yes. But would it be 50,000 words that I can live with? I don’t think so. As the perfectionist I am, all that advice out there about “just write” and “don’t edit on the go” doesn’t work. I can’t not correct my typos on the go. I can’t not make the story better when I feel I know how to do that (even if that means deleting 10 words instead of typing 50 new ones).

So why do NaNo at all?

Here’s a thing: “Prodigy” was written during Camp NaNo in April. Well, not “Prodigy” the way it is today and the way I am sending it to agents. No, what I managed to get down in April were 30,000 words of what I called the “Skeleton Draft” above. It was the entire story, but with some pieces missing which were only mentioned as [thing XYZ happens here]. But I knew the story, I knew where it started, where it ended and everything in between (with very few exceptions). I finished this Skeleton Draft a few days early and I was back at editing in May.

My mum got the “First Official Draft” in June. That draft had approximately 45,000 words, which isn’t a novel yet, not even a YA novel, but it was decent enough for me to let her have a look at it. My mum doesn’t read fantasy and her sci-fi experience is mainly based on H.G. Wells. Yet, she enjoyed the ride and came back with great feedback that I could use for a second revision. After that, I gave the manuscript to two friends, who also contributed their fair share to it, telling me where they wanted more information, where scenes needed to be fleshed out and so on. I went in for the last edit in July camp and “Prodigy” is now a 65,000 word book.

What I enjoyed about April camp and July camp was the community around NaNo, all of these supportive people who talk to each other online. It’s a great community, really. But every now and then, someone shows up and says: I wish I could participate in this, but I have a life and I will never be able to squeeze 50,000 words out in a month. And they end up not trying. Which is sad. Because it’s really not about the 50,000 words. It’s about being creative, about starting this project, about doing it! The 50,000 words are just a number that somebody came up with. 50,000 words aren’t even a novel.

So, if you feel like you want to write, NaNoWriMo is a good time to start, because there’s so much support, so many write-ins, so many people working on their projects at the same time as you. My advice though: Don’t bother about word-count! Bother about telling the story! If it takes you a month to tell it, fine, if it takes three months, brilliant! Don’t push yourself to write 1600 words a day if that means that you will be mentally exhausted for two months in a row afterwards! Don’t push it too far, don’t become your enemy and don’t let your story become something you fight with, but something you fight for.

Camp NaNoWriMo – or how a pantser became a planner

I started “Prodigy” right on time for April’s Camp NaNoWriMo. If you’ve never heard of it: NaNoWriMo started off in the USA and originally aimed at getting people to commit to writing 50.000 words in one month (NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month). The original NaNoWriMo still runs every year in November. It still has the 50,000 word target and it’s very much a fight you fight on your own.

For a few years, they have also started offering Camp NaNoWriMo, which has a social aspect as you end up in a chatroom (called your “cabin”) with 19 other people who also try their hands at writing and you can suffer together. Or complain about how horrible it is to write when your cat is sitting on your keyboard. Or share your devastation over writer’s block. It also has a much more loosely set aim. You can choose your own goal and you can either commit to work for a certain amount of hours each day or write a certain amount of words or a certain amount of pages. You can also choose whether you are writing or editing your stuff.

NaNoWriMo always struck me as too strict. But I decided to try Camp and set my goal to 30,000 words. I have always been a pantser. I had a vague idea for a story, then sat down and started writing it. From the beginning. And somewhere in the middle, I’d get stuck. Always. With Camp being limited to a month, I needed to up my game, so I got my hands on the “One Page Novel Spreadsheet” and several character sheets and worldbuilding spreadsheets and plotted out my whole story in about three days. Afterwards I followed the numbers on the spreadsheet which meant I wrote out of order for the first time in my life. And it worked. It worked so incredibly well!

What didn’t work half as well was the communication in my cabin. People introduced themselves, then vanished and never came back. Most of the people in my group never updated their word count and it felt like a very lonely place. I think the social aspect could be great if there are enough dedicated and enthusiastic people around to talk to, but for me, it was a lonely journey.

Would I recommend doing Camp or NaNoWriMo? Wholeheartedly! Because it forces you out of your comfort zone! It forces you to just get the damn thing written! It challenges you to push your boundaries! And it helped me to find out how much better and faster I could write with a little bit of preparation.

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