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.

The Devil’s in the Detail

I am currently reading a pretty funny, awesome book and I love it. But there is one thing that struck me as strange. Somebody fell off a roof while climbing facades. The protagonist is investigating his death and decides to go climbing himself. So what does he do? He puts on his climbing shoes while still in his flat and then walks down several flights of stairs and several streets before he reaches the building he wants to climb. The shoes are brand new and when he puts them on, it’s described as “a feeling of adventure”.

From that paragraph alone, it’s blatantly obvious to any person who ever went rock climbing that the author has no clue what they are talking about. This isn’t bad in itself. Even if you’ve done your research, you can still make mistakes. What makes me shake my head though is that this is a published novel in traditional publishing that has gone through many hands before ending up in mine – and nobody picked up on the fact that this description is just wrong. (If anyone wonders: New climbing shoes hurt like hell when you put them on. And walking more than a few meters in climbing shoes is generally something you only do if you are hardcore masochistic.)

Another example (and this led to me putting the book in question down and never touching it again) was the following story: The protagonist-guitarrist hasn’t played music for months. His band mates shipped a whole bunch of his guitars to his current abode by mail but he hasn’t opened the cases since. At some point he hears his love-interest-neighbour play the guitar and sing and decides to join her. So he gets an acoustic guitar out of its case, walks over, sits down with his neighbour and plays with her.

Notice anything? Yeah, exactly, neighbour-chick wouldn’t be too happy about somebody joining her with a completely out-of-tune instrument, would she?

I think I told way too many people about this and have heard the same reaction from almost all of them: “You’re too harsh. These are such fine details.”

Well, for me, these details are important and getting them wrong breaks the flow of the story because both the climbing and the music-playing are central themes in the respective stories. It’s the same as watching C.I.S. and, for the ump-teenth time, groaning in agony because they just put a single reaction tube into a centrifuge without putting a balance-weight in and then hold the bloody thing into the air after a short spin declaring “We have the DNA result!”. (If you have nothing to do with biology: This is not how this works!)

If it’s a minor detail, like if there’s a kitchen utensil that is used only once in the entire book in an unimportant sidenote, I don’t mind if the exact handling of it isn’t described properly, but if you write about a cook who works in a four star restaurant, you should definitely know how to filet a fish and which knife to use for it. Or you should have a beta-reader or editor who knows how to do that. (Side-note: I have absolutely no idea how to filet a fish.)

The devil’s in the detail and if you have important bits and pieces in your story that you haven’t tried with your own hands or seen with your own eyes, talking to actual people – instead of only looking stuff up on the internet – is paramount if you don’t want your readers to notice that you’re clueless.

I’m not saying that I am omniscient and never make mistakes. Far from it. But I am aware of how important details can be.

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.

Why I write in English

I am not a native speaker. This usually comes as a surprise not only to people who have only known me by writing but also to people whose mother tongue actually is English and who met me in person. When I went to Canada for a holiday, most people assumed I was British. The Brits tended to think I was Australian for a while and nowadays just go by “you have an accent – but I have no idea what it is”. One of my Canadian friends even believed I was raised bilingually until I explained to him that no, I had started learning English when I was already eleven years old.

I lived in Edinburgh in 2010/2011 and did my masters degree there. It was probably the most amazing year of my life so far and it opened up so many new doors to me. I also met many lovely people from many different countries there whom I have done my best to stay in contact with.

Today, about fifty percent of my friends are international. Even though I live in Germany, at least half of my communication happens in English. I write fanfiction on the side and have done so for years. It never once crossed my mind to do that in German. I dream in English, I think in English and there’s literally no more effort involved in writing a story in English than there would be in writing one in German.

Considering the fact that almost everyone on this planet speaks English and hardly anyone speaks German, the choice which language “Prodigy” would be written in was pretty easy.

How the idea for “Prodigy” came to life

Most of the time, my stories start with a character. That character will walk into my head and demand a story to be written around them. A few characters have been in my head for a long while now and I still haven’t found the right story for them. Believe me, I tried. I even got a few chapters down here and there, but then found that they didn’t fit into the world I had built them after all. “Prodigy” was different. It started off with a Facebook message from my friend Josh. He sent me an article about a very expensive and famous violin having been stolen in Berlin. It was just a very short article, but it somehow triggered an immediate idea.

“You know,” I remember telling my partner, “this would make for a really gripping story.”

“Prodigy” turned out to be something very different from what I first thought it would be, but it became something good and something I am damn proud of.

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