“Nobody writes a publishable novel in thirty days…”
It’s a familiar refrain around this time of the year. Experienced writers (usually), dunking a bucket of cold water on the collective glee of all those starry-eyed wanna-be writers signing up for the event. Well, it isn’t true. And it isn’t helpful. Not even slightly (unless they then donate to the #AlSIceBucketChallenge).
Because the aim isn’t to write the novel, the aim is to write the novel. Read on to find out why this is important.
The mistake that would-be professional writers make is that they don’t write enough.
Whenever I say this, people point out that Ernest Hemingway wrote only 500 words a day, and LOOK AT HIS SALES! (this is about where the discussion becomes… bolshie, noisy, blustery and unproductive). And it’s true. Ernest Hemingway did write 500 words a day. Every day of the year (I don’t know if he took Christmas Day and his birthday off, but you get the drift).
Every. Single. Day.
Any idea how many words that translates to? Chances are, if you’re a writer you’re less-good at math, so I’ll tell you.
181,500 words per year (taking two days off). Now 500 words isn’t much, is it. But 180,000? Holy heck, imagine if George RR Martin wrote that much. He might finish one novel in a year.
“Again. Why. Is. This. Relevant?”
(you see how quickly discussions degenerate…)
It is relevant because writing is like any other endeavor. You get better by doing it. You don’t get better by whining about writers block on a forum. You don’t learn to write compelling novels by tweeting (although it does help with overly excessive wordiness). You don’t learn to write awesome fiction by resting on the laurels of your sixth-grade A+ report in English.
“Get to the point, dammit! My chardonnay is warming up.” *shakes fist, spilling drink*
When you commit to writing a set amount of words, each and every day, you RAPIDLY improve your writing. Nobody can teach you how to write the kind of novels you want to write, but you can learn how to write them. You learn by writing a novel, then another. Then reading your first novel and seeing where it could be improved. Then writing another.
NaNoWriMo and 50ks in 30 Days, are opportunities to set in stone the habit of writing every day. In my opinion (and this might be a bit controversial), it doesn’t matter if you ‘win’ or ‘lose,’ as long as you cement the writing habit.
Write every day for the month and average 800 words? You’re 24,000 words into your novel and odds are, you’ll be able to keep up the momentum through December and into the new year.
Write sporadically and finish in the middle of a sentence at midnight on the 30th of November with 50,000 words exactly (because you’re too burned out to hit the next key)? Lose. You’ll take a month off to recover, reflecting on how much of a waste of time the experience was, and probably never write more than a novel a year, or maybe two. Years, that is. It’s no way to make a living. And that novel? It will end its days in a musty corner of your hard-drive or wherever it lands after you read the first chapter of the CreateSpace printed version.
Fast drafting doesn’t work for everybody, but if you build up to a regular habit of writing forward through your novel, without endlessly going back to edit (some is okay, if you’re experienced, more on that later), you’ll finish more novels. It’s as simple as that.
Okay, you might have convinced me, but I’m not writing some shoddy novel. My idea is Awesome!
What we’re talking about here is the first draft of your novel. Anyone who can spell-check and hit ‘Send’ after a first draft is either Stephen King (you’d know if you were) or deluded. Repeat after me: ‘After drafting comes editing.’
A long time after.
Perhaps after you’ve written another manuscript or two, and got all of your friends’ requests to ‘be in your novel’ out of the way. You’ll find that you learn along the way, just from the act of writing: what time of the day is most productive, which bits are easy for you, which bits are hard (and might require some extra study), was it a revelation to finish a story, rather than writing endless beginnings (and shelving them because they weren’t perfect)?
For beginners (anyone who hasn’t typed ‘The End’ on a full manuscript), the key to fast-drafting success is to write regularly and write forward. Don’t edit at all. Don’t ‘backspace’ or ‘delete’ for an entire month. If this seems too hard, highlight the horrible bits in a color that screams ‘read this and your eyeballs will fall out’ and keep going. If you decide to change a character’s name, make a note in the manuscript. Use the new name from here on. If you decide that the taxi-driver really has to be a red-headed caftan-wearing hippie paying her way through medical school driving cabs instead of a minority guy with an honors degree from a foreign university, make a note. Jot down any relevant details and change her conversational style now. Do. Not. Go. Back.
One cornerstone to achieving your daily wordcount is to take part in sprints. You can sprint in person, or online. Gather in a chat-room, on a hashtag, or in person. Set a timer. Hit the go button, and write without stopping. When the buzzer goes, tell everyone your wordcount for the sprint, plus any creative excuses, then relax and have a chat with your co-sprinters. Five or ten minutes later do it all again. Two or three of these in an evening can give you your entire day’s words. Painlessly. Even enjoyably. Consider sprinting. It’s the new black.
At the end of each day, record your wordcount and chart your progress
(I wrote a spreadsheet—which you can download—to make this easy). Then confess your wordcount to somebody. Hopefully they’ll be supportive (if not, find someone who will pat you on the back and offer you chocolate before sending you back to the keyboard to get those extra words you need to make 1667 words for the day).
But I’ve got this sorted. I’ve written a few manuscripts before. All I want to do is blitz this NaNo thing and pick up my winners certificate & merch.
You probably have a bit of a plan, and you’re experienced, so you get a break: you can do some editing. But beware! If you find yourself deleting more than you wrote in the last hour, something is wrong and you need to move forward. Have a discussion with yourself (yes, right there in the manuscript) about what needs to be done to fix the situation. Keep your fingers (or your pen) moving and let your subconscious work it out. Then move forward as if those changes already existed from the beginning of the manuscript (sound familiar?). And consider sprinting to get your wordcounts back up.
But what if I get bored with my characters, or my story isn’t working out how I imagined it?
Glad you asked. This is where writing-in-groups (the other cornerstone of November success) comes in supremely handy. If you’ve been interacting with a group, sharing your highs and lows (your 2,000-word days and your zero-word days), you’ll find that everybody goes through the same stage.
You won’t even need to share the details, because Everybody. Goes. Through. The. Same. Stage.
Got that? You aren’t some complete loser, because… been there, done that. Having a supportive group who share your pain and cheer your successes is key. I run a group for members of the Romance Writers of Australia, called 50 ks in 30 Days, where every June and November, between twenty and eighty writers sign up for this month of writing madness. We have had multiple novels published. We have had writers go from being newbies one year, to multi-contracted twelve months later, because they learned to write every day, and kept at it until their break happened. We congregate on Twitter using #50K30D. We sprint in various places around the web: Twitter, RWA Forum, a Facebook group set up exclusively for sprinters. We get to know each other. When conference time rolls around, we greet each other as old friends, even though we’ve never met face-to-face.
And because we support each other and we sprint together, as a group, we are twice as likely to succeed at our writing goals as the average NaNoWriMo participant (I kept stats. I’m a geek like that). You don’t need to be part of a supportive group like ours to succeed at NaNoWriMo, but it sure helps. If you’ve been hovering on the edge of paying your subs to a professional organization, and you find that they have a group like ours, join up and join in. You won’t regret it. You may even get published sooner because of it. Because I’m biased towards the Romance Writers of Australia, and because I love to meet new people and write with them, I’m including a link to the RWA website. Come along and begin your professional writing career by learning to write at a professional pace. I also support Kristen Lamb’s WANAInternational, another place where artists and writers congregate supportively.
How many words do you write each day? Are you looking for a group of writers to connect with? I love to hear about your experiences, and I love connecting people up with groups that will help them. Have you, like me, succeeded at NaNoWriMo? Have you, like me, failed at NaNoWriMo? What techniques have helped you succeed at writing? Tell me in the comments.