I wanted to title this “50000 Words in 30 Days is Bullshit,” but since I recently did a post about how “3:30 is Bullshit,” I worried I’d be getting redundant. There’s nothing so annoying as a writer who keeps repeating themselves. It would be repetitive, this repeating of repetition.
Okay, probably not as funny as I imagined when I decided to write that gag. This is why I’m not writing for comedians.
I decided to participate in this year’s NaNoWriMo. Not counting unofficial NaNo’s – months where I wrote more than 50,000 words for no reason other than I’m a glutton for punishment – I’d done it twice before. I’d won once, lost once. But a large number of other Viable Paradise folks were going to do it, and the support would be helpful. Like I said in 3:30 is Bullshit, you have to find all the bullshit reasons you can in order to keep yourself writing.
As of Wednesday, November 20th, I completed my NaNo quest. I wrote just shy of 51,000 words in 20 days, averaging over 2,500 words a day. I added a final 44 on Thursday, mostly so I could get the “Posted Updates 21 Days in a Row” badge. Hey, there was a blank spot on my profile, it needed to be filled! That’s just how I roll.
My first NaNo was in 2012 (I keep thinking it was 2011, but I’ve confirmed the year). I undertook it as a way to get myself back into writing after decades of telling myself I wasn’t good enough to be a writer. I figured if I could complete a novel, it would get me past that hump of self-doubt. I succeeded, but the first draft was such a mess that I put writing aside again for two more years. 2014 was the year I finally gave in to that unrelenting need and made becoming a published author my goal. The five and a half years since have gone pretty well, though I’m always looking towards the next goal.
I didn’t revisit NaNo again until last year, though. The first attempt left a bad taste in my mouth. Too many words in too short a time, and I was too raw a writer for it to be anything other than total crap. It’s a tough challenge for anyone. But, working on a novel last fall, I thought it might be a useful exercise in making sure I completed it. I did get the novel done, though I only managed 30,000 words that month, and the novel had too many glaring plot holes for me to do anything with it since.
This year, fresh from writing 30,000 words in September, and 40,000 words in October, all on the same novel, I felt much more confident that I could succeed. I also felt pretty sure I knew about how many words were left in this work. Let me talk about what worked for me and helped me write so quickly. These may not work for you, but give them a thought.
The Story was Well Established
A lot of folks outline before they write. I think that’s a handy habit to have when you want to do things like NaNo, and if outlining works for you, go for it. It’s going to really help you succeed. I don’t outline, though. I do discovery drafts. For me, I find about 30,000 words is where I have a better sense of what a novel is going to be. Who the characters are, the overall plot. I may write the start several times, though, before I get to “I’m ready to move forward.”
That was the case for me here. I’d already started and stopped this novel several times after early discovery drafts weren’t working. I first conceived of it in 2015, and made a first attempt in 2016. I’d rethought a lot of what I had imagined, and came up with some new directions for background and setting that helped get me past some of the blocks. This third attempt had already been going well, so it was easy enough to transition into November and continue what I’d already been doing. So the take away here is that NaNo works better for me if I’m already deep into a work, not dicking around with something fairly new that I’m unsure about. This is definitely a way of working that applies mostly to me, and not as much to other folks. Everyone has to find their own path, and this has been mine. But don’t beat yourself up if, like me, you have a lot of 30k aborted starts. Consider them a way of discovering the story. They’re words you got down on page, and they count (and save them for later, you might find a use for them).
In the days preceding NaNo, I sat down and created a list of the remaining scenes I wanted to write. I think there was originally thirty to forty. I’d never tried this before and wanted to see if that would goose me along through November. And it worked really well for me. I didn’t write every scene I listed, and I added some different ones as I went along. I also jumped around and worked on them out of order. If a scene I’d planned to write wasn’t working, I moved to another one. In short, scene outlining allowed me to write what excited me.
When I’d first heard about writing “what excited me” as a way of getting more words down per day, I rejected the idea. I figured I’d eventually have to go back and slog through the parts that I did NOT find exciting, so I’d still be stuck at that point. It turned out this wasn’t the case at all. By writing what was exciting, it sparked ideas for the parts that had been a slog. Changes in those scenes I wrote led to changes in what had been going poorly. And it meant I had a clearer idea of what had to go in those missing gaps. When I came back to those parts I’d skipped, the writing went just about as smoothly as it had for the exciting bits.
I urge you to try this if you, like me, use the scene as your basic writing block. You might have the same surprising result as I did. It actually became easier for me to write the bridging scenes once the exciting scenes were in place. Maybe that won’t be the case for you, but it’s worth a shot if you find you get to places where the writing seems hard and you struggle to move forward. But you do have to have some things planned ahead. If you are a pure pantser, you probably won’t find this useful.
There’s no doubt about it: doing NaNo the first time from a cold start – having not written seriously for years – was brutal. I can’t recommend it. Lots of folks try it, and I’d guess that lots of folks either fail or are so damaged by what comes out of it that they quit writing again. That was my experience after my first attempt. Luckily I had an awesome spouse who read some of my work and convinced me not to give up.
Coming into it this fall, I’ve written a ton of words. I’ve finished lots of short stories, a couple of novellas, and several other novels. I no longer have doubts that I can put down a large volume of words in a short period of time. It means that the task is not nearly as daunting as the first time I tried, and I have a general idea of what it will take out of me. And of how to prep for it.
My advice would be to consider building your writing experience. Start with small monthly or yearly goals. Increase them over time. Learn how to complete your stories. When you get to the point where you can do ten or even twenty thousand a month without breaking a sweat, you’re ready for the bigger challenge of fifty thousand. It’s like the distance running I did in high school. I couldn’t get to ten miles without first running the shorter distances and working my way up to it.
Other things that worked in my favor
I took advantage of my ability to work from home so I could do more writing in the mornings. I’m totally privileged here, and I know not many folks have the situation I do. I’m very lucky. By working from home more often and cutting out my morning commute, which requires me to leave home at 6:30, I gained a full hour of writing time. An hour and a half actually, because I didn’t have to shower and get ready, either (I call this Bonus Bathrobe time!). And I could, during work breaks, write another paragraph or two. For me, having a set schedule of writing time is critical to my success.
I also decided not to go back and make changes. I’ve had two or three major character epiphanies over the course of writing this novel. Instead of slogging back through the text to introduce those changes, I powered on and simply acted like they’d already been in the story all along. I’ll fix the older work during the first editing pass. I’ve had a terrible habit in the past of “realizing” something and having to stop, go back and fix everything, before I could move on.
I’ve got a finished novel now. My fourth first draft, and a bit of a whopper at 191,000 words. I’ve already marked about 47,000 words for removal, so it’s not really as big as all that, and I’m sure it’ll compress even more during the first editing pass. But I could see this being a pretty big novel. We’ll deal with that when it’s time to start querying.
My first two novels, Shadow of a Doubt and Summer, went through multiple revisions and have been queried often with no success. The third remains a first draft only for the time being, but I’ll come back to it at some point. This one I’m excited about and have already begun setting up index cards for each scene with some editing notes. Another new technique I’m trying. I hope to have a completed second draft by the end of winter, around March, in time to share it with the novel critique group and get their feedback.
NaNoWriMo is a heck of a challenge, especially for people who work full time. If you can do it, you deserve all the accolades you get. But it’s not necessary for you to be a writer. To be an author. Put words down as often as you can, as many or few as you want. You’ll get there when you get there. And we’ll be here ready for you when your book slides into the world. 50,000 words in only 30 days is bullshit. Try it if you like, or find your own bullshit reasons to write.