Preparing for NaNoWriMo

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

When I first took on NaNoWriMo in 2009, I thought I knew what I was getting into. I am no stranger to long nights, long papers, and even longer feelings of despair.  I'm a wordy person, so 50k seemed do-able, and I had the time for it.


I wasn't that far off, to give myself a teensy bit of credit. It was rough and tough and a lot of despair.  I lost some time, allocated some time, pushed it, spent some long nights cranking away.  There were several days of triumph and even more of complete loss.  I managed to hit the 50k mark about 5 days before the deadline, and I think I may have actually wept a few tears.

But I was also utterly wrong.  I didn't realize how much fun it would be, how rewarding, how absolutely emotionally draining it is.  So much of your life gets consumed by this lovely, amazing 30 day challenge that you start to eat, think, breathe your characters.  Which gets really confusing in day-to-day life, as well as incredibly frustrating when your plot is losing its steam and direction.

I took on NaNo in 2010, and failed miserably. I had neither time nor sanity for it, and it crashed and burned 3 days in.  As I prepare for it now, I kind of know my process, know what to expect, and can figure out what needs to be done now, during, or never.  So, I share with you the things that work for me. Every writer is different, as we all know well - so maybe this won't help you in the least bit.  But maybe it will.

1) Develop your plot.
I don't really outline or prepare for things I'm writing.  I'm always thinking about it, but I don't take the time to write it down. Maybe it's because I know within 50 pages I'm going to deviate so badly from the outline it's hopeless to get back.  But the thing is, I always have some sort of direction in my head.  I know how I want to start, I know the first few things that will happen.  I know something I want to happen eventually.  I never know how it will end.

2) Develop your characters.
I've never been much of a pre-planner, but I am working on character development.  As the writer, you need to know your characters better than you know yourself.  To be able to strike that consistent voice, to keep your reader believing in your protagonist, you need to know.  You can do basic sheets of who you are choosing to make your character, or you can do in-depth analyses.  I found this on the NaNo forums in 2009, and I've used it ever since: Character Sheet (my apologies to the original poster, as I don't remember who it is and can't give credit!).  It seems silly to write such a profile on a fictional person who doesn't exist yet, but that's the point: you need to make your person real.

3) Use the NaNoWriMo forums.
Seriously, they are a saviour.  They are there for everything.  Want a Write-In?  Need to vent your frustrations?  Looking for a character name?  Need encouragement? Want to know the most obscure way a character can die using a pen, Hallmark card and trash bin?  It's there, or someone there will know.  I promise, no one on the forums will ever let you down.

4) Writing exercises.
If you're unlucky like me, you don't write every day.  Writing is a talent and a skill that never really goes away, but it is something that can't hurt being refreshed - especially when you're about to surmount 50k words  There are prompts everywhere on the web.  You can google them, or check out here, or in the forums there are always tons of suggestions.  NaNoWriMo has also done Sprints via their twitter, which are immensely helpful, and I hope will be done again this year.

One of my favorite things is where you are given a 1-word prompt and 60 seconds to write anything about it.  It's timed within the site, and it will post automatically as soon as the minute is up. It's helpful to get out of your head and to write on instinct; and you also can't really go back and edit unless you want to give up half your minute to re-read and change things!  I'll post a few of mine tomorrow.

5) Plan your time.
Ok, this is actually a lie - I never plan out my time.  Some people keep strict goals for the day or week, and know down to the number what they still need.  I don't do that, but I definitely keep in mind what needs to get done and how long I have to finish it.  I'm aware that a daily minimum is 1667 words to make the goal; and I'm aware that I lose two days in November: Thanksgiving and Black Friday.  While I don't freak out until I have that 1667 for the day, I do adjust as needed. Most of the time I'll bump up my writing times the few days before Thanksgiving so I'm not playing crazy catch-up in the last few days of the month.

6) Find your writing nirvana.
It's important to know what environment you work best in.  Make a playlist, fluff up your pillow, bar your bedroom door so mom won't come pounding in right when you're at an interesting murder part in your novel.  Whatever it is, it's important that where you are nurtures your writing.  And likewise, understand that you won't always have your writing nirvana.  It's impossible to live sitting on your bed with a fresh cup of hot cocoa to your right and your fluffy dog to your left for 30 days straight.  You'll be taken out of your zone lots of times, and you have to know that you can push through it - if only to get back to your happy place.

This is perhaps the hardest thing for anyone to get comfortable with.  I've been writing for 19 years, and it still makes my heart skip thinking about it.  But this is also one of the most important rules when you're taking on NaNoWriMo.  I know the temptation of editing, especially when there's a part that you just need to take out or alter.  Unless it's something that will entirely affect your novel (such as your character goes to Moscow instead of what you'd originally written of Acapulco), then of course you have to.  But anything less than that, let it go.  When you go back and re-read, you not only waste valuable time, you're wasting your thought process.  You've interrupted your flow, and I can bet you'll start focusing on how poorly something was written or how little you like a part.  It's much more of a hinderance than you realize, I promise.  Just remember that as of December 1, you are free to go back and edit and change and cross out to your heart's content.

And lastly: 8) Be ok with sucky writing.
Here's the thing: all 50,000 words you write will not be Literary Enlightenment.  Your dialogue will not move you to tears like Hamlet's soliloquy.  Your murder scene will not make Agatha Christie jealous.  Your memoir of sorority days will not make Jen Lancaster envious, nor will your steamy sex scene make Harlequin romances blush.  That's just the way it goes - and you have to be ok with that.  Kathryn Stockett took 40 rejections and re-writes before The Help was published, and Jo Rowling did not gain immediate success.  You have to go through the hell of poor writing to recognize the ones that are great.

I'm all about encouragement in this exciting month though, so if you want some daily or weekly support, follow me on Twitter and/or leave your Twitter handle here and/or Tweet me and I'll make sure to check in with you throughout the month :)

Good luck everyone!


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I'm fairly obsessed with penguins, Peanuts (the comic), and the TV show Friends. Parentheses may or may not be (over)used in this blog, and books will pretty much be the only thing I ever talk about because they are my One True Love.


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