Lessons from NaNoWriMo

This is the first time I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, and I’ve finished what I consider the first draft of my first real book, something that I would work with and try to get published. In the space of 11 days I’ve learned quite a few things. These will not be surprises to my colleagues who are far more experienced than I am with respect to the large work writing business.

What I Have Learned:

  • Characters are key. When your characters have interesting chemistry, not only will you want to find out more (and thus keep writing), but they will help you over the tough spots, when you can’t figure out what’s happening next. Just throw a couple of them into a strange setting and give them something to do or even just something to talk about. Even scenes you think will be boring will not be, with the right characters.
  • Important characters must have goals. An important character without a goal cannot participate in scenes, because they have no interest in the final outcome. A character without a goal is also not going to be someone you can use to help get over the Great Meandering Middle. And because each character has a goal in a scene or dialogue, that interplay becomes conflict–and conflict drives plot.
  • Humor keeps words rolling along. Humor is when character chemistry comes out the most. You don’t have to write an entire humorous book, or even write in the humorous genre, but every book is best with a little bit of humor, perhaps even when things are at their bleakest.
  • Don’t get caught up on every detail. That will stop you dead in your tracks, because now you’re backtracking and you aren’t moving forwards. If you’re writing a book that requires research, really requires it and you can’t simply leave a note to yourself to find out what that castle on the Scottish west coast is called, and you haven’t done it yet, pick another book for NaNo.
  • Try to have a little idea of what you’re going to write tonight. This will give you a goal for the evening that you can write towards. Perhaps the plot will flitter off to parts unknown, in which case your goal is to keep running along the thread until it lands again, but have goals for your characters and plot–and NOT just for your word count.
  • Dialogue: make it conflict, drop sentences. Dialogue may not strictly be scenes, but they should be treated as such: every character involved must have a goal, there should be conflict, etc. Additionally, loosen up dialogue by dropping sentences–that is, instead of characters talking through every single step of the conversation, see if any of that can be implied and drop it–or hidden, and drop it–or… twisted…, and drop it. This is one key to having non-direct dialogue.
  • Don’t skimp and summarize. If you do, you will not reach your word count at the end of the goal. Summary is necessary for truly boring scenes, the ones that no matter how many characters you throw at it, it’s not gonna help, but these connections are still neccessary. (Like uneventful train commutes.)
  • It’s okay if you suddenly learn things about your characters in the middle of it all. There’s this thing, it’s called the rewrite. In fact, this is great, because it will motivate you more to finish the rewrite. Ditto for sudden symbols and themes, plot twists that would have required previous setup (gun over the fireplace), etc.
  • If you outline, have an idea of how many words each piece of outline will generate. This helps you a) plan ahead, and b) uh, plan farther ahead. You know how much outline you can burn tonight, and if you don’t do a full outline, how much more you’ll need to plan out ahead so you don’t burn through it all and then have nothing to write with.
  • Write at least X words every night. Or at least 99.9% of your nights. On longer works, losing your momentum for a day can be destructive to your moral.
  • Drink lots of water while writing. And plain water works best. You can still drink tea, but clean drinking water is very refreshing. It’s amazing how dehydrated you get when you’re really into writing.
  • It’s possible to have a life and still write lots. In fact, a break (while still writing every night) is good for refreshing the mind and preventing writer’s blockage of many types.
  • Listen to music that keeps you motivated. It doesn’t necessarily have to fit the scene you’re writing. For instance, I keep writing well with dance music most of the time. If I need to slow down for a sensitive scene, I play Chinese Folk Music, but I revert to the dance music to keep movin’ and groovin’.
  • Don’t get discouraged, get inspired. Nothing more to be said about that.

And now…. off to write little index cards for Articles of Retransmission.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from NaNoWriMo

  1. I would make an addendum: Important Characers Must Have Goals. They must also fail to reach them, get sidetracked, make stupid and illogical mistakes, and sometimes end up with goals that are nothing like the first ones.Not every time, but I would still stand it as a good rule of thumb for interesting characterization. Robert Heinlein was a master of this.

  2. Good point.I view it as part and parcel of interesting characters, but it’s good to draw out and underline several times.

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