NaNoWriMo Recap Part 1: Learning to Plan

December 15, 2014

As referenced in my most recent post, I spent the month of November participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo from here on out). For the uninitiated, the basics of NaNoWriMo are as follows:

Beginning November 1st each year, participants all over the world start working on the first draft of a novel. The “rules” are pretty loose. Ideally you start with nothing written that’s intended to be part of the novel text itself, meaning outlines are okay. To “win,” you must write 50,000 words toward your novel’s draft within the month of November. This works out to 1,667 words per day if you write every day. Beginning around November 20th, a tool on the NaNoWriMo site becomes available to validate your word count and give you credit for reaching the goal. Adherence to these rules is more or less on the honor system.

Why you would want to fake winning this, I don’t know. But I’m told it happens. Hundreds of thousands of people “win” each year, and I imagine hundreds of thousands of others do not. I’ve always seen the event as a positive and harmless thing. It encourages people to take on a challenge and provides an organization and a community to help support it. The competition is exclusively internal, and so it seems a lot of participants derive a sense of camaraderie with their fellow NaNo participants.

The event has its detractors, some of them quite fervent. This is the internet, after all, so there’s always someone ready with a turd for the punchbowl. I plan to address some of the criticisms and negativity in a subsequent post; however, I will say the following, which I think is perhaps all that matters in the end:

I had a lot of fun doing it, and I hope to do it again.

Here’s a quick summary of my results, with greater detail below, including my lessons learned and takeaways from the experience:

  1. I learned I am capable of producing something of this length, even as I understand there is A LOT of revision in my future.
  2. I discovered I work best with at least some semblance of an outline. I am not what they call in NaNoWriMo circles a “pantser.”
  3. I learned how to not spend too much time revising rather than moving the story forward, shelving but not silencing my inner editor.
  4. I made decisions about changes in direction, plot additions and character changes quickly rather than becoming frozen by them.
  5. I reached the 50K goal nearly a week early. This was important because Thanksgiving week ended up totally derailing my productivity, though I’m convinced I would have found a way to make it work if I hadn’t hit the number already.
  6. I did not succeed in one important respect. My story arc remained incomplete even though I surpassed the word count goal. This has been my primary source of reflection since the end of November and I think my biggest learnings will come out of this.

Read on for more detail on the items above.

Doubt Casts Long Shadows

Though this was my first NaNoWriMo, it’s been on my radar for several years. I’ve always had excuses for not doing it in the past, but oddly I never used the most common one: “I’m too busy.” This is the knee-jerk rationale for not doing something that most people cite when they either do not want to do a thing or think it will be harder than it’s worth. You may actually be “too busy,” but another way to say it is “it’s just not important enough to me right now.” I think this is both more honest and more accurate in most cases. Saying you’re too busy is a way to dismiss a thing without having to think about it very hard.

In my case, the scapegoat was just that I didn’t know where or how to begin, or so I thought. The scope of the task was intimidating. Most of my writing has been quite short, primarily comedy sketches or helping out with small bits and pieces for other people’s projects. A comedy sketch generally tops out around a few hundred words, a far cry from the NaNoWriMo challenge. I was not sure I could come up with 50,000 words toward a single story, even though that’s exactly what I want to be doing. The other usual culprits of perfectionism, fear, and analysis paralysis have been present as well.

No surprise there.

On the other hand, my undergraduate senior thesis was something like 80 pages long, extensively researched, and written entirely in Spanish. My master’s thesis was another 40-50 pages, and I once put together separate 160 and 80 page survey research reports simultaneously for a previous job. Though I had doubts and insecurities, in the back of my mind I knew I could tackle a large project. I was just unsure how.

In the end, the breakthrough that transformed my doubt to action, my insecurity to confidence, came via one of the oldest tools in the trade. An outline.

The Best Laid Plans

My work toward NaNoWriMo began in earnest in early October with two decisions. The first was that I was going to set excuses aside and actually do it. The second was that I was going to outline my novel rather than jump right in. This proved to be the most important thing I did in the whole process.

Deciding to outline — and forcing myself to actually do it — was a big change. Since leaving my job, I have put a lot of pressure  on myself to be productive, but how I’ve approached productivity and measured it has been half-baked at best. Unsure what should count as “productive,” I spent a lot of time feeling as though anything I did that was not putting words directly into narrative was unproductive time. This created a bizarre pattern that I knew was wasting a lot of time, but from which I could not seem to escape.

Guide to not getting things done

This is what I do on days I want to feel bad about myself.

The guide at left is my simplified un-productivity cycle. Feel free to implement it if you don’t want to get anything done and would like to rack yourself with self-doubt.

This was my work pattern for much of the time since August, and I knew it wasn’t working. Yet I still would not give myself permission to slow down and think, to plan, to prepare. It was dumb, and I needed a focusing event like NaNoWriMo to help me break out of bad habits and try to build new ones.

Giving myself permission was the far and away the most important lesson here. In my corporate career, I always pushed myself and others to work smarter rather than harder. But I was not doing the same with my writing. I was treating every day as though I had a deadline tomorrow for a project I had not started. Days were spent vacillating between frantic panicking to produce and sullen resignation that I could not do this.

Taking the time to plan what I will write is changing that slowly, and that was the most successful part of my NaNoWriMo experience. I found some very helpful resources on outlining, planning, and how to use tools I already had (like Scrivener) to pull it all together. I end up putting my own spin on any of these sorts of tools,  and I’d encourage others to do the same. I’m a big believer in learning from what others do but figuring how that works best for you

A Happy Side of Effect of Using Your Time Wisely

Entirely by accident, this outlining process ended up being doubly productive. I started October outlining a novel concept I’d had for a couple of months for the sole reason that I thought it would be the easiest to write and therefore give me the best chance of hitting the 50K goal. On its surface, I envisioned it as a somewhat by-the-numbers spy/assassin thriller. Sort of a Jason Bourne type of thing with a few twists and ideas I think could make it fresh. I liked this idea, but I wasn’t in love with the idea of writing it at the time.

This produced another internal dilemma. Was it more important to stick with my project and prove to myself I could commit to something or to work on the thing I was most passionate about? In the end I used the unfailing logic from one of my favorite commercials: ¿Por qué no los dos?

This kid is adorable. ¿Por qué no los dos?

About two thirds of the way through my outline and halfway through October, I decided to change tack and begin working on the outline for The Witches of Nicollet Island which became the story I tackled for NaNoWriMo. At the time, all I had was the title and the thinnest of concepts for it…a concept explained entirely by the title itself: What if there were witches living secretly on Nicollet Island? As simple as that is, I was infatuated with it, and decided I still had time to make the switch.

I envision writing more about this specific story in the weeks and months ahead, so I’ll say only this about the book. For those unfamiliar with Minneapolis geography, Nicollet Island is a real place. It’s a sparsely populated island in the middle of the Mississippi River between downtown Minneapolis and the blue collar and artsy neighborhoods that make up what we locals call “Nordeast.” It’s got a long and interesting history, and I loved the idea of putting a slightly fantastical twist on parts of it. It felt like the only way to get the idea out of my  head was to get it onto the screen.

The best part of changing my mind though? I now have a two-thirds complete outline for another novel and the knowledge that outlines enable me to work faster and more effectively. This has me more excited to tackle that project than I was when I set it aside in mid-October.

I cannot overstate this. Having an outline changed EVERYTHING for me. All the time I spent making tiny decisions only to second guess them vanished overnight. I just wrote. At the same time, the outline did not choke creativity as I feared it might. I thought I would feel some misplaced need to adhere rigidly to my outline lest I fall down a rabbit hole and lose my way. Instead, it set up workable parameters and guard rails within which I still felt empowered to make decisions on the fly as good ideas came up.

More on that in Part 2 where I tackle the next items on the list above.

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