NaNoWriMo Recap Part 2: The Road Ahead

December 18, 2014

In part one of my reflections on my experience participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I identified a list of six lessons I learned or opportunities for improvement as I go forward. Two of them were discussed in that previous post, and I’ll tackle the rest now. They are as follows below:

  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 to see what else I got out of my November.

The Devil on Your Shoulder

I wrapped up part one talking about how having an outline helped me work much faster than I ever had before. The next couple of lessons I learned are direct extensions of that. A common area of frustration for writers of all shapes and sizes is the tendency to critique what you’re writing as you go. This your inner editor, and it can be a major impediment to progress.

On its face, an inner editor does not sound bad. Isn’t it best to fix mistakes right away rather than have to dig them up later? That’s often true. In my old life as a spreadsheet jockey, it was absolutely worth it to correct an errant formula as soon as I noticed it.

As a writer, however, an inner editor can function more like a devil on your shoulder beckoning you to distraction from more important tasks. With long projects like novels, massive revision is both necessary and expected. Constantly worrying about getting every piece of prose perfect on the first pass slows down the more important work (in my mind) of moving your story forward. There will be plenty of time later to devise a brilliant metaphor for what it’s like to eat a particularly delicious cheeseburger.

Your cheeseburger metaphor is crap! You should spend the next three hours writing a better one.

Your cheeseburger metaphor is crap! You should spend the next three hours writing a better one.

An outline helped fix this for me, in part. By having a better sense of where I was going, I worried a lot less about where I’d been so far. I was too enthusiastic about getting to the next turn in the plot to over-scrutinize every word choice. The goal of 50,000 words in 30 days helped as well. I did not want to fall behind because I was nitpicking when I knew I’d be rereading and rewriting extensively anyway. Better to get the ideas down and move on.

The ability to control one’s inner editor is an ongoing struggle. A search for the term “inner editor” reveals page after page of advice and blog posts about writers trying to do just that. My inner editor has returned with a vengeance in December, and I realize now that the primary reasons for that are:

  1. I do not have a complete outline for the point in the story I’ve reached
  2. I have lost the sense of urgency that came with a 50K words in 30 days goal

My next major step in my current novel draft is not to keep working on the novel, but to regroup on my outline and make some more decisions about where it’s headed. That will make writing the rest of it much easier.

Write First, Ask Questions Later

Creating an outline allowed me to write much faster than I usually do. By contrast, not treating my outline as somehow sacrosanct meant that I still made spur of the moment decisions when I had exciting ideas. ,In this way an inner editor can com in handy, as long as you don’t allow it to get out of control. Having the general guardrails of the story made this possible, even as it has resulted in a story that is shaping up to be a good deal different from what I outlined in October.

I’ve had some difficulty pinpointing what exactly made it possible to strike a balance between staying the course I’d plotted and changing tack on a whim. The more I’ve considered it, the less I think it had to do with the actual story outline itself. For not the first time, author Chuck Wendig distilled the disparate thoughts swirling in my brain and  articulated them better than I would have myself.

Characters are everything. Focus on them. Characters make plot by doing things and saying things. Do not staple plot to the story. The plot grows inside the story based on the actions of interested and interesting characters. Story lives in how characters address (and fail to address) their problems. Plot is skeleton, not exoskeleton.

Well, duh. The reason I felt free to make changes to my plot outline on the fly was that I cared more about my characters than the any preconceived notion about the story itself. My characters were the most important part of my outline. About 35,000  words into the story, I inserted a character that was originally present in only a single scene into a much more important scene. I did it largely because I wanted to see what else she could do, and I wanted to see what would happen between her and the other characters. It was the best in-the-moment decision I made in November, and it dramatically changed the course of the story.

What Do You Mean I’m Not Done?

So far, my NaNoWriMo recap has been all puppies and rainbows. Look at all these great things I learned! Look what I discovered I’m capable of! I’ve grown so much! Hooray for me!

These things are all accurate enough, but they are not the whole story. The last two items on my list of learnings reflect some continuing struggles, and some old ones that have not been fully vanquished as I had naively hoped. Item five above mentions that I met the 50K word count goal early, which at first blush seems like more good news. It was, but it had a perverse effect on me as well: it removed my sense of urgency.

No more writing. Sleepy time.

No more writing. Sleepy time.

It happened almost the instant I hit the total. I found a way to wrap up the scene I was working on as quickly as possible, validated my word count on the NaNoWriMo site, and called it a day. Part of this was, perhaps, a partial letdown in energy that might have been inevitable. For the first three and a half weeks of November, I wrote more words more quickly than I ever had before. I took only one day off in that time. I’m sure loads of long-time pros would have a nice chuckle at the quaintness of this accomplishment. Fair enough, but it was a big change for me. It’s a bit like running a marathon when you’ve never done more than a 5k. Maybe you can do it, but chances are you’re not going to feel as good as an experienced marathoner at the finish line.

This coincided with the week of Thanksgiving as well. For me, this meant three consecutive days of  travel and errands. I’m confident that if I had not hit the 50K total I would have found ways to keep chugging toward that number, bu I ended up doing no writing for any of those days. This was not my intention. Maybe it was a well-deserved break, but that’s not how it felt.

As a result, my total word count was lower than I had hoped it would be. I don’t care too much about that, however. What I do care about is that I did not complete the full arc of my story within the 30 days of November. I recognize that this is arbitrary, but I had really hoped to finish NaNoWriMo with a a beginning, middle, and end to my novel regardless of how much revision and addition might be needed. Instead, I’ve rolled into December struggling to recapture the mojo I had throughout the previous month. I attribute these struggles to having failed to complete a full outline of my story in the previous month and no longer having the pressing deadline of 50K words in 30 days. I’ve got a bit of a NaNoWriMo hangover.

Finishing Things

So how am I going to get back in the saddle, so to speak? Well, the first problem I’ve felt in December is that I almost immediately reverted to some of the habits I had identified as bad ones back in October. I am not planning what I write. I’m waiting to be ‘inspired.’ I’m overanalyzing (it could be argued that the entirety of my blog writing is overanalyzing). Maybe worst of all, I have no clear goals right now.

The good news is I’ve recognized those behaviors and problems. Understanding them should make it more feasible to go in the opposite direction. Rather than attempt to plunge forward blindly like a brave but foolish soldier, I am going to rebuild my strategy. I’ll be doing scene outlines that get me from where I’ve gotten stuck in my book to the ending I want. Then I’ll do like I did in early November. I’ll take each scene one at a time, but I will not allow my inner editor to run amok.

I’m also not going to be unrealistic. The last six months have been bonkers. I quit my job, moved, traveled half way across the country and back, and began trying to build a new career from zilch. I don’t think I deserve any great pat on the back, but I do think I need to take a little short term pressure off of myself. The rest of the holiday season is going to involve extensive travel, family get-togethers, and a general lack of day-to-day structure. Rather than think I can get everything I want done in this time only to be disappointed when I fail, I’m going to go pretty easy on myself until the new year.

But then? Then it’s time to get to work.

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