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December 6th, 2015

9 Essential Things I Learned
Writing 50k Words in 1 Month


With NaNoWriMo completed a week ago, it seems an excellent time to reflect on what we've learned from the experience. It was my first time participating, and also my first time winning. (Yahoo!) I've written numerous stories before, but never been as aware of my process—what works and what doesn't—until now. What a journey to travel through! Here's what I learned the hard way in trying to write an unplanned novel in only 30 days:

1. You don't need a plan...at first.

There are writers who plan, and writers who dive right in to make it up as they go. I am in the former camp. I'll do sketches and pages upon pages of concept ideation before I outline and then, finally, write. That's how I groove! But for NaNo, I decided to throw my process completely out the window. I didn't plan a single thing and the only thing I started with were two character names and one little argument.

You know what? Turned out I didn't need more! It was not only possible but exciting to find out the plot and characters as you go. This helped me stay motivated and strong in the beginning. I was discovering the story for the first time!

2. Write only what excites you.

Part of the "secret" to keeping the spontaneity successful is to only write what you want to. Something "need" to happen, but is boring? Skip it. I took advice from Rachel Aaron's book 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love to heart. Paraphrasing here, but basically: if you don't love a scene, it's not working. I made that my rule. If I ever hit a wall in the story's direction—EEEEE!—I spun it around somewhere else or jumped to a new situation, time, or place that worked for my next idea.

Normally I feel tied down to my plans, which limits this kind of exploration. The ability to change things at a moment's notice and with no specific expectation of where to end up made it easier—and freeing—to play with every possibility.

3. It's OK to write nonsense.

Some days were harder than others, especially when my thrill of the original spontaneity dwindled away and I had no plan to fall back on. But there was still a word count to reach, and I had to achieve it somehow. These were the sort of "distractions" I'd give myself that would force me to still write, but give me a break from my primary story.

  • analysis so far of the story, noting what I like and don't like so far, and how to proceed or revise from here (great for rambling!)
  • flashbacks or character explorations scenes
  • an entirely different story (this ended up better than my original one)

4. Give it your all.

It's not over until that last second passes on November 30th. You haven't failed until you say you have. No matter how awful it's coming along, keep going. Switch to a new story or reboot it if you must. Just don't stop writing.

Talk about your project and goals. Share them on social media. Participate in the writing community. Declaring your determination to do your best will put in the mindset to go forth and do your best. People also engaged in NaNo are wonderful for cheering you on and finding people to help motivate you forward, but people you know can also be a source of support. Even if they don't "get" the whole "50k in a month" thing or why you want to do it, if they see you're serious about it, they're going to root for you regardless. Even if you don't reach the goal before that final second, everyone who heard you put in your 110% will be proud of you anyway. Don't forget to be proud of yourself, too—it's a big challenge to take on!

5. In the end, you do need a plan.

Things were awesome for the first 25 thousand words or so, but after that, things fell apart quick. My enthusiasm for improvising waned, and I couldn't help but panic as I realized the problem before me. Halfway there I still had no solid plot. Sure, the characters did things. There was plenty of conflict and action—but no clear path for where it was heading. In fact, it seemed to be zig-zagging along to avoid making a decision on the story's ultimate purpose.

Halfway there and no idea of how it should end, the real villain's identity, or their motive was the moment I realized things needed to start clicking into place and they weren't. Unfortunately, they never would. There was no end goal and yet I'd started building as if I would figure it out if I could put the right pieces together...but I wasn't putting together it was a puzzle. Instead, it was Legos and K'nex. Not only was there no end design to build towards, I was realizing the pieces would never fit together.

They key thing I learned is that there is value to both planning and diving in blind. While we do a balance of both naturally, it's important to identify the time and place for both. If I'm struggling and not feeling what "needs" to happen, then maybe it's time to pull back on the plan and try something new. And if you're someone who dives right in, keep an eye on where your path is taking you at all times so you don't crash the story into the ditch.

6. You can't force inspiration, but you can keep momentum.

There will be days you're not into it, but the worst thing you can do is not write anything at all. Even if you can only manage a few hundred words that day or a paragraph, write something. I found the less I wrote a day, the harder writing was the next. And, likewise, if I'd had a super productive day before, the next day I surged with more motivated because of the "roll" I perceived myself to be on—even if I didn't start out either day with any new ideas!

Ideas happen when you write, not when you avoid it. You have to face the story head-on to create problems and solve them.

7. Not every story will succeed.

I'm not happy to admit it, but I must. Even though I hit the word goal, the draft I wrote is a complete disaster. The plot is inexplicable because even I never figured it out. The cast and subplots grew too large to handle and made the plot worse. I tried throwing more elements in to disguise the problems instead of fix them.

So, yeah, that didn't work. At all. I ended up dropping most of the subplots abruptly, but that still left me the primary issue...that I never solved. So I got 50k words of writing and characters. But comprehensible story? Not so much. Makes the term "Shitty First Draft" look like a major understatement.

The draft is a failure on a lot of levels, and requires a complete rewrite to fix. But that's okay! Whenever I planned for months, I'd tend to attach to my ideas by the time writing started. With this method, it is no problems admitting what isn't working, what I don't like, and what I never want write again. There is no hesitation now for scrapping entire characters and scenes because I know, without attachment bias, that they weren't for the best after all.

8. But it's worth it.

Was it a waste of time to write fifty thousand words that ended up a failure? No way! For one, I learned all the things making this list, but more importantly, even in the biggest pile of garbage you can find some things to like. From my pile of junk, there are characters, relationships, and elements I like. Some scenes I enjoy rereading, even if I don't plan to keep them. No matter how bad your draft ends up, it's unlikely it'll all be bad.

And I say this as someone convinced this draft is the worst story I ever wrote in my life!

9. Hey! You can write!

I'm not often a productive writer. I have a horrible habit of procrastination and waiting for the stars to align in order for my fingers to hit the keyboard. As a result, writing my projects takes longer than it should due to the many times I'd tell myself "I don't feel like it", "There's no time", or "I'm tired." But when I set a deadline and tell the world I'm doing it and keep talking about doing it...turns out, I actually can do it! I know, I know—no one was more shocked than me. Nothing really changed in my life. Work and other obligations still exist, yet it turns out if you choose to do something, it can be done. Did something have to give? Absolutely. Often times I stayed up later, spent more time writing on the weekends to try and stay on top of goals, and I had to cut back on television and video games. But I made it work, and it got done.

So, if I want to, I can craft characters, stories, and create sentences together. Not necessarily well, but that was never the point to begin with. NaNoWriMo is a test of "can" or "cannot", and the end revealed: I can.

And so can you.