A Serious NaNo

NNWMThis is a shout-out to the small group of writers who actually plan to use what they write during November. Call me a stuck up killjoy, but I just can’t go into NaNoWriMo knowing that I’ll have to throw away most of the words I write. It just stings. If I’m going to spend a couple hours every day on a project, I want it to be good. And why would I write nutso when, with a touch more effort, I can have a decently strong first draft?

Yes, writing a serious NaNo is possible. Now, “winning” while writing well is a little harder, but I’ve done it twice. And, really, who wants to win if winning means hating yourself as a writer for the next couple months? So, during this blog post, I’m going to talk about some ways to help set yourself up to write a good first draft under the pressure of daily word wars and a looming deadline.

Check Your Basics:

I assume you already know that you need a rough idea of what you’re going to write about. The level of development is up to you, but I recommend at least having a good working relationship with your main character and a rough idea of the story concept before you start writing. And if you have a general idea of the main events, a strong opening image, or even (lucky you) an idea for the climax and ending, it’ll be a lot easier to get started and make a dash for The End. That also gives you more practice developing your story-sense and “big picture” mindset, which ultimately results in a better writer. Whooyeah!

Personally, I recommend that you also have a couple side characters planned, an antagonist* developed, and a list of “things that could go wrong”. Bonus points if you figure out some of the relationships and personality clashes that will help drive your characters through the plot. Okay, once you have your basics in place, we’ll pause for a quick footnote and then plunge into three techniques that can help your NaNo work for you.

*Ive observed an odd phenomenon among writers where they overly focus on the antagonists character and personality. This isnt necessarily a bad thing to do, but dont forget the really important part – what is your antagonist actually doing? What decisions are they making, and what actual actions are they taking that will catch your MC off guard? How does their emotional journey affect the decisions they make that ultimately lead to the climax? Think about it.

The Techniques:

Technique One: Find the Shiny

This technique is all about developing the super power of self motivation. Ask yourself what about your NaNo makes you want to write that particular story. What is the “magical” thread or element or scene or concept that motivates you? Find it and remember it, because that motivation and excitement is a lifeline. With that lifeline in place you’ll have something to fall back on when things don’t go well. Your “shiny” might be a fact. It might be the feeling you get when you think of the story. It can even be something as specific as “that scene when she finds out he died saving her life” or as general as “this character is so alive in my head he needs to be out on the page.” I remember one NaNo had this amazing color-based magic set up and some fascinating side characters to introduce. The excitement of wanting to get the part where I could introduce them (and I write in linear order almost exclusively) kept me focused and moving forward. So ask yourself the tough questions. Why are you writing this particular story? The answer might carry you through a month of craziness and help form a strong habit of self motivation.

Technique Two: Pick A Focus

This is a nuts-and-bolts approach that can help you put words on the page in a constructive manner, rather than blithering all over with random plot points. Ask yourself what writing skill or technique do you want to hone and practice during the course of this project. Select something that is a bit of a stretch for you, but not extremely stressful. Then, when a scene staggers, just back off and pull out your technique to practice. In my last NaNo novel, I focused on creating vivid descriptions that set a tone for each scene. If I hit a wall, I could back up and think about the feel of the story instead of throwing my laptop across the room, and then write some lovely description that helped set the scene’s tone. That process almost always loosened up creative juices and helped me forge ahead. Your technique could be a focus on relaying a character’s thoughts through actions, or writing precise fight scenes, or trying to develop strong inner dialogue. Whatever it is, set it up as a pretty clear rule, pull it out when you get stuck, and watch the steady growth of useful words. Not to mention the practice of skills of that will serve you well in future.

Technique Three: Know Thyself

This technique brings the focus back onto the author and his or her personal journey through the process of writing the novel. It might seem odd to more outward focused writers, but the results are well worth the effort. The goal? To learn how you function as a writer, and as a person, and as a person who is a writer. NaNoWriMo gives a unique opportunity to watch yourself go through the first-draft process in a short amount of time. During that time, pay attention to your inner writer. Learn your creative rhythm and gently encourage it to work for you. What excites you about the process? What do you struggle with? Is there a particular scene or character you dread writing? Play the observer and watch for patterns or light-bulb moments. This technique is particularly useful in helping to identifying your go-to procrastination techniques and learning why you feel the need to procrastinate. It can be really helpful to be able to tell the difference between your “I don’t want to write this because it’s hard” and “I’m out of words and need a break” sensations. Be willing to stop when you need to stop, and process when you need to process. It’s really like setting yourself to learn your own language, which will serve you time and time again.

I hope you’ve been just a bit inspired by one of these techniques. Keep writing, and know that ultimately you are developing skills for a much bigger picture. Personally and professionally, you are writers because you write, but when you begin to care about what you write, you become artists.

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Rebekah Shafer is a twenty-something living in southeastern USA. When she isn’t zooming around the country visiting friends, she spends most of her time writing, cooking, reading, and discussing life with whoever wants to talk. Story and writers are her passion and she writes to open the windows of imagination. You can keep tabs on her activity on her blog, Lantern Leaf Press. Her first novella “A Twist of Fae” is available now.


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