Tuesday, 3 December 2013

NaNoWriMo 2013 afterthoughts

For the past five or six years, I've wanted to take part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short). The aim is to write a 50,000-word novel draft within the 30 days of the month of November. That's an average of 1,667 words a day. The emphasis is on quantity, not quality; there's plenty of time for editing during the rest of the year. The aim is just to get you into the daily habit of writing.
However, those past few years encompassed my A-Levels and university - a period of my life where my eyes were already stinging from having to be in front a computer screen for most of the day - so I always put it off. As this is my first year where I'm not a student, I thought it would be an ideal time to do it.

My main reason for participating this year was just to prove something to myself and get something done. My parents will affirm that I've been writing stories ever since I could hold a pencil. I always scrapped them along the way, frustrated because I could never find a way to fashion my ideas into something cohesive. I did have phases where I would really get into writing, spilling over with inspiration and wholly convinced that this was it, this would be my novel. I was most content during these times. Before long, though, something big would always come up in my life and I would soon have to abandon it.

Come inside for exclusive NaNoWriMo secrets! For easier reading, I'm going to do it in the extremely self-congratulatory format of an "interview" with myself.

What have I learnt from it?

First of all, it confirmed that writing is something I was born to do - dare I say it, I am even a writer? Yes, I am aware that simply participating in NaNoWriMo does not one automatically a writer make. But writing gives me this vital buzz and I know that as long as I can write, I will be fine. I don't quite know how to explain it any further than that, and I probably sound pretentious as hell, but whatever. It's just really nice to have the affirmation that there's something I want to do, need to do, and can do.

The challenge helped me to discover that I write better in noisier environments (e.g. coffee shops), and that when my mind is wrapped around a particular idea, I seem to express it a lot better by hand as opposed to typing. Maybe my mind subconsciously associates furious typing with dull, last-minute essays? It also forced me to evaluate the way I usually manage my time (i.e. badly). And the nature of NaNoWriMo forced me to abandon my perfectionist tendencies, of course; I had to type out sentences that I knew were crap or ultimately irrelevant to the story for the sake of meeting the day's target. What got me through it was the thought that I would have plenty of  time for editing later!

The thing I probably disliked most about the month was the fact I did not really have time to read because all my "literary time" had to be devoted to writing. I knew I would be able to get back into it once November had finished, but it still made me realise how vital reading is to me as an activity. Reading and writing go hand in hand, I suppose.

How did I do it?

At the cusp between Week 1 and 2, most of my inspiration came out and I was full of ideas. I would never have met my daily word count targets if I hadn't brought a notebook to work and simply written bits of story in it whenever I had a snatch of spare time - free periods and lunchtimes - and then typed it all up when I got home. Doing this typing also set the momentum to just carry on from where I left off, which I really appreciated.

Halfway through Week 2, I did realise that my story was not going to be fully finished within 50,000 words, that I would want to be adding to it long after November ended, which is why I say I've only "sort of" written a novel. When you're writing for quantity not quality, plot holes galore will spring up, you will make poor estimations about distances or time, you will need to do some major research on certain cultural aspects if your story takes place in a different country (while I was writing them, I was aware most of my characters were talking and acting like English people, even though none of them were).

Between Week 2 and 3, I hit a wall mainly due to things going on in the world outside of my novel. I hadn't really had any doubts before then, but my daily word count was slipping and I had to go to bed knowing that I would have to make it up the next day. In the end, doing that didn't cause too much trouble, but I still thought that maybe doing this was stupid and that I should quit.

In Week 3, I was fortunate enough to have some unexpected free time, so I took that opportunity to power on through and not only catch up, but get ahead. It is much, much easier to do that when you're already riding high. So if you meet the day's goal and still feel like you have some words left in you, keep going! When I did that, the thousands began to feel like nothing; they were just made up of hundreds, which felt even more like nothing, if that's possible!

I ended up submitting my word count on 27th November, which totalled just over 52,000. The last few thousands were surprisingly effortless, maybe because I had already zoomed ahead in Week 3 and that gave me a lot of confidence.

Any tips for getting through the month?

I discovered Songza about halfway through NaNoWriMo, and it saved me as I am really bad at choosing music to write to. Unfortunately it doesn't appear to be available outside Canada and the US, but it's a website with ready-made playlists for different situations on different days of the week. For example, it knows that Sunday nights are last-minute study times, so you can choose from the ambient electronic or gentle acoustic playlist - amongst others - for that situation. It fills the Spotify void in my life pretty well (Spotify hasn't made it to Canada yet...).

My top tip would be please don't search NaNoWriMo on Tumblr or Reddit in idle moments, or even browse the forums on the site itself. I got sucked into this for a little bit, but luckily I was able to pull myself out. It will just end up dragging you down for whatever reason. Overachievers - especially ones with three kids and a full-time job - will discourage you. People who are like "boo hoo my novel sucks I'm going to start over" will cause you to second-guess yourself. Just don't do it. I also don't really get why things like the Writing 101 forum exist; if this is meant to be an unadulterated draft where you push away your Inner Editor, then grammar and stuff shouldn't matter at this point. Unless you're writing in a really niche genre, the only helpful forums to browse during the month of November, I feel, are the regional ones (I'll come back to that in a minute). Everything else is procrastination and shooting yourself in the foot.

I saw someone who had exceeded 250,000 on Day 16. Other people set more realistic goals for themselves, such as 25,000. For me, that was never an option. I knew that I would be beating myself up if I didn't go the whole way and I'm glad that I was able to meet my target. If you do know it will have a deeply adverse effect on your self-esteem if you don't meet 50,000, I would advise against participating.
Guilt is not a terribly nice way to make yourself write, nor necessarily a terribly effective one. I would say that if you reach Week 2 and you're not feeling it, there's no shame in quitting. There will be people on the forums - which is another reason I avoided reading them - that will make you feel bad if you consider quitting. But your mental health or whatever else concerns you is much more important than this!

Would I do it next year? 

Well, seeing as I have absolutely no clue about where I will be and what I will be doing in November 2014, it really depends. If I am unemployed - which fingers tightly crossed will not be the case - then probably yes. If I happen to be moving house that month, then absolutely not.
If I am living in a relatively large city next year, then it is more likely I will participate. One thing that makes NaNoWriMo unique is the community aspect. There are regional forums, whose members organise "write-ins" in caf├ęs. They are able to share their experiences and support one another. This is something that I missed out on this year. In the forum for Quebeckers living outside of the two largest cities, only one other person was in Rimouski. I messaged them, and they did reply, but admitted that they were struggling to find time to get any writing done at all, let alone to meet with someone else and do it. In a bigger place, of course, it is more likely that there will be participants in a variety of situations and writing a variety of genres.

In conclusion, NaNoWriMo is not for everyone and you shouldn't feel like you have to do it just because you want to get into writing. But if you need to kickstart yourself into finally writing a novel, like I did, then I'd recommend it.

There are many, many, many parts of my story that I still need to flesh out, and there are some very cringeworthy passages, but I'm happy that I've been able to create something that I can work with later. I'm hoping the end product will be at least 100,000 words. I'm in no particular rush to start editing, though.
I enjoyed the challenge, but I'm looking forward to being able to get back to my usual favourite activities and writing at a pace I am far more comfortable with!