Lessons from NaNoWriMo 2017

Last week, I finished up a month-long challenge to write 1000 words a day.

The Impetus–NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.

Each November, thousands (millions?) of writers take to the page to try to write and finish a novel (yes, a whole novel!) in one month.

This sounds nuts, until you consider that most novels are approximately 50,000 to 80,000 words long (that is most novels NOT written by MFAs from uber-cool liberal arts colleges–those take several more Novembers. And Gin. Or so I’m told.)

Where was I?

Ah, yes, 50,000 words.

That’s still a lot of words. But if you break it down into a daily word count, that comes to 1,666.66666 . . . 1,667 words. Every. Single. Day.

Now those of you who know me know that I’m not a big rule-follower, or rather, I’m a cafeteria rule-follower–I pick the ones I like and leave the ones I don’t.

I also like nice round numbers.

100 Years of Solitude.

10 Bottles of Beer on the Wall

1 Box of Chocolate

The whole 1,667 thing, was not sitting well with me (yeah, you, too, Scheherazade!).I

So I improvised.

I chose 1000 words as my daily goal. I figured I could do this. Most of what I write fits nicely into a 1000-word box. Like this blog post, for instance, and all its sisters–1000 words, give or take a few.

Also, I wasn’t going to write a novel. (Okay, okay, so maybe I’m not at all a rule follower). That’s too hard. All those characters and plot points and, worst of all, imagination!

Not for me.

Words I can do. Words that actually go somewhere, not so much.

In fact, that is exactly what I found.

Turns out that writing 1000 words of drivel a day is actually not that hard.

So it is with that encouraging thought in mind, I would like to share with you a few things I learned along the way.


Lesson #1: 30,000 Words and 30,000 Good Words Are Two Entirely Different Things

It is not that hard to write a thousand words a day, maybe even a few thousand words a day. It’s making them count that’s the tricky part. This is what gets us all stuck and twisted and, in my case at least, unwilling to even begin. What on earth do I have to say that warrants such a hefty bunch ‘o words? This, I believe, is what accounts for the blank-page syndrome. We simply cannot fathom how to begin, and begin in such a way that all the pieces fit into a coherent whole as we work our way through the words.

Now, clearly, this is not a problem for some writers. Ali Smith, for instance, Man-Booker Prize nominee, and highly acclaimed Nobel-Prize-in-waiting novelist. I read her novel Autumn for book club last month, and would be hard-pressed to tell you what any (or all) of those words meant.

But she can get away with it. She’s Scottish and PhD and cool like that. She’s also written a bazillion things before Autumn, at least some of which, I feel certain, were comprehensible, so she’s an outlier

The rest of us, we gotta make sense!

And that’s not easy, 1000-words-a-day notwithstanding.

Lesson #2: Finesse the Blank Page

For God’s sake, Tina, do not come to the session with a blank page. Put something in there. A word. An idea. A picture of your great grandmother. Anything.

But. Do. Not. Start. With. Nothing.

Nothing begets nothing (it says so in the bible).

You need something. A seed. A glimmer in an eye (see afore mentioned bible). Something.

So it is that the night before NaNoWriMo (okay, so I’m not a big fan of Halloween, okay?!), I whipped out a pen and paper and brainstormed a list of 30 ideas (idea-lets) that I might like to write about around a central theme (theme being a rather grand word for the more humble, Topic).

I then took these words and dropped them into a new Scrivener document–one word/idea per page/chapter.

In this way I pre-filled each blank page so that I wouldn’t have to see its mocking smirk each morning.

Lesson #3: Get Organized

So most of the writing I’ve done in my life has been straight into a simple Word doc. More recently, I’ve switched to Evernote (because it saves automatically, and I don’t find myself going Doh! as often), but I have never, previously, thought to invest in any writing-specific software.

Until now.

I first heard about Scrivener on Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn Podcast. Joanna swears by it, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

Turns out, it’s actually quite cool.

Not unlike Evernote, Scrivener allows you to create manuscripts (like an Evernote Notebook) in which you can create chapters and subsections and pages (kinda like the Evernote note, except with a couple more sub-levels than Evernote allows). I, for example, popped my brainstorm topics into the chapter level, then fleshed out those ideas using bullet points (think, beats). Then I popped each bullet point into a sub-level, and fleshed those out into what will probably become a subsection or scene in a book (should I ever choose to actually do something with this mess, which I probably wont because it’s irredeemable).

Furthermore, at each level of the manuscript (chapter, subsection, scene, paragraph) you can also associate a note or an area in which you document your comments or reminders or links to research–all that meta stuff.

In this way, you are able to organize not only all your usable stuff, but also all the unusable-but-supporting stuff in a systematic and meaningful manner.

I know, I know, I’m doing a terrible job of describing this software, but really, it’s quite powerful (I’ve only scratched the surface myself).

And get this–You can collapse everything such that all you see is a (detailed) outline of the project–each level/section appropriately indented showing how each section is related to the next! What’s more, there’s an index card view that allows you to see the whole blinking lot as a series of note cards that you can move around spatially should you wish to! Not bad eh?

And as if this weren’t enough, you can also constitute and save the entire manuscript in multiple formats–Word, pdf, and even the proprietary format used by Amazon Kindle!

I haven’t actually tried this last feature myself (one actually needs a complete manuscript to do that), but I’ve heard it’s easy peasy!

So there you have it–one more little toy to make the writing palatable.


P.S. Not only does Scrivener have an autosave like Evernote, it also displays your word count as you write (no extra key strokes needed), which really helps when you are almost-but-not-quite at your target word count. I cannot tell you how many of my writing sessions have ended with the following phrases: And so it is. And this is why I will never. So as you can see, it really does.

Like now, for instance. I’m right at the brink. All I have to do is finish up. And so it is that I write these last few words, to make up my word count. And this is why I will never publish anything I wrote for NaNoWriMo. So as you can see, it really does pay to game the system.

Final count for the month of November: 25,323 words.

That’s a few thousand words short of my goal, but that’s okay because here is the real and final lesson from this experiment (and from life, really):

25,323 words is whole heck of a lot better than 0.

Categories: On Writing

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