Getting Out of the NaNoWriByrinth — Five Lesson I Learned While Writing a Novel in November

It’s that time of year.

Aspirational writers, hobby writers, published writers, and fanfiction writers all come together for the month of November. We descend like a horde of locusts upon the internet, taking over social media with our hashtags, word count widgets, and blog posts. ‘Tis the season for commiseration, advice and encouragement.

crest-05e1a637392425b4d5225780797e5a76November is National Novel Writing Month, when writers of all kinds and types try to write a novel in thirty days! Or… to write 50 000 words in thirty days. There’s some debate over which is the main goal. More on that later. But one thing is for certain: you want to write a lot in a short time.

I first tried NaNo in my early twenties. I only got ten thousand words – two chapters – into the book in question. I tried again off and on for years. Three unfinished manuscripts are lying about on old hard drives, the skeletal remains of NaNos both failed and succeeded.

There’s also one other. It’s called the Deathsniffer’s Assistant, and you might have read it.

To my knowledge, I’m the only published author in my circles who’s both finished and pubbed a NaNo project. And I learned a lot about NaNo that I want to share with those aspirational writers who really want to get a book out there.

To those working NaNo for the pure joy of if – this isn’t for you! Do whatever makes you happy! But for those who want to put words into something they can eventually show to an agent, here are some things that I learned.

1. Treat your NaNo prep like you’d treat prep for any other novel.

NaNoWriMo puts forward a “justgo” attitude. Don’t worry about if it’s good. Just blank out and write. And that’s NaNo’s strength. But if you’re trying to get something out there, I recommend checking out my Getting out of the Labyrinth series, especially the posts on planning and outlining. Have a plan! “Justgo” doesn’t mean swan diving gracefully to your inevitable failure. Writing is a journey, and any successful journey needs a some sort of map. I’ve gotten lost in too many NaNo projects that I thought I didn’t need one for.

2. Writing 50 000 words is good. Writing a novel is better.

I think a lot of people put too much emphasis on the magic number, and not enough on the key word. It’s national novel writing month. Not national dick around until you have 50 000 words month. Too many times, I just wrote a whole lot of words, padding my word count with fluff and avoiding contractions so that I could say I arrived at the finish line. I have 25 000 words of just two chapters in one NaNo grave. That’s appalling.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: measuring progress by word count is fine, but measuring progress by progress is better. Your goal in NaNo should be to either write a novel or writing a big chunk of a novel. If you’ve got a NaNo graveyard of your own, try to switch it up this year. Maybe just ignore that magic 50 altogether. Aim for ten of twenty outlined chapters, instead!

Shooting for actual progress instead of a numerical target encourages economical writing over padded writing, and you’ll end up with something much closer to real novel status when December hits.

3. NaNo rules suggest you start something new. I suggest you work on something old.

The Deathsniffer’s Assistant was a NaNo project twice, in fact. The first time I went in without an outline or real plans and ended up with three overlong chapters and no direction. Two years later, when I attempted the project again, I picked up where I left off (with an outline this time) instead of starting something new. NaNoWriMo official rules say you shouldn’t work on something already in progress, but I needed another unfinished manuscript like I needed a hole in the head. If you’ve got a bunch of stalled projects lying around that you want to keep working on, it might do you more good to put another 50k words into one of those than to just add something else to the pile.

4. Celebrate well-earned victory, but don’t let it be the end of the journey.

50 000 words is a little long for a novella, but quite short for a novel. If you’re working on something intended for publication, it’s very likely that you won’t be at the end of your outline when you reach the magic number. And the temptation when you hit it is to drink a bottle of wine and take a bubble bath… and leave the novel behind. Don’t give in! You succeeded at NaNo, but until you have a completed project under your belt, nothing is finished. I abandoned The Deathsniffer’s Assistant for eight months after reaching 50k on it during that second NaNo, and the longer I let it sit, the harder it was to get back to it. Let your November be a running start towards the discipline and momentum that’s really needed to be successful in writing.

5. Don’t forget about those all important revisions.

Even if you finish a novel in November, your novel is not done. NaNo encourages functional writing, focusing on quantity and speed. It’s a great way to marathon yourself into a lot of words – and a terrible, terrible way to get a finished product. Even an amazing first draft is a first draft. Many agents live in fear of their slush piles in December and January, wincing whenever the dreaded NaNoWriMo is mentioned in a cover letter. Cool your jets and take some time to workshop and revise your finished project before trying to introduce it to the world. Let that paper baby grow up – don’t just throw it into the world the moment it’s born.

For more writing tips, check out my Getting out of the Labyrinth series, where I take stalled writers step by step through the lessons I learned from planning to publication. For all of you doing NaNoWriMo this month, good luck! Don’t listen to anyone tell you that nothing good can ever come from November. It did for me! Just be smart and be realistic. This November might be the year your book dreams come true!

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