Uncanny Vale

Home to the Literary Creations
of Erin Wilcox

NaNoWriMo: What I Learned

As early as January 2012, I looked forward to November, National Novel Writing Month. I would take the whole month to write. I would do the research my fantasy novel needs to gain the cultural depth I want it to have, and I had time to do all of this, for November was many months off.

For those who aren’t familiar, NaNoWriMo is a global challenge in which participants commit to writing a complete draft of a novel, at least 50,000 words, in one month. This was my second year, and when it came to word count, I was as laissez-faire as I was in 2011. My commitment was to process, not product. I felt certain that given enough focused time, I would reach an output reasonably close to the 50K goal. But how much time was that? I really had no idea.

As November approached, I still had not done my preliminary novel research. I adjusted my goal from 50,000 to something less, though undefined, allowing myself to incorporate research into my writing time. Then I looked at my bank account and realized that it would be very difficult to abstain from working all November. I adjusted my goals accordingly, taking some work for November but staking out one week for writing only.

By the time November arrived this year, I knew I had already compromised my schedule to the point that I would not likely make the 50,000-word goal. But I wanted to participate anyway, to see how far I might get and what I would learn. Measured in output, my efforts this year produced 6,816 words. This was the result of one week where writing was the priority in my life and a second in which I both wrote and got started on a major editing project. The third and fourth weeks, the editing project took priority.

As far shy as this is of 50,000 words, I feel good about the words I did write. I met new characters, wrote new scenes, and felt my novel coalesce from seed to seedling. Yet I see how much compromising I did, through a combination of choice and necessity, and how much more I would have written had I been able to spend the entire month with writing as my singular priority. My research did not get very far, so the writing I did was still based on intuition. I discovered the limitations of the public library’s collection with regard to my specific topics, but I did identify texts that will help me, some of which I’ll procure with my next paycheck.

There would be no next paycheck had I not accepted work in November, and I don’t regret taking that work. I enjoyed the editing project, and it afforded me a realistic view of the pressures in my life and how I habitually handle them. I also noticed, as I plotted my daily quotas for this editing job with a firm deadline and simultaneously attended write-ins with other NaNoWriMo participants (or NaNos), that number-crunching was exactly how those on track to finish their novel draft approached their monthly goal. Only in the last year or so have I organized my editing life to the extent that I break a large job into hourly bite-sized pieces. I felt a longing as I watched those wriMos inch toward their goal using the same strategy I employ in my editing. What if I imported, or extended, this strategy into my writing life, setting word count goals every month? Would I produce more? Would I produce better work?

I won’t fluff up my prose to make my draft longer, even if I intend to trim it later. I don’t want to wire my brain that way. However, I do subscribe to the philosophy that she who writes more writes more good material, even if she also writes more schlock. As long as I can avoid attaching myself to every word I write, which my training has prepared me to do, I don’t have to worry about writing some material that doesn’t make it into my novel, story, or whatever project I’m working on.

Stephen King famously writes 2,000 words a day before he does anything else (as proclaimed in his memoir On Writing). I have organized my schedule, currently, around a morning spent writing (morning pages followed by a few hours on a project). But too often, the plan runs afoul because I allow other priorities to sneak in and undercut that time. To be fair, those other priorities include making the money I need to subsist and the other aspects of subsisting, including keeping up a yoga practice that sustains my health and other activities. But, rewarding as they are, none of these activities (except perhaps yoga) are as rewarding as keeping up with my writing practice.

The biggest benefit of my participation in NaNoWriMo 2012 was that it forced me to look at the habits that undercut my writing life: overscheduling and lack of organization. I have shied away from approaching my creative writing life with the same level of organization I’ve developed in my editing life because doing so seemed to lower my art to the status of craft. Thank you, NaNoWriMo, for helping me identify this mentality as pretentious, Romantic drivel. The ability to organize my own time as a freelancer is a gift I can either squander or convert into my goal of bringing more paid creative writing time into my life, the better to produce fine art with. I’ve been hanging out in the grey area, but more on the squandering side of the spectrum. It’s a hard truth, but there it is.

To recap, I learned several lessons this year. For one, NaNoWriMo 2013 starts today. Now is the time to start applying for grants, saving pennies, and prioritizing so I can have one whole month of the year devoted to writing next year.

In addition, I must:

1) Quantify my writing goals to keep up in the meantime. I have a baseline to work with now. In January, I’ll aim to write 10,000 words and break that down to daily quotas, experimenting with different ways to organize my schedule around this.

2) Organize my editing schedule with more attention to detail to avoid overbooking.

3) Reduce the number of unpaid activities in my life and better organize those I keep so they require less time.

4) Go to bed early, since I don’t tend to write at night; get up early, since I do tend to write with ease in the morning.

I hope my process of trial and error can benefit others on the writing path. I have long thought of myself as a slow writer, more invested in quality than quantity despite my belief that quantity will yield quality. This turns out to be a myth. In the past three hours, I have written and completed two passes of editing on this entire 1,200-word blog post. That’s about 400 edited words per hour, or 600 words per hour of first draft (based on my numbers before I added the editing time). Compare this to EFA’s common rates page, and I see I am actually a faster-than-average writer. If I wrote about three hours a day at a comfortable pace, every month could be NaNoWriMo.