Tuesday, December 1, 2009

WRT: NaNoWriMo – Writing By The Seat Of Your Pants

Raise your hand if you participated in NaNoWriMo this year. Really? Did you win? If you did— or even came close— props to you! For everyone else, keep at it. Why? Because there’s an important lesson in participating in such an endeavor.

If you’re not familiar with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writers Month), pay attention. Basically, it’s a community of writers who voluntarily subject themselves to a horrendous regimen of ultra-high-speed writing. Quantity, not quality is the catch phrase. 50,000 words in 30 days is brutal. It’s punishing. It’s discipline-building, excellent conditioning. And it's rewarding. In practical terms, 50K words translates to about 1700 words per day, which is made even more challenging by the usual November distractions (Thanksgiving, the annual all-out family brawl over who gets the last drumstick, Black Friday shopping sprees…).

This year’s annual event, the eleventh, finished yesterday. Over 2 billion words were written by its participants. That’s a two followed by nine zeros!

Okay, so what’s the lesson?

My writer friend was first to propose the driving analogy. To me, at least. He said NaNoWriMo is like racing in the Indy 500. Well, okay, I see his point, but I would hope your writing doesn’t cover the same ground over and over and over again. His doesn’t, but then again, he doesn’t participate, so I can forgive him his poor choice of simile.

Writing a NaNoWriMo novel is, in fact, very much akin to driving, but it’s more like being on the autobahn in a 1977 WV Beetle going 225 kph (125mph, for us Yanks). Which I’ve done. Once. Never again. Thankfully, NaNoWriMo is a much safer exercise. Point is, at 1700-wpd, there’s no time to second-guess yourself. You write by the seat of your pants. You have to have laser-vision-eyes-on-the-horizon nerves of steel. The mile markers fly by practically unheeded, and before you know what has happened, you’ve written the equivalent of driving around the world in thirty days.

Why would anyone want to do that? Well, in this case, it’s not so much the destination that counts as the distance covered and the skills you pick up along the way.

What skills? Primarily being able to ignore that nagging voice inside your head that tells you there’s a better way to say that last thing you wrote. (For example, I just edited that last sentence six times over twenty minutes; that’s about a word per minute, which is no way to write a novel in your spare time.). We are our own worse critics. The type of free writing that NaNoWriMo promotes enables us to shut off that internal critic so that we can get on with the business of setting story to paper. Too often we worry that each sentence needs to be perfect before we can move on. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of this has to do with seeing only finished product (ie., published book) and having little or no sense of the process the author went through to polish her work.

If you can manage this, the energy that pours out of you will be evident on the page. If you sweat the small stuff too soon, your work will come out positively bland. Sort of like the 1981 Ferrari Mondial 8. Bleh. So, in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, just get out there and drive like the dickens - er, write. Imagine you have no reverse gear, no backspace key or delete. Revising will come. Before you know it, that 1000 word limit you set for yourself will seem like a trip to the grocery store.

The other thing participating in such an exercise does is it demonstrates to the first-time novel writer that she can, indeed, finish a novel-length work. And believe me, that’s a major mental hurdle to get over.

Happy roadtripping.


  1. This was my second year doing NaNo (and finishing, yay!) and I did it for the very reasons you mention. My inner editor is so loud and obnoxious sometimes that it often keeps me from getting to the end of a manuscript. But both times I've done NaNo, I've been able to press the mute button on that annoying editor and just keep writing.

  2. Bravo, Anna. I didn't NaNo this year as I was right in the middle of a major revision (how ironic, eh?). I found I really missed the pace and seeing something new created in such a short time! If only we could write our first drafts like last ones...

    Now, back to my WIP. Stuck on a word: should I use "dissent" or "disagreement"? Hmm... Oh, "discord" fits better. Dang internal critic.

  3. I really wanted to do NaNo this year, but I was revising a WIP. I’d love to be free to do it next year. I've read/heard many good things about it, including the excitement expressed in your post. There’s good energy in doing something you love and feeling a sense of accomplishment in a month’s time (even though revising and editing is called for afterwards).

  4. The unfortunate thing about NanoWriMo is that it's one month a year. The good thing about that is... it's one month a year. Actually, what I meant to say was, there's no reason why the basic principles of Nano couldn't be applied at any time. How good are you at setting personal goals and sticking to them? I know it's easier when there's external pressure to perform.