I’ve been participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) every few years since 2002. I wrote three Sam Brody books originally as NaNoWriMo projects, including The Red Eye, as well as a paranormal romance novel (Blood Makes Noise). A lot of these hastily written first drafts were side projects at the time, thus a few of them haven’t made it much past the first or second draft stage and are things I still consider “works in progress” rather than ready to go on submission. I’ve given workshops on NaNo tips and strategies, written posts on this very blog about it, and incorporated it into my teaching. I’m also at work on a non-fiction book about how to apply the NaNo writing binge model to writing even faster, with a goal of completing a first draft in as little as three days.
If you’re not familiar with the basic rules of NaNoWriMo, it’s an international challenge to write a work of fiction of 50,000 words or more in precisely thirty days. The challenge takes place in November, partly due to its high number of American federal holidays, allowing for catch-up and breaks in routine from one’s work and school obligations. There is no reward for “winning” at this challenge, other than bragging rights, although many NaNo authors have had their November works published. In addition to my own urban fantasy novel publication in 2014, lots of other pretty neat books originally written during NaNoWriMo.
But many have not, including those composed by NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty. Though Baty has written a couple of great books on how to be successful at the challenge, even he himself hasn’t gotten his fiction published, which makes many folks wonder how useful the challenge really is for serious fiction authors.
Now that NNWM ’15 is officially over, and I’ve failed at it for the first time myself, I’m struggling to articulate the best and the worst of the challenge and what its grand purpose really best serves. Because, yes, I failed this year, and failed pretty spectacularly, but it matters not one whit in the grand scheme of my novel writing career.
My first attempts at NaNo were among the first times I’d ever written something longer than a short story. I did write one novel before my first NaNo, an experimental bindungsroman called Battlefield which I will likely never, ever revise or submit anywhere. And while this is currently my only “trunk novel” (a novel shoved into a proverbial trunk and never published, at least not during an author’s lifetime), it likely won’t be my last. After Battlefield failed to inspire me enough to continue working on it, I turned to short stories and essays and thought writing novels was scary. Short works were my primary public writing output until 2011, when Etopia Press released my first novella, We Shadows Have Offended, and in the background of it all, NaNoWriMo participation showed me that I was perhaps wrong to doubt my ability to write something longer.
To succeed at reaching the NaNo goal, you can go about it one of two ways: write in long stretches a few days of the week, or write a little bit every day. The latter method is better and usually requires only an hour or two daily commitment. By producing at least 1,667 words each day for thirty days, you will, indeed, have at least 50,000 words written on November 30th. You could also accomplish this solely on weekends if you had to, gluing yourself to your chair for about six hours each of a Saturday and Sunday all month and doing little else. Baty talks at length in No Plot? No Problem! about the reality that a first-draft really only takes between forty and fifty hours of work. This is also the premise of my own book discussing the three-day novel strategy.
But it sometimes isn’t the sheer perseverance required to sit and churn out likely not-very-good prose very quickly. Sometimes it’s a need to revise as you go, which is time consuming, a need to hit professional deadlines, or a need to work on something different from what you’ve been writing of late. I write because it’s my primary creative outlet, and as a creative outlet, I want to feel inspired by something before setting off on a particular new project (and only that project, eschewing all others). Still, even I have writing-based obligations, forthcoming releases to proofread, invitations to submit to anthologies, and the need to do at times high-level research or outlining before getting too far along with a very complicated work.
NaNo worked great for The Red Eye, because a) I didn’t outline it first, b) it required zero research beyond very, very minor things, and c) it has a contemporary setting and centers around a character in a career field similar to work I myself had done before (the radio show hosting, not the dragonslaying and telekinetic powers, of course). Thus, it could essentially flow freely as inspiration struck with little in the way of all the things that can stall a book. The other successful attempts I made at this endeavor were in a similar vein: sequels to The Red Eye, thus also with the easy setting and characters, and Blood Makes Noise, which (though not officially) basically takes place in the same universe and is also contemporary fantasy. With BMN, I did have to do some research, but it was travel-based; my protagonists are on the run from a baddie and basically drive around the country to avoid him. Thus, the most I did was some map searches and calculations of gas mileage and travel speed in different weather conditions, all of which was pretty painless and interesting.
So why did I fail this year? I tried to deviate from this model too much. Instead of working on a writable-out-of-the-box idea, I started working on the sequel to my admittedly complex time travel novel, The Curiosity Killers, the bulk of which I wrote over a period of about three years. I did research, both historical and scientific, and probably spent just as much time reading or actively researching as I did writing. Though I aimed to scale back the necessary amount of research required for its sequel, The Girl with Mechanical Wings, when I spent an entire day making a database of members of the Roanoke Colony and another day reading the released Project Mogul reports about the Roswell incident, I knew I was in trouble—there was no way, without leaving great swaths of the book unwritten pending research, that I could complete this undertaking in just a month. Even toward the end, I deluded myself, but upon realizing I was still lacking important research on the status of interracial marriage laws in the 1940s (yes, as you can tell, this is a book about a lot of things), I knew I had to throw in the towel. With just over 21,000 words completed mid-month, I had to rethink my strategy.
About that time, an editor I met at a convention announced an anthology call on a subject I’ve long been fascinated by. The deadline wasn’t for a few months, and the length requirement sounded feasible. I set my novel aside and decided to permit myself some leeway—if I couldn’t finish 50,000 words on one piece, I would see if I could work on multiple projects and complete the required number of words cumulatively between them. And, while I wound up the month having written a total of 29,329 words on both pieces together, this was still too short to “win.” I am, on paper, a failure.
Seriously? This isn’t what failure looks like, not by a long shot.
I’m about 25% of the way through a sequel to my first science fiction novel, and I’ve completed the first draft of an almost-novelette-length horror story close to 7,000 words long. Nearly 30,000 words in a month when I’ve worked full-time and had multiple family and extracurricular obligations is pretty darn impressive. In between all that, I did proofreading on two separate works and released both a print and ebook second editions of a short story collection. The only failure here is in the arbitrary, prize-less contest which, even if I’d “won,” would have still required massive amounts of revision. If anything, November was one of my most successful writing months in recent memory, yet I don’t get to claim bragging rights for this contest. I’m extremely proud of my friends and colleagues who did reach their goals, but I think what I accomplished isn’t too shabby, either.
I like writing quickly, don’t get me wrong, and I think practicing writing quickly at a steady clip is an important training exercise for new and aspiring novelists. But what really got The Curiosity Killers complete during its drafting was a slow and steady pace with revision and research done along the way rather than in a big, anxiety-riddled flurry at the end. With projects needing a lot of research, especially, it may not be that you have to spend three or four years on a single book, but trying to cram it into thirty days will leave it shoddy and unsupported. If you skimp on research up front, you’re likely to need to make bigger revisions once you’ve had a chance to go back and figure out if you were correct in your assumptions and placeholders. My goal is still to get The Girl with Mechanical Wings done relatively soon and definitely before 2016 is over, but I’m glad I didn’t try to dash through it so fast.
My advice for anyone else who “failed” at NaNo this year is, in sum, this: some projects fit quick writing very well, and some simply do not. Know which kind of book you want to write before you begin. If you want to have 50,000 words completed on November 30th, put your truly ambitious project aside and work on something a little simpler. Both the simple book and the harder one will thank you for understanding the differences between them, and they will both be better in the end.