What I learned from writing 75,000 words in 25 days: A NaNoWriMo adventure

NaNoWriMo 2014 Winner

Wow. I did it. I won.  Not just “regular” NaNoWriMo, but my own extreme version.  I mean…  Dang. Yeah.

I must confess I didn’t think I could actually do this. I wanted to push my boundaries and challenge myself, sure, but the part of me that set this goal was tiny, quiet, and alone. I mean, I barely managed to write 35,000 words during my first shot at National Novel Writing Month; shooting for 75,000 was laughable. But here we are.

I wrote an entire first draft for a novel in under 30 days. Holy shit.

As someone who struggles with celebrating their own successes, I need to take a second to bask in this accomplishment.

*basks*

Okay, done with that. On to the interesting part: what I learned.

Extreme NaNoWriMo 2014 - Mirror of Ashes

If you take a look at the progress chart for the month, a couple of things pop out.

Thing 1:  I wrote every weekday, as planned, at least 1400 words. That’s pretty reflective of my attitude going into the challenge: “this is work,” rather than “this is a fun hobby fueled by a magical muse.” Even when I was sick or melting down, I still wrote. I made the time, and it paid off. Persistence over resistance.

Thing 2: I am way more motivated by stickers than I thought. I caught myself a couple of times pushing through the desire to quit for the day because I wanted that shiny piece of paper on my wall.  Using the progress chart – a visual representation of progress – helped immensely. Made it more real somehow.

Thing 3: You can’t see this on the chart, but it’s worth noting that, apart from the 5K+ days, I never wrote for more than four hours a day. As an author without a dayjob or children, this represents about half my allotted working day. Which is huge. Thanking the magic of wordsprints for that, plus a dollop of experience with chapter outlining.

That’s all cool, but what does it mean? I hear you say.

Basically, it means that instead of spending 3 months on the first draft of a book, if I knuckle down, I can crank it out in 1 month. That takes the turnaround time per book from about 9 months to about 4 or 5, if I play my cards right. Essentially, it doubles my publishing potential.

It’s also taught me I don’t have to be exhausted by my work. This is hard to put into words. Something’s shifted. Where before I’d be wiped out, unable to do anything else, if I wrote more than 3K a day, this month I’ve had an active social life, romantic life, and spiritual life in conjunction with my writing life. This is big for me. I still need to learn how to juggle multiple projects within the biz (like blogging, other stories, etc) but because I did this, I can do that. It’s only a matter of time.

And can I give a quick shout-out to God? If you’re new, you’ve likely not heard me talk about spirituality before, but waaaaaay back in the Apples & Porsches days (holla!), I used to talk about it a lot. That may happen again. But seriously: Without literal divine intervention, there’s no way I could’ve pulled this off or carry the lessons forward. I serve a creative deity, y’all, and realizing that God’s my collaborator in all things made this work not just doable but a joy. Such a change from the torment of the last book’s birth. Praise.

ANYWAY.

TL;DR: I challenged myself and busted boundaries I didn’t think I could. It means new levels of productivity and happiness in my life, which is good news for me and for you!

Huzzah! *throws confetti*

As always, my dearest readers, thank you for being here for me. You may not think you matter in the day to day functioning of my writing life, but you so very much do. I wouldn’t have half the motivation to improve and increase if I didn’t know you were out there, waiting for new material and cheering me on to success. Thank you.

And now, the official I-freaking-did-it micdrop. Because awesome.

chang mic drop

Booyah.


 

The problem is not NaNoWriMo; it’s your attitude about NaNoWriMo that’s the problem

I want to tell you guys a secret. Ready?

The point of NaNoWriMo is not to win.

*waits for gasping to stop*

The point is to use this time/goal boundary set to create a writing habit and get the ball rolling to build momentum for doing the larger work. It’s not going to make you a bestseller. It’s not even going to make you a great writer. What 50,000 words in 30 days is is a big chunk of motivation, inspiration, and “see, you can do this” to get you to write the rest of the book. It’s learning to treat writing as work instead of magic. It’s testing your strengths and finding your weaknesses as a writer. It’s challenging your preconceived ideas about what you’re capable of. It’s proving to you that words on a page – no matter how shitty – are better than words in your head.

“Winning” and “losing” NaNo isn’t about your wordcount. It’s about your attitude.

You win when you understand your writer-self better. You win by writing something you can use, something you’re proud of, something that means something to you. You win by claiming the label of “writer” for yourself. You win by rising to a new level of creativity and worksmanship. You win by writing.

The only way you lose is if you let fear win – if you stop writing.

keep-calm-and-just-keep-swimming-119


 

How I tripled my writing productivity

Chibi Flash fanart by Vancamelot via Deviant Art

First off, lest you think I’m going to divulge some Ultimate Secret of Writing, a pair of caveats. They are: your mileage may vary and this is just my experience.

If you’re still with me, carry on.

After writing three books, I discovered that my writing speed averaged 500 words an hour when slogging through that dreaded first draft. Not too shabby. But watching LeighAnn Kopans post Write Or Die counts of 1,500 words in 30 minutes or listening to Johnny B. Truant talk about 10K days made my competitive perfectionist side squirm.

The silly part of my envy is that I knew what their secret was: Timed runs. But, like most people, I hate being penned in. The idea of cramming my creative process into a tiny segment of time gave me the willies. It took me an hour to write 500 words because I crafted sentences and mulled over wording, trying to produce the best possible first draft. This is art, motherfucker. Putting an artificial limit on my writing would ruin the whole process, right?

Wrong.

I hit a major wall about 15K into the first draft of The Sword of Souls and simply hated every moment, every word of the process. I knew the story and the characters well enough, but I couldn’t find the flow I had with Cora Riley. Whatever came out felt forced and stilted. I was thisfreakingclose to chucking it all in.

I had to do something. So I figured “what the hell?” and gave the timed run – called a word sprint – a shot. No editing, no backspacing, no researching, no mulling. Just fucking go.

I wrote 850 words in 30 minutes.

For those of you not so hot with the arithmetic, that’s 3.4 times my usual rate.

Holy shit, right? I was shocked in the best possible way.

Giving myself a very specific, very short period of time to work encouraged me to write something, anything to progress the story. Whatever I had to do in order to keep moving. It gave my perfectionist voice something else (time) to focus on rather than obsessing over the exact right synonym for “look,” which gave me the freedom to just gogogo. It let me find flow.

So, I kept going – not just that day, but every day I wrote. And I got better.

Some sprints saw me crank out as many as 1,600 words in 30 minutes. I even found I could write at night, a feat I thought I’d never accomplish, being a morning person. By the time I reached the end of the draft, I’d raised the bar for personal best from 3,500 words in six hours to 6,000 in three.

Double holy shit.

The obvious tradeoff here is quality for quantity. When you’re not obsessing over phrasing, you write faster, but you also write shittier. It makes for a draft that’s complete but lacks finesse, which requires a lot more editing. While I made my wordcount goal and the broad strokes of the story are all there, the second version of Sword of Souls will likely take two rounds of revision rather than just one; it’s nowhere near fit to be seen even by beta readers at this juncture.

But! There are things you can do to help avoid wandering randomly and thus to limit the amount of dreck-cutting later. Despite the speed at which I wrote, I sketched out chapters and stuck to the larger novel outline, studying both just before I dove into a sprint, much like cramming for a test minutes before it starts. It helped me stay on track by keeping the plot at the top of my mind.

We’ll see how things go when it comes time to edit Sword of Souls – if I can stand to look at it will be the real test – but for now, it seems like word sprinting is my new process. Like Terry Pratchett said, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” If I can tell it fast and passingly well the first time, then polish it up so it’s fit for others, then we’ve got a winner.