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Friday, October 2, 2015

What's the Point of National Novel Writing Month?

This is a guest post by Karen A. Wyle..

There's no one way to write a novel. The process that works for one author may be utterly counterproductive for another. But there's one approach that's especially useful for the many would-be writers who can't seem to get out of their own way and just write the darn thing. And it's coming up this November.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or Nano for short) is an annual event administered by the nonprofit Office of Letters and Light. Its purpose: to help authors produce the rough draft of a novel, at least 50,000 words long, entirely within the month of November. (There are also "Camp Nanos" at one or more other times of the year with more flexible goals.) That's an average of about 1,667 words per day.

What's the point of this headlong dash through a rough draft? Simply this: at that pace, you don't have time to second-guess yourself. You can't spend time editing or agonizing. You have to accept that your rough draft will be very rough indeed. Several authors who write about the process of writing point out that first drafts tend to be of very uneven quality. But those lousy first drafts have two huge benefits:
  • They exist! Once you've got the main elements of a story, you can spend the ensuing months (after a few weeks' rest) expanding and revising and getting where you need to go.
  • When your immediate goal is to pour out words without self-editing, you give your subconscious room to work. There are few thrills like discovering that a detail you threw into your draft for no particular reason actually serves some important purpose in your plot or in the development of a main character.

NaNoWriMo provides more than an idea and a schedule. The website includes all sorts of motivational and other assistance. You can post your daily word count and see on a chart whether you're ahead or behind, as well as how many words per day you'll need to average for the rest of the month in order to "win" (get to 50,000). You can connect with "Writing Buddies," see how they're doing, and give and receive encouragement. The website also includes multiple forums. Some provide random plot twists to use if you're feeling stuck, while others, for example, let you ask the Nano community for help with factual issues ("How long does it take to die from cyanide poisoning?" "How many grandchildren, if any, did Catherine the Great have, and which of them survived her?" "What would a wormhole through space look like from the inside?"). Caution: these forums can be tremendous time sinks! Indulge responsibly. . . 

Nano isn't exclusively an online event. "Municipal liaisons" often arrange write-ins, kickoff parties, and "Thank God It's Over" celebrations. They may also distribute packets of helpful info (e.g. lists of possible first and last names for characters, plot twist generators, calendars showing the target word count for each day of the month). The writers you meet through these local events can become your best friends, particularly if you participate more than once. 

One doesn't have to approach Nano with grim determination or with anxiety. My first time, in 2010, I decided only a day or two beforehand that I'd give it a try. "I'll probably drop out in a few days," I told myself, "but so what?" Six novels later (if I count one that's awaiting further revision), I'm deeply grateful to the Office of Letters and Light, and to my Nano companions, for helping me achieve a lifelong dream.

See you in November?

Karen A. Wyle was born a Connecticut Yankee, but moved every few years throughout her childhood and adolescence.  After college in California, law school in Massachusetts, and a mercifully short stint in a large San Francisco law firm, she moved to Los Angeles, where she met her now-husband, who hates L.A.  They eventually settled in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University. They have two wildly creative daughters, and a sweet but neurotic dog. Wyle's voice is the product of almost five decades of reading both literary and genre fiction.  It is no doubt also influenced, although she hopes not fatally tainted, by her years of law practice.  Her personal history has led her to focus on often-intertwined themes of family, communication, unintended consequences, and the persistence of unfinished business.