Camp NaNoWriMo: what I learned

Photo credit: Ken Whitley.

Photo credit: Ken Whitley.

Yesterday I completed Camp National Novel Writing Month with a total of 50,118 words. It was a fun month, even if it’s not something I could do all the time. Here’s what I learned.

It wasn’t that hard.

Don’t get me wrong; it certainly wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t the exhausting ordeal I feared it might be. I once did close to 20,000 words in two weeks, and I felt exhausted by the end of it, but if you have a good story lined up, and you really want to write it, most of the writing feels like a breeze. The numbers bear that out, too. Only one in seven people who starts NaNoWriMo (in any month) successfully finishes, but that one in seven accounts for two thirds of all the words written. Most of the rest give up and drop out early. I saw that personally in my own Camp NaNo “cabin”, where two of the six of us kept going on to the end, while the other four wrote less than 4,000 words between them.

NaNoWriMo is conservative with word counts.

This is a nuts-and-bolts issue, but very important. It was a good thing that I was a little ahead last night because I hit 50,000 words according to my preferred word processor, Scrivener, but when I tried to validate it, the Camp NaNo website told me I needed another 700 words. I think a big chunk of this comes from counting hyphenated-words as one word. Caveat scriptor.

I’d forgotten how much fun writing is.

I’ve spent far too much of the past year either revising things I’d already written or just being too busy to write more than my bare minimum of 250 words per day. It was incredibly refreshing to sit down and put in a lot of time on something brand new (or close to it; see below). I realized that I need to find a better balance in the future to keep it fresh–and if I ever figure out how, I’ll be sure to tell you.

I am almost certainly an outliner.

They say that there are two kinds of writers: outliners and pantsers. Outliners make an outline of a project before writing it, while pantsers just write by the seat of their pants. (Or you can make it a sliding scale if you like.) For this novel, I had an outline that was probably much more detailed than necessary at 6,000 words, but I think it really helped. If nothing else, it gave me a good, solid feeling of where the story was going, which staved off a lot of writer’s block. Granted, no outline ever survives contact with the story, but it was a good start.

I’m still no good at pacing.

This has been my Achilles’ heel ever since I started writing 8 years ago. To be sure, there are a lot of things I need practice with, but that’s what revising is for. Pacing, however, is one of the most fundamental structural problems, and my problem is that everything takes more words than I think. I’ve had about two projects over the years that came out at close to the length I expected. The rest all came out a lot longer–sometimes twice as long, and my NaNo novel is no exception. After 59,000 words (I had some written beforehand), I’m only 35%-40% of the way through my outline, and even after making some big, obvious cuts that I can see, that’s really pushing it on length.

Don’t lock the editor in a box. Just stick him in the side bar.

They say you should ignore the little editor in your head who keeps telling you your writing is bad. Yes, the first draft usually is, but you have to write it before you can revise it. One of the nice things about Scrivener is that you can take notes on each scene, but even Microsoft Word lets you add comments to a document. So without even thinking about it, I started doing that…and it wasn’t until late in the month that I realized how freeing that is. Not sure Character A would talk like that? Don’t spend ten minutes on it. Just make a note to rethink it later. Don’t think you’ve gotten the tone right in Chapter N? Make a note to come back to it instead of taking all day tweaking it. If you’re like me and can’t write anything without getting it just right, it’s a great way to put your internal editor in a safe little corner while still letting him (or her) make constructive (hopefully) comments.

Keep writing, and don’t give up if you’re behind.

It’s hard to write 1,613 words every day. The good news is that you can recover from moderate setbacks. I wrote less than half of what I needed to in the first three days, and I barely got anything down on a couple of other busy days, but I kept up with it enough that I could catch up over the weekends. Push through, and you’ll get it done.

I’m still not doing this in November.

Actually, I probably could, given that July went so well, but I’m not going to try it, for the sake of my own sanity. I will however, try to up my daily word count from 250 to something higher but sustainable, probably in the 500-1000 range. After all, I would like to finish this book this year.

As always, keep writing.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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