NaNoWriMo 2016 Post-Mortem

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I like to write up a post-mortem about my writing projects after I’m done with them, so here are my thoughts on my NaNoWriMo 2016 draft. For reference, it’s an untitled historical fiction set in Belgium at the beginning of World War I. It’s about, you know, people, who like, do stuff.

The hook might still need some work.

I validated my (exactly, as it turned out) 50,000 words about 8 PM on November 30th.

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This was definitely my greatest come-from-behind win. The previous record was 2013’s train wreck, which now looks like it was a walk in the park:

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And here’s 2014’s picture-perfect graph in case you think I’m always a slacker:

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And no, I haven’t finished editing any of these manuscripts. Some of them I haven’t even started editing.

So about the story. First of all, it’s not technically “finished” yet. I feel like I’ve only completed part one of three for this particular story, so I could easily see it growing to a total of 100k or more words before a complete first draft is done. There is no resolution of the story yet, and frankly I don’t know where or how it will end. (All I know is that it has to end before the end of the war, otherwise it’s about fifty books away from being done at the current pacing.) I just have an idea that there are three distinct “phases” of the overall story, which I think of as “Before Antwerp,” “During Antwerp,” and “After Antwerp.” Most of what I wrote is in the “Before Antwerp” section.

I suppose I could end it “During Antwerp” but it would probably be a bummer of an ending there. Sort of an Empire Strikes Back kind of ending, rather than a Star Wars kind of ending, if you know what I mean.

Early on I experimented with streaming my writing sessions on Twitch. I think it had some benefit, but overall I don’t think it helped enough to warrant continuing. (I think I gained a couple of followers though.) The main thing it did was force me to sit in one spot and think about the writing uninterrupted. That was probably a good thing for this particular project. If I hadn’t been streaming, I might have wandered off and gotten distracted with something else and never gotten anywhere.

I say that because this novel was really, really hard to start. I think it probably had something to do with the fact that I didn’t have any kind of plot or characters prepared ahead of time. (Duh!) But besides that I had a really hard time putting myself into the world of 1914 Belgium.

This was the first time I’d ever attempted to write a historical fiction. It’s really scary to write something when you know for sure everyone will be pouring over every word to verify the historical authenticity of it. I wrote out a timeline of historic events beforehand and I tried to follow the basics of things as I know them, but I’m sure there are tons of details that I got wrong. (Like maybe those tentacle monsters.)

In this first draft, I knew I would have to ignore things like language and culture and, you know, silly little things like facts, and that was hard. It grated on my nerves to not be sure whether people should be speaking French or German or Flemish or whatever other languages they had back in 1914.

I wasn’t quite sure if the average peasant walked into a room and turned on the lights, or lit an oil lamp, or both, or neither. I know there was electricity in the cities but what about way out in the country?

I spent a relatively large amount of time one day trying to figure out if flashlights had a) been invented in 1914 and b) were common in 1914. (Turns out yes they had been invented and soldiers carried them, but I’m still not sure if every Belgian village household had one.)

That kind of stuff bugs me when I’m writing and can really throw me off. The entire nature of a scene can change based on whether a person can shine a flashlight into a dark room or not, you know? In this case I tried to circumvent all issues entirely by avoiding too many descriptions.

And then there was the U.S. election, which was like a nuclear bomb going off in Washington, DC on November 8th. I’m fairly dispassionate about politics myself, but most of the Internet went into a deep depression, and that rubbed off on me too. The point is that I stopped writing for about a week.

But I’m rather proud of myself for picking it back up and clawing my way back into it. Amazingly enough, the writing actually got easier in the final two weeks. I think when I started my comeback, the nanowrimo.org page said I had to write 2500 words a day to finish on time, but at first I was content just to get to 1667. Then I slowly worked my way higher and toward the end I found it wasn’t that difficult to write 2500 or 3000 words in a day. (There was a fortuitously-timed holiday weekend in there too.) I think I got to 4000 on that last Saturday.

Here I should apologize to anyone who didn’t make their goal. I’ve been there too, and I know it’s annoying to hear people talk about how well they did in NaNoWriMo. I’ve had plenty of those days where you struggle to write 200 words and then you see somebody tweet out “I did 7000 words today!” and you just want to punch them right in their smug face. My only advice is keep trying.

The other thing I’m proud of is that I stuck, mostly, to the story. In my 2013 train-wreck, I wrote a lot of “filler” words, basically rambling about nothing related to anything. I had characters talking to each other about the story they were in, new characters popping in from totally different genres, stuff like that. It was mostly a waste of writing effort. This time I tried to stay in the right setting with the right characters. (Okay, except for that tentacle monster. And maybe a couple other off-topic sections. Let’s say I stayed on topic for 95% of it.)

Here’s what I’ve learned about writing a lot of words quickly: It’s very difficult for me to sit down and write, say, 4000 words in one sitting. I work much better when I sit down and write 500 words, then do something else for a while, then come back and write another 500 words, then do something else for a while, come back and write another 500, and so on. If I keep doing that throughout the day, I end up with a bunch of words and it doesn’t feel like an exhausting slog the way it would have if I’d written them all at once.

I discovered that a few years ago, but I mention it again in case it helps anyone else, and also to reinforce it in my own mind because sometimes I forget how I work best. (It’s kind of dumb but every time I start a large writing project like this it feels like I’m always starting from scratch.)

Speaking of which, I’ve grown to like my document structure for writing a first draft. I use Scrivener and make one blank document for each day. So every day I’m looking at a blank page, and most of the time I don’t even look back at what I’ve written before. That structure gently forces me to keep going forward instead of looking back. (The down side is that I probably repeat myself a fair amount.) (And it’s harder to edit later.)

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I wrote this draft entirely in Markdown format. One blank line between every paragraph, _underscores for italics_. I actually didn’t do much italics, now that I think about it. The quotes are sometimes smart and sometimes not, depending on where I pasted in some text I’d written at work.

I had a much easier time typing on my MacBook Air than I did on my PC keyboard. I don’t have to move my fingers as much. Toward the beginning of the month I wrote on my PC but toward the end of the month I did all my writing on the MacBook Air. (One of the great things about Scrivener is that you can work on your project from a Mac or a PC interchangeably.)

On weekends, I found it very difficult to make myself write early in the day. It doesn’t feel very natural to write when the sun is out. Presumably this is a side-effect of having to write when I get home from work.

It was always hardest to write the first words of the day. After I’d written something, it was much easier to continue from where I’d started.

As for whether I would write more historical fiction, I could see myself doing that. There’s a certain freedom in not having to worry about “world-building.” I wrote a thriller once and had the same feeling about it.

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