Originally posted on my writing blog which was active from 2010 to 2018.
Hi! I’m finally back with another writing update. I completed NaNoWriMo again this year, and here’s my assessment of my performance.
This year’s novel is code-named “Survey.”
It’s a science fiction/fantasy set many thousands of years in the future, in a time after a long war between humans and aliens has finally resulted in a treaty.
A human captain leads a ship on a mission to survey a planet, where a lost colony had once been established thousands of years before. They find a struggling pre-Industrial human society, and alien ships in orbit.
The captain’s ship is shot down, and an alien plot that leads to the brink of war unfolds.
What I Did Well
First I like to highlight what I did well, so I remember to do them in the future.
I’ll be perfectly honest. At no point during the writing of this draft did I feel particularly inspired or excited about this novel. Don’t get me wrong, I feel like it has potential, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out.
What I’m trying to say is that I was never driven by a “muse” or “divine inspiration” or a “need to tell this story” or a “personal connection to the characters” or anything like that. Every day I had to force myself to continue writing, because I wanted to give up on it pretty much every single day.
This was a very valuable experience.
Minimal “filler words”
During the gamified NaNoWriMo event, where the focus is on quantity, not quality, there’s a very strong temptation to just put *anything* into your NaNoWriMo draft. This is a fairly well-known, joked-about phenomenon. I call them “filler words.” They might be ideas for another story you’re thinking of, the weather, “I don’t know what to write” over and over, the complete works of Monty Python, things like that.
My personal favorite filler material is breaking the fourth wall to have the characters talk about the story they are involved in, or brainstorming notes about what to write next.
This very blog post could conceivably be used as “filler words” for my draft. I am starting this post on Day 30 with 48,407 draft words completed, instead of writing words to finish up my draft.
But this year, I’ve added very few filler words. I counted only three days that included “filler” content, and I kept it relatively focused on brainstorming for this particular story. I didn’t ever venture into discussing the weather, for example. (The weather was chilly for most of November, incidentally.)
That means that for 27 out of the 30 days of the event, even though I never really felt like I quite knew what to write next, I buckled down and figured out what was appropriate to write for the story.
I finished the story
If you’ve done NaNoWriMo more than once, you probably know that you can’t write what would be considered a novel today in 50,000 words. My personal target for a debut novel is 90,000 words. I’ve read repeatedly that 80-90k words is roughly the point where publishers are willing to “take a chance” on a new writer. They aren’t likely to publish a debut author’s 200,000 epic fantasy, in other words. Get a few successful books out first, then we’ll talk.
(Incidentally, I still consider traditional publishing the best route for me to follow in my writing career. While it would be relatively easy to self-publish, and in fact I *have* self-published a book on Amazon, I just don’t have the mettle to deal with marketing.)
Getting back to the point, there’s a strong temptation to simply stop writing at 50,000 words on Day 30, even though one knows quite well the story isn’t over yet. For me in particular, once the month is over, I really don’t want to write any more. The “special event” is over, and there’s no more social motivation to continue writing. One has to go back to internal motivation and self-discipline, which is what we in the writing biz call “work.”
In the past, I have ended drafts unfinished. Last year, in fact, when I got to 50,000 words of my historical fiction, I felt like I had only completed perhaps one of three parts in the overall story.
But this year I determined that I would complete the story. I knew I could not write the 90,000 words required to tell it fully in November, but I knew that if I did not at least summarize the end of the story, I would never get back to it.
So over approximately the last five days, I stopped trying to “show, not tell” and reverted strictly to telling. This allowed me to dilate huge swaths of time down to paragraphs, and resolve most of the plot threads that I had started earlier. Later, I will be able to come back and expand those paragraphs out into chapters, instead of scratching my head wondering how to finish an unfinished manuscript.
What I Did Poorly
Of course it wouldn’t be much of a post-mortem unless I had criticisms of my performance.
I procrastinated a *lot* during November. I had plenty of time for writing, but I did not use it wisely. I could have easily written 100,000 words or more in November, if I had really set my mind to it. On good writing days it was easy to achieve 2,500 words. Pushing further to 3,000 or 3,500 would not have been difficult with some discipline.
I don’t think the quality of this year’s writing is very good. It will require a lot of editing.
It’s not unusual for my first drafts to be poor, because I am more focused on getting down the ideas in my head before they fly away, but I think it was worse than usual this year.
Improving the quality of my first drafts is a point that I want to work on, because I don’t enjoy the revision process as much as the writing process. Once I know how the story is going to turn out, it’s less of a creative process and more of a crafting process. (Not to say that there isn’t a lot of art in grammar, it’s just that I am not particularly good at the more literary styles of writing.) I think of it like sculpting: Chiseling and filing away at the words and sentences until they look right.
If I can improve the quality of my first drafts, it will make the revision process that much faster. I don’t really know how to get better at it except to keep practicing.