Nanowrimo 2009 Super Success!
2009 - The Big Win
Every year, http://www.nanowrimo.org hosts National Novel Writing Month. It's a huge event that turns the world's loneliest art form -- novel writing -- into something like the Boston Marathon. This year over 160,000 people signed up on the site pledging to create 50,000 word novels within 30 days. A record percentage of entrants, over 19% of them, uploaded 50,000 word manuscripts to become Validated Winners.
Winners get that neat graphic I just posted to the right. Also a printable Winner's Certificate and the best prize of all, a finished rough draft novel. Or at least a chunk of one so big you don't want to throw it away. Some Nanowrimo Winners haven't finished their books.
Among the front runners, two stand out: Kateness and CrimsonBlood. Both of them set out to produce one million words in 2009 and both of them succeeded. Both reached the 50,000 word green bar on the site very fast. So did I, within just a few days of the start.
Kateness also started a thread on the forums titled "Overachievers Club 2009" for members who set higher goals than 50,000 words. Someone, who may also have been Kateness, set up the "Complaints for Overachievers" thread in the forum for people facing bad days and frustration. Later on I added an Overachievers Progress thread since I didn't want to scatter five thousand word shoutouts on weird numbers every time I got a chapter done, but did want to announce it when I got chapters done.
I set out with an Overachievers goal. Minimal of course was to do the 50,000 words and win the event again. That's something I've only failed to do once, in 2002, when I was bedridden and too sick to write till the 25th of November. I still got 25,000 words, averaging five thousand words a day, but five days of that wasn't enough to get even a short novel done.
Kateness has been doing Nanowrimo for four or five years and spends all year outlining and preparing. She went in this year with detailed outlines for multiple planned volumes and of course did more than twice what I did, coming out with her million word total. She did something else too. By creating those forum threads she helped me take off the brakes and push myself to my absolute limits -- just as much as a first time Nanowrimo entrant getting that first 50,000 words does.
The great advantage of doing Nanowrimo is that you're not alone. There's a big public event going on, over a hundred thousand other people who don't think you're nuts and cheer you on when you get somewhere with it. Most people face a lot of discouragement about writing novels or writing in general.
This can range from people who just don't approve of books or reading, let alone writing books, into the very large number of people who think your leisure time is better spent watching television, going shopping or playing online games. Discouragement is everywhere. Yet the bigger Nanowrimo gets, the less of a social problem this is for some of the uninterested people.
If they worry about whether the writer in the family isn't getting social, one glance at the lively forums and number of participants shows that no, it's just your thing. There's plenty of people to socialize with. It's easy to make friends. They still might go "You spend too much time on the computer" but that's something where the game addicts may stand up to defend you on mutual interest.
So Nanowrimo rules for being able to explain to all the uninterested why you don't want to go out on a Friday night or show up to something on Saturday afternoon. It makes novelwriting more of an acceptable pastime.
The Dark Side of Success
What happens when you reach a goal?
It's natural to set the goal higher. To go in a year later and try to beat your best. In 2004, I did that. I got going, set out to make Nanowrimo a top priority during November and churned out about two chapters a day. My chapters were about 4,000 words, the result was a good 80,000 word novel draft finished by the 10th.
I got encouraged enough to dare try for three of them that year. I didn't succeed at it because new roommates moved in on November 15th and so I spent about half of the remaining month getting the new roommates settled in, socializing and doing offline stuff. I don't regret that. I still finished a second 80,000 word novel in 20 more days and that year became my unbroken best year record till 2009.
One of the reasons it's taken this long to break that record is the way that support dropped once I started doing way too much more than other people. New writers having trouble getting to 50,000 words, struggling to make 1,667 words a day, did not want to hear about some writing geek that was frustrated because he only did 4,000 and didn't get the time to do the day's second chapter. There weren't as many congratulations.
There were more jokes like "I hate you" or "Somebody give Robert a turkey sandwich" (so that I'd fall asleep from the tryptophan.) It started getting to where every time I went online, there'd be some variation on those jokes. People said that I intimidated them.
That was second grade all over again, getting beat up on the playground because I raised the curve. Teachers actually explained what "grading on the curve" was to all the kids. It was important that they knew exactly why that smart freak's doing too well on every test lowered their grades and made school that much harder.
Nanowrimo isn't graded on the curve.
Nanowrimo isn't graded. There is a prize for actually writing a 50,000 word manuscript. It's on the honor system -- you feed in a 50,000 word document by pasting it into the validator. It gets word counted and deleted. End of process. It rings the bell and your green bar turns purple.
Every year there are as many winners as there are. Many of them have written the first novels of their entire lives. That's a much more important specific milestone than writing the eighth or the fourteenth or even the fiftieth. It's the difference between something amazing that a very few talented people can do and knowing that you've become one of those few talented people.
Talent is enthusiasm. All of the Nanowrimo participants are talented writers. They signed up. They tried it. Many of them try again and again, getting a bit closer every year until the year they win that coveted purple bar and the cool winner graphic, print a Winner's Certificate for the first time.
Those that win come back and participate again, right? So the process is easier. You know what you need to do in order to make writing time. Cutting out television is the number one most effective way to do it, that frees up hours in almost anyone's life. There are other discoveries too.
Some people get in a writing hour by getting up early and having the house to themselves before anyone else is up. Others stay up late. Still others start taking their lunch at work to write on their novels. Stay at home parents turn nap time into writing time.
Everyone's writing schedule is different. Everyone's time management strategies are too. With practice, it gets a lot easier to turn those writing schedules into habits. When this music is playing, when you're at the computer and it's November, when you're wearing the t-shirt from a previous year or set out the little plastic alien on your desk, that's the signal to write.
I stopped listening to music in background for anything else. If there's music, it means I must be working on my book. That turned into a very useful habit because it defines my time and keeps me on focus.
This year as my count rose, I stayed closer to the threads Kateness started. I found support in them, ranging from people who just knew their book needed to be 60,000 words instead of 50,000 words to of course, the grand champions breasting the tape an hour apart, CrimsonBlood and Kateness. Crim got it an hour before Kateness did.
Both of them made it before midnight on November 30th.
I got my first book done. Plenty of time, I was ahead of schedule finishing it on the 6th. I put in long days and long chapters ranging from 5,000 words to a whopping 8,900 word chapter that will get broken up in the rewrite. Turns out that I schedule best by deciding how many chapters a day and doing long chapters means writing more that day. So I averaged ten to twelve thousand word days this year.
I decided to dare go for the Supergoal of three 80,000 word novels... and got there around the 21st. So I did a fourth. Double my Best. I still had three days left. One of them had come out only about 78,000 words but that 80k length estimate was loose -- the other three came out longer. One went to 94,000 words.
I knew I'd done the Three Day Novel Contest -- http://www.3daynovel.com -- so I rallied and decided to try for five. My fifth novel, Greenwood Home, wasn't finished at the end of the day on November 30th. It was a winner though, at 65,000 words and change. So 2009 was my five novel year.
I did finish it a couple of days ago. I found out something else doing that -- my usual funk at the end of Nanowrimo didn't happen. I still had some chapters ahead and could merrily wind down by doing a lazy chapter a day pace till I got it done. That intense effort followed by suddenly not having anything to do was a big emotional crash most years. Not any more. I know now that I need to keep writing right up to and over the end of the month in order to avoid that crash.
The other thing of course is that I'm serious about writing.
That means I can't just write during November when there's cheering crowds and happy forums to post progress in. What's ahead of me now is eleven months of editing and maybe some more new novel rough drafts written as rewards for finishing editing jobs. With other superachievers on the playground, I'm no longer the biggest-best way out ahead of everyone curve-smasher. Instead, I can look at this as something I've done for years, trained for and have certain unique advantages for -- like being disabled and not having to hold down a job.
What I want to say to people who haven't gotten 400,000 word months yet is that you will get there. There are goals beyond 50,000 words. When that starts to come easy, try for two of them or write a bigger book. Most of the normal sized paperbacks out there range between 90,000 and 120,000 words. Some of the fat ones go up to 180,000 or more.
When you've written one novel, it's easier to write the next. Somewhere around the fifth, for me it was the fifth, there comes a flashpoint. It's subtle and internal. The next milestone after "I finished a novel" is "I know how to do this."
It's the point at which you stop worrying at all about whether you'll be able to do it, because knowing how to create a novel's rough draft has become a familiar process. It's the point when you look at the project and it stops looking impossibly huge, it just looks like "oh cool, a big project." One you've done enough times that it's like the home improvements guy putting in a deck on his new house when he did that on several previous houses.
You know what can go wrong. You know what you can do both in the process and in your environment to make the process easy and have it come out well. You can choose a playlist or internet radio station that fits the theme of your book. This year I discovered http://radiorivendell.com and that's solved all of my music sorting, music choosing problems.
It's important for overachievers to stick together and be supportive. Also to support and encourage beginners. This is not about competition unless it's with yourself.
Nanowrimo is Special Olympics for the Gifted. You can be as good as you are. You can push the limits and write as much as you possibly can -- if life hands you a break like a month you're unemployed and you do have the time, go ahead and put in ten hour writing days. You too will get 10,000 word days or even 20,000 word days doing that. I think my best day was 23,000 words in about an eighteen hour day.
Tips to Improve Your Novelwriting Process
But if you can only squeeze out an hour a day on weekdays and make up the difference on weekends, averaging 1,667 words a day is tough. I write about a thousand to 1,500 words an hour. That's fairly normal. It's not the super speed of a Kateness, she was getting 3,000 to 4,000 word hours once she got her stride.
Every time you do it, you'll learn something. I've done it more than fifty times if you count number of books, not just number of Nanowrimo events. I did my tenth Three Day Novel this year too and actually sent it in, so that's a huge turning point for me.
Music is an important writing cue. I mentioned this before, now I'll go into more detail about it. When you set specific cues for writing, that blows away a lot of fiddling around and procrastination. It creates habits -- and when "continue the story" is the habit created, that eliminates a lot of hours otherwise wasted on "I don't know what to write."
I write fantasy. Trying things like Rhapsody to find new music is hard, because it sorts on things like style and what instruments are used in it. Not on the content of lyrics and whether it has a "fantasy" feel. Radio Rivendell does exactly that. They play a lot of familiar fantasy music, themes from games or movies like Lord of the Rings and also some beautiful stuff by less well known artists. I started a song titles file for good stuff from unfamiliar artists and will probably begin buying music again thanks to that file.
http://radiorivendell.com is one of many Internet radio stations with themes. Why this is important is that background music can shape your mood and most of all, influence pacing. Sure, sometimes the particular song doesn't fit the scene you're working on. But one of the odd things I noticed was that it would flavor it well even if it wasn't exactly right.
When I was working on a battle scene in Greenwood Home and the pretty music for the Shire scenes in Lord of the Rings came up, the contrast made me punch up the conflict. The point of view character thought of what he was fighting to defend and fought harder. My mind just automatically connected the input of the music with the scene at hand and it flowed well.
Another really important tip for writing process: make yourself comfortable. Genuinely comfortable in a physical sense. Have your favorite drinks and snacks at hand. Turn off the phone, television, other distractions. Maybe clear away the books you're reading and art supplies and toys, put the game DVDs back in their cases and inconveniently on the shelf, have everything around you set up for writing.
These comforts ought to become something you take for granted. Familiar, routine, invisible. The more routine and ordinary they are, the better, the idea of being that comfortable is to let you turn inward and face all the uncomfortable scary bits in your own mind. Dredge up bad memories and then hit some poor character with that problem scaled up to life-threatening and not just a matter of skinned knees.
Another trick that has worked very well for me over the years is setting up a reward system. This can be something like a box of chocolate cherries. You get one if you finish the chapter, or the day's words. You have to play fair with it and not eat them all on the first day, or have any unless you do the writing. When you use a reward system though, it helps train you into good habits at a deep physical level.
One of my rewards is to get a Nanowrimo t-shirt. I don't always do it, sometimes I get distracted and throw my spending money into art supplies. This year though, I ordered the black t-shirt right away -- and then I didn't actually wear it until I finished the first book. I wanted the red one. I ordered that too, and a hoodie, and then by the end they came out with the Winner t-shirt so that's on its way. I finally got a coffee mug for Greenwood Home because I'd seriously enhanced my wardrobe already.
A reward system I used in previous years with great effect was to set up my favorite computer game in the DVD drive but not open it till I had the day's words done. That worked wonders for getting me going. The distractions you'd rather be doing than writing can become a writing aid if you prioritize them well -- if you don't play with them till the day's writing is done.
They're also more enjoyable as an earned reward. This may sound so simple but it brings a lot of happiness in both directions -- helps you gain the accomplishment you wanted to do and also makes the reward-activity more fun too.
Now that it's December, if you also did Nanowrimo you've got all or part of a novel manuscript in front of you. If it isn't finished, the forums include "December and Beyond" and I set up a progress thread for shoutouts on stages finishing in December. There may be shoutouts coming up in the Shoutouts forum too.
Keep going. Finish the book. It's worth finishing the book -- only you could have written that one and it's nowhere near as bad as you think it is. This is true.
If you have finished your novel, take a bit of a rest and then look at it again. Okay, well, it is as bad as you thought it was. Maybe even worse. That's true too.
How can it be great and lousy at the same time? It's been knocked together, roughed-in, the story is there and you know what happened. It hasn't been edited. Try breaking an agate geode. You look inside and oh cool, there's all these crystals pointing inward and it's beautiful.
But it's also dull and sort of lumpy and it doesn't shine the way it will when you sand it smooth and polish it. Sanded and polished, that becomes something utterly perfect. So that's what your finished Nanowrimo novel is.
It's a wonderful first draft. It deserves your best efforts editing it. The difference between you and Stephen King or anyone famous is that they finished editing and polishing and sent their first one out through twenty or thirty rejections on average before someone bought it.
That's a completely different set of skills. There is support for it though. http://www.nanowrimo.org has a forum on editing and polishing in "December and Beyond," there's also NaNoEdMo, there are numerous writing groups online including http://www.sffmuse.com/forums that have beta reading forums where you can post your rough draft for critique.
In the weeks to come I will be writing about my editing process, sharing tips from my own experience. I expect to send out submissions this December even if they're short stories, and my goal in 2010 now that I have this giant harvest of novel rough drafts is to refine my editing process till it's as smooth and practiced as my rough draft process. I've got this huge backlog of rough drafts that need editing and one novel that's very nearly in submission shape: Curse of Vaumuru.
I made one mistake on it that ate a lot of time in my life. I edited line for line throughout it several times without looking at major changes like deleting scenes or whole chunks of description. It's much more efficient to work loose to detailed, rough to refined. The first step on editing is to look at the pace of the story, take out anything that doesn't fit, move scenes if they need to be moved and add in anything that got left out.
Don't bother with the detail stuff like polishing sentences or working on dialogue until you know if that scene's even going to stay in the book. It's only a time sink though, not the kind of mistake that can ruin the project. I suppose in one way all that line editing helped because it was good practice at line editing.
But on my next read-through I'm going to be going at it with a buzz saw to remove anything that needs to come out and add in anything that needs to be put in, something I should have done right at the start. It may stand up well, some of my rough drafts do. But I know right off going back to it that I need to add in an entirely new ending, keep going from the previous ending. That'll mean changing part of the last scene so that it's not an ending.
It'll be fun. Let's find out together what it takes to make my edit process as habitual as running off at the keyboard when I turn my music on.