What I learned from NaNoWriMo

December 10, 2011

My winning NaNo page

I entered November full of expectation, not without a little trepidation but certain of winning validation. I expected to be challenged by squeezing 1,700 words into a 24-hour day already stuffed with a full-time work schedule and equally time-consuming volunteerism. My trepidation arose because I had ditched my original planned topic and genre in the last days of October. My certainty of validation, even in the face of the former, came from four winning years.

As I had done the past couple of years, I got up at midnight November 1 to write for an hour or so, just to get the juices flowing, to prime the pump of creativity as it were. At least I didn’t have the nightmare of two years ago when my laptop froze about an hour in, forcing me to handwrite for a time and to beg & borrow laptops to continue while my laptop received a new motherboard (under warranty) or last year’s expensive frustration of a debilitating virus five days before the end. On the other hand, my protagonist did announce at the end of the first paragraph that he was a werewolf, a totally unseen prognostication necessitating a little werewolf self-education.

*sings* On the third day of NaNo, my day-boss gave to me…
In a meeting predicated on his own miscommunication, my boss chose to tell me that I smell. As in, I have an (unspecific) odor issue. (I was too gobsmacked to ask for much clarification.) I talked with friends both near and far; no one confirmed the boss’s declaration. And while this is really rich, coming from a man who goes running every afternoon about 4pm and comes back into the office all sweaty and gross, it caught me so by surprise as to wreak emotional and psychological devastation. Especially with regard to writing. Every time I sat at the computer, it consumed me. I could hardly compose a sentence about anything else.

This continued through the first two and a half weeks of November. Then I came to vacation, which I had requested two months before in order to pad my NaNo validation chances. In addition to the other thing, I continued to let my iPhone overrule my dedication by responding to every buzz and beep of notification. My concentration continued to fail me, until the day after Thanksgiving by which time I had written only 15,655 words. That left me 34,345 words to write in the next six days, or instead of 1,700/day, more like 5,725/day (6-day version goal). In reality, it was more like 6,900/day (5-day version goal) because on November 30 I had to go back to work.

I had to make a modification in my process. So, on the day after the National Day of Immoderation, I sat down at my laptop – in my living room in a comfortable chair, having abandoned my too-cold Starbucks as a destination – and made a declaration. My new regulation: I would set the timer on the offending device for 45-75 minutes and not pick it up again until it barked (my timer tonation – in honor of my protagonist’s situation). I did all my personal business – phone calls, bathroom, food, games, texting – ONLY after the timer went off and before setting it again. With determination, I reset the timer repeatedly, having written anywhere from 500-1,500 words during each “sprint”. Each time I broke, I posted my new total to Facebook and on the next break enjoyed my pompon-waving friends’ encouraging comments. By the time I went to bed, I had written nearly 5,600 words (shy of goal but impressive) for a new total of 21,222.

The next day, I repeated my new method of operation. I ended the day with 28,000 words – a gain of 6,787 (more than the 6-day version goal, just shy of the 5-day version goal).

The third day, to my consternation, I wrote 7,200 words! That brought my total to just over 35,000 with three days (two full and one what’s-left-after-work day) to go. At that point, I kind of lost momentum and wrote only 5,000 each of the next two days, ending November 29 with about 45,000. I just had no sensation that gave me hope of writing 5,000 more after working all day November 30. I left the office at 5:30 and arrived home about 6pm. I sat myself down, and, using the same system, began to write.

An hour later I had another 1,000 words; I dared to dream. By 8pm, I had 1,300 more words; I dared to hope. At my 9pm update on Facebook, I checked in with just under 1,300 additional words; I dared to believe. I began to pound out dialogue with very little description or attribution; I pictured the scene of six detectives sharing case progress in my head and just typed my heart out. Four hours after I sat down that evening, the word count at the bottom of my Microsoft Word window turned over the 50,000 mark. I had “won”! (Now the NaNoWriMo.org word validator sometimes counts slightly more or less, so I spent a few minutes “padding” my total with another 100 or more words. Then I went to the site to validate; it counted 50,443 words and declared me a WINNER!)

So what did I learn from this experience – especially what did I learn differently from past years?

A. I give other people (and their words) way too much power over my emotional health. As a cartoon from Going Bonkers (www.gbonkers.com – not that they’re in any way an authority in my life) says, “When we care too much about the opinions of others, we willingly become their prisoner.” I allowed my bullying boss to take me emotionally hostage for three weeks.

B. I can do things I never even dreamed I could do, like write 1,500 words in about an hour, 5,000 words in four hours and 35,000 words in six days! In fact, I can write well over 50,000 words in a month. Counting large blocks of information I wrote up for other things, I actually wrote around 60,000 words in November, not counting short emails, Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, etc.

C. I have an incredible support system of people who mobilize when I involve them; I need to remember to do that.

A. I need a writing environment that, while not necessarily warm, doesn’t require me to spend more energy staying warm than I spend on actually writing. My Starbucks store, though I’ve complained to in-store management and online to customer service, isn’t just cold, it has cold air blowing down on me. The result is I spend a lot of time warming my hands on hot beverages and the hot spots on my laptop and under my armpits.

B. I need a writing environment that, while not necessarily silent, has sounds that help focus rather than distract. Some music is definitely more conducive to writing than other music; the type of music may depend on what I’m writing. This time, I discovered that wearing noise-cancelling headphones at Starbucks against music that DIDN’T enhance my writing experience helped, and also that Andrea Bocelli’s music worked well blaring in those headphones. (I didn’t use music at all at home, and I may consider experimenting with different music while writing before next NaNo, perhaps developing a preferred “mix” or playlist.)

C. I need to discipline myself to write just like I have to choose to do Bible study, that is:
1. to refrain from stopping every minute or two to
–see who has texted, played their turn in Words with Friends or Scrabble, or posted on Facebook.
–look for a snack or refill a drink
–look something up on the internet
2. to delay gratification not only of the above but also to use other desirable things as rewards for word goals achieved – like watching an episode of a favorite show after reaching a 5,000-word day, for example.
3. to *expect* myself to produce (at least in first/rough draft form) 500 or more words per hour

D. I need other people. I always thought of writing as a solitary and solo activity. Yes, *I* have to create the scenarios and actually put the words down on paper (on the screen). For the most part, I do that while alone (or at least isolated by headphones). But I need people (that support system)
a. to pray for me
–to set distractions aside
–to stick with it
–to honor God in my writing (write things that don’t dishonor Him, write the stories He gives, etc.)
b. to encourage me
–by expressing confidence in my ability (to write and to meet goals)
–by expressing excitement over my ideas, updates, excerpts, etc.
c. to answer expert questions. (Sometimes, even if I’ve researched, things come up on the fly.)
d. to read and offer feedback eventually (after I’ve polished it the best I can by myself).

E. I am so visual that the scenes play out in my head, and it’s much easier for me just to write out the dialogue as it happens. I have to work at describing what I see in the room, what people look like and/or are wearing, and what action takes place. (Note to self: Revision is for December!)

WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT WRITING (Specifically about writing mysteries)
A. Pantsing is both hard and exhilarating! (*Pantsing = ‘writing by the seat of your pants’, i.e., writing without an outline but just sitting down to write from the beginning.)
B. I should know “whodunit” (and how and why) before I start writing. It’s not impossible to pants a mystery; it’s just tougher. Even if pantsing, knowing the above will help immensely; even deciding a general outline of what clues to reveal at what stages will help a lot.
C. Even if I think I know them inside out, characters can surprise me incredibly with something about themselves I never saw coming. (In the first paragraph, my protagonist announced he was a werewolf.)

There is probably much more, but that’s what occurs to me. Feel free to share in comments what you learned from NaNo2011 or other writing projects (or other creative endeavors).


2 Responses to “What I learned from NaNoWriMo”

  1. Ann Jennerjahn Says:

    I love the idea of setting a timer and working without interruptions for that time. I think it sounds like a great technique. I may borrow it for certain tasks myself.

  2. Donna Kuust Says:

    I don’t know about writing 50,000 words in 30 days. Never tried it. However, I’ve found that my best writing often ‘happens’ when I become the pen or the keys and just follow along as my characters play their parts. And yes, they can sometimes truly surprise you, even when you know them ‘like the back of your hand’. They know who they are, what they believe, how they feel, what they are going to do. I just watch them and record it. It’s really an awesome ride! — Sis

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