Saturday, December 5, 2015

NaNoWriMo 2015 After Action Report & Lessons Learned

Every year except for last year (which we will neither mention nor think about) it seems my writing process for NaNoWriMo improves by some measure and 2015 is no exception. This year, due to changes at work and time demands from taking martial arts, I’ve probably had nearly half the time to write than in years past and yet I have, for the most part, kept up with my writing quotas. Following are some tips, tricks & techniques I found useful.

Disclaimer: Everyone approaches NaNoWriMo differently and I’m sure a number of people will consider some of these techniques “cheating.” It largely depends on what you think the “rules” of NaNoWriMo are. My opinion is that the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to get writers into the habit of writing regularly and to help them gain the confidence and skills necessary to continue do so. It is not necessary that you write a new book, that you complete a new book, that you write only one book or that (despite it’s name) that it even be a novel or work of fiction. The one absolutely rule for me is that you start on November 1st and that you write fifty-thousand words by November 30th. So here are some of the techniques that have been particularly helpful for me this year.

1. Have a plan — I knew back in 2007, when I first started NaNoWriMo, that I had to have as much pre-planning completed as I could before it started so I would spend as little time as possible stopping to think about what comes next. Since my scenes generally run around 1K each, that means I need to start the month with at least a list of 50 scenes. Of course I didn’t quite do that this year. So — not for the first time — things got a little sketchy toward the end, requiring that I fall back on some other techniques.

2. Write what interests you right now — The important this is getting words on the page. Whatever motivates you to do that, pursue it. So...

2.a. It’s OK to skip around — I admit I actually like to go through my scenes fairly sequentially because — though I do like to plan things out — I always discover things in writing that I will build on in later scenes. There is certainly no reason you couldn’t later go back and change scenes after  discovering the foreshadowing you wanted to include or just generally set up for reveals that hadn’t been planned ahead of time, that’s what editing is for, just try to not get caught up in going back and revising until after NaNoWriMo is over. The important thing is to keep moving forward.

2.b. It’s OK to write more than one story / thing — There are certainly more than a few writers (mostly pantsers I expect) who start out writing one story, then change their mind in mid-nano because either a side character or a sub-plot became more interesting. The idea that this is OK was something of a revelation to me. In the past I normally just gutted through one story, but lately I’ve also had some random stories that have come bursting out of me at high word counts. Sometimes I think it helps to have a major change in tone or plot to freshen things up during NaNoWriMo rather than trudging through the same story for the entire month — but then I’m severely ADD so that could also be a problem when my goal is to have a complete novel at the end. At least that time normally wasted sitting around trying to decide what will happen next and how it will happen, is now used productively.

3. Capture every moment — Some people can crank out 100K novels in November that are actually decently written. I hate and envy those people. OK, I don’t hate them, but I definitely envy and maybe feel just a twinge of disgust. :)Though every year I refine and improve my process, I usually just barely do 50K in November.

NaNoWriMo is all about focus. To succeed, I have to snatch every spare moment of time and use it to produce story. Even when I’m not writing, I’m mentally reviewing what I’ve written and planning what to write next. I think that level of focus helps bring out aspects of the story that would never be discovered if I were to take a more leisurely pace and split my attention with daily concerns. To help cature this, I usually carry a little fat notebook with me wherever I go. Everything in my head, setting, dialog, history, narrative, it all goes in the notebook.

4. Forget the keyboard, try the pen  —  When I am sitting at the keyboard taking an hour or more to write a mere dozen or so words I can sometimes crank out hundreds of words a minute simply by ditching the keyboard for the pen. Perhaps it’s just that I’m left-handed and so stimulate the more creative right side of the brain when I write by hand, or perhaps  the act of physically coordinating my hand when writing slows my ADD brain down enough to focus my thoughts, but I find this change in technique particularly effective when other approaches fail. I’ve written as much as a third of my nanos by hand this way.

5. If you’re not ready to write the scene, then write about the scene — I’ve a bad habit of rehearsing scenes in my head to get them right. For example, in dialog, I may know that I have three or four subjects that need to be addressed during the scene, but I want the conversation to flow freely and naturally from one topic to another so that if a character starts with subject ‘A’, the next character will naturally respond with ‘B’, and another ‘C’. But sometimes these subjects may not be naturally related. You may need to have characters go from ‘A’ to ‘B’ then back to ‘A’ or even ‘D’ before going on to ‘C’. Planning all this out, along with the right emotional notes, the shift in character relationships as well as the overall plot can be difficult, yet I can’t afford to spend a lot of time rehearsing.

Sometimes when I’m not sure how to write a scene, I just write about the scene. I write about what I want to happen or options I’m considering. Often I’ll start writing the scene this way and immediately after describing it, have worked out what I want to do during that process. Part of my editing process is doing a “show don’t tell” check to see if I’ve mentioned an emotion without illustrating it, or summarized a conflict that should have been played out step by step. Since writing about the scene is all about telling, it often provokes me into going back and writing the scene I was talking about.

5.b. This technique is also useful if you are writing a character's reaction to a prior scene ( where they were not the POV character) but you're not sure precisely what that reaction should be. Try re-writing the prior scene from their POV. The details of setting and action are not what are important here. Feel free to summarize those, only focus on the new POV's responses to them. If that doesn't work, play reporter and question them about it, writing down their answers.

6. Capture every thought  —  I learned the lesson of Technique #3 by accident while seeking help in the NaNoWriMo and other writer forums for difficult scenes which I was trying to decide how best to handle. Often, just by describing the problem and adequately defining it, the answer would come to me. I don’t have the time I used to have to hang out in forums during November, but I can accomplish the same thing with Technique #3. In fact anything I write about my NaNoWriMo project or even writing in general can prove helpful, so as a result, whether it’s a forum post or a blog post like this one. I write it in my NaNoWriMo doc file first (I create a new one on Nov. 1) then copy and paste it into wherever I want to share it. At least it gives me the chance to spell check it first.

7. Write just write!  — What do you do when it’s 11:15 PM, you’ve only written a couple hundred words and didn’t even make it to one thousand the day before? The answer is write, write anything no matter what. The best way to jam out a massive word count is to not even think about the writing. Authors call this free writing and it is actually a good way to free up the mental blocks and get the word flowing. Just scroll to the bottom of your document and write about whatever is on your mind, whatever you’re feeling, whatever frustrations you’re having with your story or anything else that is distracting you. Not only will it help you get your word count back on track and reduce the urge to just quit because you've fallen so far behind, it can also (as in Technique #3) help you figure out what you need to do to get your story going again.

8. Delete nothing — This has been a basic rule of mine since year 1(of my participation in NaNoWriMo.) Forget that the keyboard even has a delete key. One of the biggest tricks of NaNoWriMo is turning off the internal editor. Sometimes though, it’s hard to ignore the obvious. When I find something that obviously needs to be changed I just put brackets around [it.] ←- the part that needs to be deleted and write that part the way it should be. Sometimes, though, a new paragraph will take two or three runs at it before I get the phrasing right. This can make it hard to figure out what’s extraneous, what’s being kept and thus where I should go next. This, unfortunately, may lead to me dragging these mistakes out to the end of the paragraph/page/scene/document, which is not a bad thing in itself except that it sucks up some of the time that was saved by not going back and editing and deleting some of the word count. And did I mention I had ADD? It’s surprising how distracting something like that can be.

[and] [to earlier] [NaNoWriMo] [that I’m not] [conversation] about [I need] [book] [work through] [in]  [so that I know] [read] [it is particularly difficult I find it’s just because] [by hand] and in [was]
[this year] some [can’t] [adding] was can [when all things are said and done] [Focus on ] [what I’m thinking about making happen] [sometimes]

In Conclusion...
I hope you find some of these techniques helpful. If you don't like/disagree with any, don't feel you have to use any if then. If you have some additional techniques or variations you like to use, please share. Most importantly, whether it's November or not, always keep writing.

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