By Amy Evans
We’re almost at the halfway point for NaNo, and as it’s my first year participating, I wanted to take a step back and reflect on my progress. I know there are other writers participating for the first time, and who also might find the challenging overwhelming. It was not a surprise to me that 50,000 words would be immensely difficult to accomplish in 30 days, and here are some things I’ve learned about my own writing process:
I started NaNo prepared with a two page outline for my novel, including character sketches with their backstories, setting descriptions, and a general overview of the plot, including sub-plots. Once I got into writing each chapter, I realized that it would have been more helpful to prepare detailed chapter summaries as well. I had previously reasoned that, since I am a panster rather than a plotter, that a paragraph chapter summary would be enough. In fact, this slowed down my writing process.
I had already known, before starting NaNo, that I was a slow writer. Rather than get everything down on the first try, I would find myself revising each sentence to make sure it sounded good (knowing, still, that it will require many more edits before it is ready for publication). I knew it would be difficult getting out of my head and training myself to just leave the sentences as they are, but I didn’t know just how difficult this would be.
I had already prepared research for the larger historical elements of my story, but since the plot develops as I write, I got bogged down with fact checking the little details as I wrote. For example, one of my characters arrives in St. George’s harbour, Grenada, in the early 19th century, having sailed from the port in Liverpool, England. I wanted to create an accurate picture of bustling trade activity in the harbour, and what it would feel like arriving in a foreign land. I knew from prior research that the rum, cotton, and coffee trade had been the predominant exports of the island in that time. I knew the oak barrels of rum would be rolled up the gangplanks of an East India Company vessel, but which estate was operating at that time? Giant bales of cotton were loaded onto the ships, but was coffee loaded in crates or sacks? This was all to be conveyed in one paragraph in the first chapter, so you can imagine how much extra time it will take to research the small but important details as my story progresses.
Alternative Ways to Up Your NaNo Word Count
Now that I have learned more about my writing process for this particular novel, I brainstormed some ways that will up my word count — perhaps you can benefit from these as well!
Brainstorming and Free Writing
I spent 500 words on a detailed description of the sea creature summoned by the goddess Calypso (my novel is a historical fantasy). I also wrote a 1,000 page diary entry by the character I mentioned earlier, on his thoughts of the slave trade and forced servitude in Grenada. He will later become deeply involved in a slave revolt in Trinidad, and throughout the story his reflections on enslavement of Afro-Caribbeans will be integral to the plot. This information will end up in my story at some point, so I consider it a contribution to my word count.
Detailed Chapter Summaries
Before starting a new chapter, I will now be writing a 500-1,000 word summary for each. This will ultimately speed up my writing process, and I’ll get a clearer sense of how each plot detail contributes to the overall story. I am writing my chapter summaries in paragraph form, but bullet points may work better for other writers.
A Different Approach to Dialogue
In the first few weeks of NaNo, I’ve also found that dialogue writing has slowed me down. I learned that it is more natural for me to write it in script form, and then go back and add descriptions of characters’ reactions, body language, etc. later on. I got this idea from acclaimed romance author Stephanie Queen, who writes dialogue by considering characters as actors in a play or film.
Changing My Mentality on Free Writing
Early on in the challenge, I would jump in to writing with my go-to writing playlist for writing Caribbean historical fiction. While this is hugely beneficial to immersing myself in the creative atmosphere of the time and place, it didn’t do much to discourage my constant self-criticism and compulsive urge to revise each sentence. Now, before sitting down to write six days a week for NaNo, I take 10 minutes to close my eyes, relax, and listen to some of my favorite songs on my playlist. I treat it as a sort of meditation, reminding myself that NaNo is about following your heart and creative writing instincts and leaving each sentence as is. Each day, I push thoughts of editing into the future, and repeat this mantra: by god, write like the wind. Write like the wind, I say! If listening to music and writing is new to you, check out my recent article on how instrumentals can benefit creativity. Be sure to check out fantasy author Michael Cairns’ rules on enhancing creativity and nailing word count as well!
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It is not too late to start NaNo, and there are no rules against continuing the challenge after November! You can sign up for NaNoWriMo 2019 at nanowrimo.org.
Amy works on Author Engagement for Kobo Writing Life. She helps answer author questions and comes up with creative blog content. Amy studied Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa and Publishing at Ryerson University. She has worked as a content author of literature study guides and as an online literature educator.
Kudos to you for tackling a historical for Nanowrimo. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get there. Anything is progress! Here’s a little tip I heard once about how to avoid constantly stopping for research (because it will seriously slow you down). Try inserting X or XX or some combination of letters into places where you need to go back and research. If it’s something that will completely change your MC’s actions and the plot, then sure, stop and research. But, if it’s how things were loaded on ships, don’t stop for that. I know, I’m a perfectionist too. Just put XX in and move on. On that note, you can assign different letters for different things. Say XX for setting details, ZZ for clothing details, and etc. So when you are done with that magical first draft you can go back and search XX and everything that pops up will be setting details you can now research. (Also, note that using XX makes search and find easier than say SS for setting.) Hope this helps. Good luck!!
Wow Mallory, that is excellent advice! Thanks for sharing with everyone 🙂
This is very helpful! Thanks for this.
I haven’t been able to complete any NANO before, and while I thought I was a pantser, I wrote an outline first for this year. However, reading on your process, your outline is way more detailed than what I have! Hahaha…
Good luck, and I hope you can complete this year’s novel.
Hi! I would say I am a plotter for sure since I try to have a skeleton plot outline in advance of NaNo each year. My story still changes and often I add many scenes and chapters I didn’t plan for as I complete or strive toward 50k. I needed the reminder about dialogue as I tend to want to add in all those beats and other action and setting details in between speaking, but know that for NaNo, it’s probably best to get the basic conversation down in order to move to the next scene. I also enjoy instrumental music, but also have my playlist to get the right mood for certain moments for my characters. Thanks for sharing your first NaNo journey so far!
Thanks for your thoughts, Roanne! It is interesting how everyone begins writing a novel by different means of preparation. My characters tend to develop as they go along in the story, so it’s difficult for me to get into specifics with the general outline, that’s why I started doing more in depth chapter-by-chapter summaries. So you use your playlist more for assuming the moods of your characters, rather than for atmosphere like me?
I freaking love the description you used to convey your busting trading port. Even through this blog post, I could see it in my mind. Amazing work.
As to NaNo itself, I am similar to you in the revising aspect. I find NaNo and awesome way to keep me motivated to write but I doubt that I will ever be fast enough to actually complete it.
Thank you Steven! I’ve always tended to write with imagery and visual descriptions in mind, I think it’s such an important part of creating setting. When it comes to the Caribbean, where my family is from, there is so much beauty in the landscape — but as you could gather from my post, its beauty is marred by slavery. That juxtaposition is going to be carried throughout my story — how stunning a place can be on the outside, though rotten on the inside. The goal of completing NaNo is in my mind, but like you said, I think the main benefit is how much it can motivate us. There’s something about knowing that thousands of authors are struggling with the same task (although, I guess that could be said about novel writing in general!) 🙂
Completely freaking agree! Is this your first novel or do you have anything out at the moment?
It’s my first novel! I’ve spent about a year dreaming it up and reading comparative titles. So I’ve basically thrown myself into the fray with NaNo- I really needed the nudge (kick)!
That’s awesome, and good luck! I love NaNo even though I have never actually finished the whole 50k words in a month.
Amy, I applaud you for tackling NaNo. It’s a huge commitment. I did not feel the need to do NaNo this year since I was already into a WIP. I track my output and I, too, am a slow writer. For me a good day is getting 1,000 words written and that’s no where near enough for NaNo. But any amount written is a good amount as long as it moves you forward.
Be careful of writing an outline that is too detailed because that can hamstring you as well. A good outline breathes and stretches to accommodate changes here and there. It is inevitable that your characters will begin talking to you and trying to pull you in different directions. Sometimes their tangents are good but make sure you get back on the path again.
Lee, have you read our article on how Dale Mayer writes 9,000 words before breakfast?! This is using a dictation device of course, being able to type that fast would just be absurd. Have you ever considered trying that writing approach? Personally, I don’t think it’s for me. I like typing, and for some reason the clicking of the keys as I see the words flowing on the page is just satisfying.
I remember reading that article. That kind of output blows my mind. I have tried dictation, Amy, a few times. It doesn’t work for me. My brain just doesn’t spin stories fast enough. I found I would say something and immediately think of something better and became mired in edits. Perhaps I should give it another try, but just for an outline.
Good luck on your NaNo journey and if by chance you don’t achieve 50K words in 30 days (I don’t like calling it a “win”), I hope you still finish your novel. I know there are countless people out there wanting to read it. 🙂
Dictation definitely isn’t for everyone. Now that you’ve pointed it out, I think I’ll try it sometime for writing an outline. Or maybe a kind of auditory brainstorming writing. We live in the modern age! Thank you for the encouragement Lee, I will definitely be finishing my novel no matter what 🙂
Last year, I won a nanowrimo contest. A fellow writer had your problem and got close to their mark. The culture of correct writing is the issue; I can not call it a problem but I can not praise it, in the same way. From grammerly to the spellcheck function, the modern literary culture has many checking aspects to literature. Sequentially, many people today, have a high sense of correction. The issue is the historical misplacement to such a sense. Literary common style is never constant. Many late 1800s writings , thought during their time to be the height of correct style are viewed today as incorrect. If more writers accepted the history to correct style, then it may be easier to simply write down what you see in your mind.