Since 1999, November has been National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in which participants attempt to write a 50,000-word manuscript between November 1 and November 30. My first novel, The Grave and the Gay, which was published in 2012, was begun—though not finished—during NaNoWriMo 2006. If you are taking part in this endeavor for the first time, here’s some of what I learned from my experience.
1. NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. I wish it was National Novel Starting Month (NaNoStarMo). The point is to motivate aspiring authors, but the goal of actually starting and completing a novel in just one 30-day month is both stress-inducing and difficult to achieve, and may even be counter-productive. How many great novels were written in just one month? Novels typically take years to write. I would prefer an emphasis on starting the novel in November, rather than completing it in November.
2. NaNoWriMo writers always focus on word counts—how much they’ve written per day. A day in which 2,500 words are written is considered very successful, a day in which 500 words are written is considered bad. Yet how many of those words will actually survive the rewriting process? It could well be that Monday’s 500 words are much better than Tuesday’s 2,500 words. Quantity is good, you want to get words on paper, but don’t judge your progress by quantity alone. My first novel took me three years to write, and three years to rewrite. A lot of words—even the good ones—didn’t make the cut. As Hemingway said, “The only kind of writing is rewriting.”
3. A truism that I was told and didn’t want to believe was: Throw away your first three chapters, and then you’ll have the true beginning of your story. Writers tend to want to work like film directors, spending a lot of time on scene-setting. Directors will begin their movies with aerial views of the countryside and sweeping panoramas of the landscape, gradually honing in on the house and then the character, and it may be a couple more minutes before the character actually speaks. That’s how I originally started my first novel. It was beautiful, cinematic prose describing in lush detail the environment in which my story took place. I was told, “Get to the action sooner.” Readers are impatient and so novels these days tend to begin with the main characters doing or saying something right away. You can fill in the scene-setting details later.
4. Have fun. This is not a competition. This is a personal challenge and it doesn’t define you. Use the month to pick up good habits in terms of making time to write. But also make time to take walks. Good writers are observant, they eavesdrop on conversations to learn the rhythms of how people speak. Don’t be a hermit. Make writing part of your life, not a break from it.