Jade Young was kind enough to invite me to write a guest post on her blog, The Educated Writer. Hop on over to her site to check it out and read my post on “10 Ways to Meet Your Daily Word Count for NaNoWriMo.”
Please join me in welcoming guest blogger Janell E. Robisch to The Educated Writer! So, you’ve decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month. You’ve committed to writing 50,000 words in thirty days. If writing every day is new to you, you may quickly find yourself overwhelmed.
I have this bad habit of jumping into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) experiences at the last minute. Last Halloween, I decided to do my first NaNoWriMo, which started November 1, without any real preparation and only an idea. Then, I went and did it again for this April’s Camp NaNoWriMo when some Twitter friends asked me to join their cabin (What Are Cabins?).
I was already working on a rewrite of my urban fantasy novel, Blood Mastery, so I figured I could just add another tracking form to my month and get some extra support in the meanwhile. It didn’t turn out to be that easy, and here I’ll discuss why.
Camp NaNoWriMo: Failures
1. I didn’t write as many words as I did in November.
Camp NaNoWriMo is not set up the same as November’s NaNoWriMo. To win regular NaNoWriMo, you must write at least 50,000 words within the 30-day month of November. With Camp NaNoWriMo, you set your own goal.
In the end, although I technically won, I had written only 20,184 words on Blood Mastery in April versus the 52,359 words I wrote on my other novel in November.
2. I had to lower my goal part way through the month.
I started out with a goal of 25,000 words. It quickly became clear that I wouldn’t be able to write that many, at least not on my novel. Before April 20, when people were allowed to start validating their writing for a “win,” I was allowed to change my goal in Camp NaNoWriMo, and that’s what I did, although I didn’t feel so hot about it.
3. I felt stretched completely thin.
I ended up feeling more scattered and stressed during Camp NaNoWriMo that I had during NaNoWriMo, even though my goal was lower. The reason was that during November’s NaNoWriMo, I was working on a single project, one novel. By the time April rolled around, I was working on several projects, each of which needed my attention.
In addition to my novel, I was writing and editing four weekly blog posts, a one-act play, and a nonfiction booklet for authors. Because I couldn’t put any of them off, my 20k words for Camp NaNoWriMo had to be done on top of all these other things.
4. I got slowed down by poor planning.
Although I had a rough outline for my book, by about the middle of the month, I realized that my rewrite wasn’t going to be long enough to qualify as a novel. I was quickly approaching the climax, and I was only about 25,000 words in.
I had a brainstorming session with my cabin mates, and I was able to come up with some ideas. I would add more conflict and subplots to my book. However, obsessive that I am, I went back to the beginning and edited the book right away before going any further. Of course, that slowed my writing speed down a lot.
5. I lost a complete day because of unforeseen events.
One of my children injured her foot at gymnastics, and we had to go to multiple appointments to make sure that it wasn’t broken. Life happens, and I don’t regret taking the time out to see to it, but it wasn’t any good for my Camp NaNoWriMo progress.
Camp NaNoWriMo: Successes
1. I wrote twice as many words for my novel in April as I had the month before.
The extra incentive that Camp NaNoWriMo provided helped me to write 20,184 words of my novel in April. Even with my small goal of 500 words a day, I had added only 10,432 words in March, even with the same extra projects. That’s almost double.
2. At the beginning of the month, my goal was flexible.
As I mentioned before, I reduced my goal part way through the month. That flexibility was an advantage, even though I didn’t feel good about using it. Camp NaNoWriMo lets you set your own goal, and before winning begins, you can adjust it up or down.
You can’t do that with regular NaNoWriMo: it’s 50,000 words no matter what. It’s more about proving to yourself that you can write a novel than meeting your own personal goals, although those two interests might intersect.
3. The support was phenomenal.
Our cabin, the little group of writers that was my community during Camp NaNoWriMo, came mostly from people I know on Twitter and the monthly writing challenge. However, in this new forum, we were able to share and support one another more deeply than we normally can with the limited 140 characters or less per post allowed on Twitter.
There were questions and conversations about general writing topics but also real, nitty-gritty problem solving and feedback that helped us all keep moving forward. The one-thread forum format was a little difficult to navigate, but we managed.
4. I wrote 10% of my goal on each of the last two days.
By about halfway through the month, I had pretty much given up any hope of winning Camp NaNoWriMo. My distractions—a.k.a. my other projects—were taking away too much of my attention. However, as the last week rolled around, I realized that I was now in a place to put them aside for at least a week and work only on the novel. It wasn’t as easy as it sounded since I was out of town on two of those days for a kid-related activity.
Despite all that, I ended up writing more than 2000 words on each of the last two days of Camp NaNoWriMo, just barely clearing my goal. One of those days, I dictated them, and on the other, I typed them in a hotel room with two of my children playing nearby.
In any case, I impressed myself a little. It’s not that I’ve never written 2000 words in a day, but it’s pretty rare for me. This full-time editor thing, homeschooling my kids, etc., keep me pretty busy.
Would I Do Camp NaNoWriMo Again?
I honestly don’t know if I will take part in Camp NaNoWriMo again or even in NaNoWriMo in November. I will just have to see where I am at that point with each of my projects.
Despite my lack of preparation, last November turned out to be the perfect time to start a new novel. I had just finished the first draft of Blood Mastery. I really needed to put it aside, and working on a new novel was the best distraction.
If I do either NaNoWriMo event in the future, I will not only start with a rough outline but also clear my schedule as much as possible. I’ll write and schedule extra blog posts the month before and move other writing projects around as necessary. The extra stress from those extra projects was just a little too much, and I wouldn’t want to repeat that experience.
I want to say thanks to the writers in my cabin for all the great support! And congratulations for accomplishing the impossible!
Did you do Camp NaNoWriMo this year? What was your experience like? Will you do it again?
Faster? Yes, please. All of my outlining was starting to feel like a way avoid actually writing. However, I didn’t want to just pants the book thing again and end up where I’d started. I also knew that the first draft of Flight of the Ceo San, which I’d written with a bare-bones structure, was in way better shape than that of Strange Bedfellows.
Take Off Your Pants, a short 108 pages, turned out to be just what I needed. Hawker’s three-legged story structure and five-element story core made sense to me, but more than that, after she explains her theory, she shows step by step how she used her formula to outline her own novel. Her explanation of pacing helped to explain the structure of a scene to me in a way that clicked and that turns out to naturally fit with other Goal/Conflict/Disaster structures that I’ve read about.
Her elements, in the form of thwarts and displaying flaws, made sense for me in a way that plot points and pinch points don’t, even though they could be defined as the same thing. Pinch points can be easy to spot once their written, but telling myself to write a pinch point, a scene in which “everything changes for the character,” just seemed vague. “Show your character’s flaw in action,” as paraphrased from Take Off Your Pants—THAT I can do.
I outlined the Strange Bedfellows rewrite as I read Hawker’s book and finished over the course of two or three one-and-a-half-hour writing sessions. My outline was short, only 807 words.
Things really began to come together after that. Using my shiny new outline, I moved on to writing scenes on index cards, a la Rachael Stephen, complete with the Conflict/Motive/Effect plus Setting on each one. All the while, the information I had learned from my character interviews was swimming around in my head, making them tangible entities. So, after spending most of January and more than half of February on this whole process, I was ready to write again. It was a glorious feeling.
My paranormal romance is now a solid urban fantasy with lots of series potential that it didn’t have before. It has a new name: Blood Mastery. The characters are still there, but it is a completely different novel. The second protagonist has taken a backseat to the first and has changed so much that I renamed her. The story went from third person point of view to first person.
What I learned is that for me, less is more. I do need to at least dig deeply into my main characters to give them their own unique voices, but I get impatient with too much outlining, and when I get impatient, I start to lose my motivation for writing—not good.
So for me, outlining is good as long as there is not too much of it. My new method makes sense for me personally, and I’ll likely continue to use it in the future. The Hero’s Journey structure was extremely helpful, but not every novel I write will be a hero’s journey.
With my scene cards, I have a brief road map to get me started writing every day. I have pacing and Motive/Conflict/Effect to consider after I write each scene to make sure that I have hit all of the relevant points. No more staring at the screen, going What was I thinking there? Now, what am I supposed to write?
Will it pay off? I will know for sure only when this draft is finished and I send it to some readers, but I have a good feeling.
Lessons for You
What I’m not saying is that you should forget all of the other advice and run out and buy Take Off Your Pants. You can if you want to, but what I’m really saying is do your research. Put in the time learning, but when something clearly isn’t working for you and starts to feel like nothing but a grind, try something else.
Like any experience, you can learn what works for you only if you go through the process and try new things. Like that little slider on an old-fashioned standing scale, slide back and forth between pantsing and plotting until you reach your own personal balance. Just as your weight changes, that balance may change from book to book and along your writing journey. Wherever you end up, you will take bits from each path that you have explored and mix them with your own authorly instincts to create a unique voice and a unique method, forging a new path that is just different enough to be yours alone.
Explore, learn, do well, and keep writing.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? What tricks have you used to find your balance?
A common question writers have is how they can be more productive and get more done. Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn has some great tips on doing just that.
I’d like to share a method I’ve discovered that combines much of her advice into one single method: the Twitter monthly writing challenge. I didn’t create this method, but it’s been incredible for helping me meet my writing goals.
The Twitter Monthly Writing Challenge
There may be more than one of these dandy little writing challenges in existence, but the one I’m talking about is based at WritingChallenge.org. It’s premise is simple:
Commit to writing 500 words a day, every day. If you are in the editing phase of your current work in progress (WIP), commit to a one hour of editing each day.
My novel is something I picked up about a year ago after letting it fester for a LONG time (the earliest date in my files is 1999) when I recommitted to fiction writing and editing after many years of work on nonfiction writing and academic editing. I’ve been working on it on and off since then. My in-person critique group has been supremely helpful in giving me a once-a-month goal of at least ten new pages. However, it was still slow going, and I kept letting other things take priority over my writing.
Then, in mid-July, I got some great advice while listening to one of Brandon Sanderson’s Brigham Young University lectures on novel writing. In these lectures, Sanderson talks about more than just the craft of writing. He also covers the business of writing. In one lecture, he mentioned that for a serious writer to write about two novels a year, he or she should be writing a at least a couple thousand words a week.
I got to thinking about that. It’s a reasonable goal, even for someone working full time, as long as they are willing to make the writing a priority. I know it’s a long road from part-time to full-time writer (Sanderson and others know it can take 10 years or more), but you gotta start somewhere.
So, I set myself a goal of 500 words a day. I figured that even with misses here and there, it would definitely amp up my word count quickly and help me write at least 2000 words a week. It also reinforced what everyone, Internet memes included, have been telling me: that it’s better to have a complete, awful first draft than to have a few perfect chapters but ne’er a finished draft.
I needed to quit nitpicking over every little word and just get the first draft done, but how could I bring my editor self around to this point of view?
Scrivener is now my go-to program for writing (I am writing in it now). It has this handy-dandy little Project Target window. You can set your goal for each session (in my case 500 words), and it keeps track for you, with a pretty little colored bar that moves from red to green as you get closer and closer to your goal. Yes, I’m using that now too. The Project Target window also keeps track of your overall word count. This is especially handy for novels.
How did this help me with my editor self? Well, it turns out that Scrivener keeps track of your NET ADDED words for the session. This means that every time I cut something, I have to add at least that many words back plus the 500 to meet my goal. So, I learned that I could edit all I wanted as long as my overall word count was 500 words greater than it had been the day before. I could live with that, especially since I tend to start with skeleton scenes and go back to flesh them out and add detail later. I have the choice every day of writing fresh, new scenes or editing old scenes as long as I am still growing my story (or blog, like I am today).
The Writing Challenge
After I had used my 500-words-a-day goal for about a week, I discovered some of my Twitter friends tweeting about the #AugWritingChallenge. At first, I thought it was just a thing where people would tweet back and forth to help keep each other accountable, but I soon learned there was a website and even a shared spreadsheet to help writers keep track of how they are doing day to day. The monthly writing coaches get in there every day to give encouraging feedback and shout outs to everyone participating. It’s great to be a newbie member of this community.
(Almost) Every day, I get my words done, log them on my own personal spreadsheet, log them into the WritingChallenge.org spreadsheet, and then Tweet my progress and thoughts with the hashtag #SeptWritingChallenge. I make sure to send as much encouragement as I can to other participating writers. Finally, I wait for that nice little shout out from the monthly challenge leader. I do this even on days that I don’t write because I want to give a like to those that made it.
The Results So Far
So, sure I’ve missed some days. In August, I got sidetracked pretty quickly because of a community play I was involved with (didn’t I mention something about priorities earlier?). However, I was committed to climbing back on the bandwagon in September, despite an 11-day travel schedule, and I did.
So, here are my statistics so far for this month:
Sept. 1-Sept 18
Days Participated: 15
Total Added Words: 696 to my journal and 10,616 to my novel
Average Daily Word Count (including skipped days): 628
They may not mean much to you, but if I continue this trend, that’s over 229,000 words a year. Definitely a couple of novels worth (or more)! This is concrete evidence for me that my novel can and will get done. I will get the first draft out and into the editing stage, and I will start on the next.
How the Writing Challenge Fits into Joanna Penn’s Productivity Methods
1. Schedule Your Time: In the writing challenge, you have to log in your words every day before bedtime. This works much better when you have a set time every day to get it done.
2. Reward Yourself: Or have someone else do it for you via the monthly challenge leaders!
3. Become Accountable: You do this by adding your word counts to the database and tweeting your progress every day. You can also help other writers out by liking and retweeting their writing challenge posts and letting them know you are rooting for them as well.
4. Set Deadlines: See #1.
5. Spend More Hours in the Chair: Again, to meet the challenge, you have to put in the time. Five hundred words a day is a perfectly reasonable goal (that you can speed up using dictation) that can result in some big long-term rewards.
I am so psyched about this progress that I am even contemplating participating in National Novel Writing Month (aka NanoWriMo) or the first time this year. In NanoWriMo, the goal is 50,000 words in one month or 1667 words a day. If I don’t do it, it will be because I want to forge ahead to finish this novel before starting another, but it’s definitely worth considering.
I hope some of you will give the monthly writing challenges a try. See you on Twitter!